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Under the Horns of Brünnhilde

The Dresser has always been curious about the opera that features the much-maligned Brünnhilde, who in many productions wears a crown of horns over her blond braids. Is she the fat lady from the expression, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings?” Controversy continues to erupt over this identification.


On March 8, 2007, the Dresser got a front row seat at a Washington National Opera press conference held at the Goethe-Institut where she heard Linda Watson speak about her role as Brünnhilde with director Francesca Zambello and with other cast members of Wagner’s Die Walküre including Alan Held (Wotan, Brünnhilde’s father) and Gidon Saks (husband of Brünnhilde’s half sister Sieglinde). Die Walküre is the second of four operas by Richard Wagner from his Ring cycle, known as Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Watson, a soprano with a commanding voice, is often cast in the role of Brünnhilde.


Photo credit: Russell Hirshon

Last year, she played Brünnhilde in the 2006 Bayreuth Festival, which she said was a hard experience because the cast did not have any directorial guidance. (Bayreuth Festspielhouse is the opera house Wagner built to showcase The Ring which had its first complete performance in the summer of 1876.) What Watson loves about the WNO production is working with Zambello who is an intelligent and generous director. And this is the second time Watson has done this role under Zambello in Washington, DC. In 2003 in a very different production of Die Walküre by Zambello, Watson sung Brünnhilde at the D.A.R. Constitution Hall. This was the production from which Zambello persuaded WNO General Director Plácido Domingo to allow her to do an American Ring. Zambello’s vision for this Ring casts an American slant to these stories drawn from Norse and Greek mythologies.

According to an essay by Natasha Walter published in the WNO Spring 2007 Season Book, Brünnhilde is the true heroine of the Ring and it is her rebellious streak that sets her apart from the other women in the Ring.


Die Walküre (also known as The Valkyrie), the most popular opera of the Ring and the one from which most people recognize some portion of the music, concerns the children of Wotan, the leader of the gods. The story is racy. Wotan’s son Siegmund, escaping his enemies, takes shelter by chance in the home of his twin sister Sieglinde whom he does not know. In a forced marriage to Hunding who is a relative of Siegmund’s enemies, Sieglinde realizes Siegmund is her twin and leads him to a sword only he has the power to pull from the tree in which the blade is lodged. Once he recovers this sword promised to him by his father, he declares Sieglinde his bride and they flee Hunding’s house. The Dresser pauses here to emphasize the overt symbolism of the sword in this story of scandalous sexual engagement.

Wotan’s first impulse is to protect his son and so he dispatches his warrior daughter Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie, to defend Siegmund. However, Wotan’s wife Fricka, the goddess of marriage and not the mother of the twins, asserts that Wotan must defend Hunding’s marriage rights. So Wotan, fearful of further angering Fricka who for years has endured his philandering, tells Brünnhilde she must now fight for Hunding’s rights. However, Brünnhilde encounters the twins in the forest and sympathizes with her half brother who would kill Sieglinde and himself than give up. Just as Siegmund is about to kill Hunding, Wotan appears and breaks Siegmund’s sword (the Dresser, who doesn’t love Freud’s theories, is clearly thinking this is a Freudian case study). Hunding kills Siegmund and then Wotan with a casual gesture kills Hunding.

Meanwhile Brünnhilde picks up the broken bits of sword and runs off with Sieglinde, who is pregnant with her brother’s child, to the camp of the Valkyries. When the Valkyries say they fear Wotan and cannot protect Brünnhilde and her sister, Brünnhilde sends Sieglinde into the forest near the cave of the dreaded Fafner who Wotan fears. When Wotan finds Brünnhilde, he decries that she will become a mortal who will be left asleep on a rock for the first man who wanders by. (The Dresser cautions that Wotan’s intention is not a Snow White transformation, but a misogynistic violation.) However, Brünnhilde persuades Daddy Wotan that she was really doing his true bidding and how about putting a wall of fire around her sleeping rock so that only the bravest man can claim her. And that man, father and daughter know, will be Siegfried, the yet unborn child of Siegmund and Sieglinde.

The Dresser asks, is there any other story in operatic repertoire with this much sexual tension and is Brünnhilde a feminist as Natasha Walter suggests?


Alan Held (Wotan) says the chemistry between the singers changes the way he portrays his character.


“How I do something with Linda [Watson] is different” from how he would portray Wotan with someone else. He also said it is a matter of trust. Zambello quipped that she was “not interested in theater of the dead.”


So the Dresser states the obvious, if you have seen Die Walküre before and maybe with some of the same singers, the American Ring version of Die Walküre will be a new experience.


With a little dash of the devil, the Dresser offers up this poem about silent screen star John Gilbert who was Greta Garbo’s leading man when she started in Hollywood. While Garbo made the change to the talkies with great success, Gilbert failed and was relegated to the dead films of yesterday.

White Voice

Everyone knows there’s trouble. Soundmen
glance fretfully at each other; directors ask
for dozens of retakes. Voice coaches teach him
to breathe from his diaphragm, technicians monkey
with the equipment: useless. Something happens
when his voice is electrified, channeled invisibly
through Vitaphone wires and relays, carved
into grooves on hard shellac discs to be replayed
with his moving lips: the highs grow adenoidal,
nasal, the lows disintegrate, disappear.
White voice, he hears someone say. Gilbert’s got
a white voice. All top, no bottom. Impossible.
The laughter in the theaters drowns the dialogue,
drowns him. Falsetto and squeaky and girlish
attach themselves to his name like tin cans
on a dog’s tail. Has-been. Failure. Joke.
Producers he’s known for years stop returning
his calls. Others who struggle with sound
get this consolation: Not as bad as Gilbert.
Like a factory worker when the only plant in town
slams its gates shut, he’s suddenly jobless; nothing
but time when the long mornings rise. He wanders
streets, knocks on doors that don’t open. He’s
tainted, he knows, smells of mortality. He stops
in bars, in liquor stores, reads Variety, sits on benches.
The California sun pours over him in mute, glorious witness.

Christopher Conlon
Gilbert & Garbo in Love


Comments (1)

Fascinating reading; As always, I look forward to Karren's reviews. I love the way she ends her review with a poem.

Grace Cavalieri

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 23, 2007 4:34 PM.

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