Wagner: What Wotan Wants

“Weißt du, was Wotan will?” – Siegfried Act 3 Scene 1

Wagner wrote the vast majority of the text for the Ring between 1848 and 1852, and the music from 1853 to 1876. Around this time physicists (as we would now label them) were putting the finishing touches to the achievements of classical Newtonian physics – the laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell’s Equations, kinetic theory and statistical mechanics, and so on – all of which could have persuaded a perfectly rational person to agree with Laplace’s sentiments of a few decades earlier, “that if at one time, we knew the positions and speeds of all the particles in the Universe, then we could calculate their behaviour at any other time, in the past or future” (to borrow Stephen Hawking’s paraphrased translation).

In other words, the events of the future are entirely determined by those of the past and the present, and if we could somehow know everything about the state of the Universe at this very instant, we could predict every event of the future with the utmost accuracy.

So much for the 1800s. The 20th Century arrived and with it Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and company, who stumbled upon a load of stuff which meant that the future couldn’t be predicted – or, more accurately, that everything about the present couldn’t possibly be known in unlimited detail, and therefore there would always inevitably be a degree of uncertainty about the future.

And so the Norns’ rope snapped forever.

Having said that, the more he thought about it, the more Einstein had grave doubts about the idea that the nature of the Universe was fundamentally non-deterministic: “It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice… is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.”

In his 1936 book An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski invites us to identify a “super-objective” for our characters, meaning the ultimate goal of the character’s actions over the course of the events of the story. This can then be broken down into a series of objectives in individual scenes, each of which usually brings the character closer to his super-objective.

Most singers portraying Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre will find identifying his super-objective to be a reasonably straightforward task: after all, he pretty much lays it bare at the start of his monologue: “Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich, verlangte nach Macht mein Muth”. Assuming we take him at face value, a super-objective of Power seems pretty unarguable. (Although perhaps Control, as a more active and tangible idea, is potentially a more fertile choice for the actor in practice.)

So far, so good. But over the course of Die Walküre, Wotan’s shattering realisation is that this all-consuming pursuit of power has come at the most appalling personal cost, and by the end he is a broken man, trudging away from Brünnhilde’s fiery mountain top on a long self-flagellating quest for…

Well, for what? That is the question once Wotan has become The Wanderer.

Mime: “Wer ist’s, der im wilden Walde mich sucht?”

Alberich: “Wer naht dort schimmernd im Schatten?”

Erda: “Wer scheucht den Schlummer mir?”

Wotan spends half his time in this opera being asked who he is, which is always a significant question in Wagner’s works. Even more significantly, he seems distinctly undecided as to the correct answer, to the extent that Wagner has even given him a nom de voix in the dramatis personae – and this for a character who has up till now shown a marked predilection for name-dropping himself at the slightest opportunity. There’s a clear implication that he is undergoing a severe crisis of identity.

The entire Ring cycle is much more concerned with setting us questions than giving us answers – a quality which leads to frustration among its detractors, and often scorn of Wagner’s abilities as a dramatist, but which surely goes a long way to explaining the enduring nature of its appeal. In the same spirit, I’ll attempt to highlight some – hopefully to some extent enlightening – questions which face the singer as he approaches this third instalment as Wotan.

Early in Das Rheingold, her husband assures Fricka that “Wandel und Wechsel liebt wer lebt; das Spiel drum kann ich nicht sparen!” Yet by Act 2 of Siegfried, his tune has changed: “Zu schauen kam ich, nicht zu schaffen” he tells Alberich, having seemingly learned the lesson of the confrontation with his wife during Die Walküre – that his involvement, however indirect, with the affairs of men can only end in their ruin.

And yet. If he’s truly not getting involved, why does he show up at Mime’s home – what’s his Stanislavskian objective – and why now? What is he hoping to achieve? And what is this business of the riddles all about?

Stanislavski talks of drama as starting with The Magic If. But at times it’s just as useful an exercise to ask, “what if not?” In our example, what happens if Wotan doesn’t turn up at Mime’s right now? It’s pretty clear from Act 1 Scene 1 that Mime and Siegfried’s relationship is near breaking point, and that the boy intends clearing out the moment the dwarf has managed to forge a half-decent sword for him. It’s equally clear that this task is beyond Mime, and likely that this fact will occur to Siegfried at any moment – in which case I think we can speculate with a fair degree of confidence that Siegfried would then dispatch or dispense with Mime, or both. Which would presumably mean no Nothung and no slaying of Fafner.

The implication of this is that Wotan’s objective in this scene is to ensure that Nothung is reforged and that Siegfried is united with it. And so it’s clear that Wotan wants Siegfried to slay Fafner and claim the Ring. Is it?

Let’s move forward with that in mind. Wotan’s next move is to head for Neidhöle itself – a place he has been conspicuously shunning since Fafner set up his distinctly unwelcoming shop there. Why? And why now?

He finds Alberich has beaten him to it, which seems to come as a surprise, and his conversation with Mime’s brother leads a winding dance, and ends with Wotan leaving having done nothing other than provoke Fafner, seemingly purely as a wind-up, and tell Alberich to be more like him and chill out.

So again – what if not? What if Alberich hadn’t been there? Was Wotan really planning just to be a spectator at Siegfried vs Fafner? To step in if needed? Or to make sure Siegfried didn’t fall victim afterwards to Mime’s skullduggery? But if that was his plan, what occurs during his conversation with Alberich to make him change it?

Perhaps there’s a clue in the name by which he greets his old adversary: “Schwarz-Alberich” – suggesting there’s a direct thread in his mind to the man he has just recently recognised as “Licht-Alberich”: himself. Is his decision to leave them to it, rather than stay and thus lead himself into the temptation to interfere, an effort to avoid taking further steps down the path to this dark spot in which Alberich finds himself? Bear in mind that at this point they’re still the only two people to have had the Ring and lost it, united in their uniquely shared knowledge of the curse’s burden. Wotan decides to step back: “Wen ich liebe, laß ich für sich gewähren: er steh oder fall, sein Herr ist er” and even “Alles ist nach seiner Art: an ihr wirst du nichts ändern.” He has truly, it seems, learned his lesson.

And yet.

Without Wotan’s interference, freely, of his own volition, and wielding a weapon forged only by his own ingenuity and need, Siegfried conquers Fafner, gains the Ring, and avoids Mime’s traps. Which is what Wotan wanted, right? So the next time we see him, he is at peace and triumphant, right?

If that is our hypothesis – and it is an entirely reasonable one – the opening of Act 3 will come as a shock to our system. Its thematic material is familiar, and yet it is quite unlike anything we’ve heard up to now in the Ring. And it is a world away from depicting a man in contented repose, facing a blissful retirement with benign resignation.

Wotan is summoning Erda for what will be their third and final encounter. His objective this time is clear – he has a question to ask her: “Wie zu hemmen ein rollendes Rad?”

But what wheel? Rolling towards where? At this point in the story, surely he can only mean one thing: the wheel is Siegfried and he is rolling, seemingly unstoppably, towards Brünnhilde. Perhaps Wotan is merely enquiring casually as to whether he truly is unstoppable, just making sure it’ll all turn out okay. But the turmoil of the music suggests otherwise – that he really does want to know if there’s a way of preventing all this, of turning the tide and restoring the old order rather than let it be swept away.

His turmoil continues into the next scene, where again his behaviour displays no logical consistency – does he really change his entire universal gameplan merely as a result of Siegfried pissing him off a bit? Or is the issue with our unreasonable expectation that people should only ever act in accordance with their own stated goals, never against their own interests? “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman

Let’s go back to those riddles in Act 1. Why not just turn up and tell Mime that he needs to let Siegfried forge the sword? Well, surely because that would be direct intervention – the consequences of which were demonstrated so brutally in Walküre. So Wotan needs to find a way to intervene which would stand up as having nothing to do with his will. And so he arrives at Mime’s home, not directly, but having first spent many years wandering the entire world (“Die Welt durchzog ich, wanderete viel” – Act 3 Sc 1) – this is almost the very last place he visits. And as a bedraggled, saddle-sore wanderer, he is sure to be offered, however reluctantly, the hospitality which custom dictates is afforded to weary travellers.

(We’ve seen this before, remember – when Hunding, also reluctantly, offers the same to Siegmund. Hunding is the champion of Fricka of course, and this sort of moral obligation is very much her realm rather than that of Wotan’s contractual law, all of which would no doubt stand Wotan in good stead if challenged once again by his wife or those loyal to her.)

We might conclude therefore that Wotan’s objective in this scene is to help Mime without exerting his own will – in other words, to somehow set things up so that Mime asks for his help, in circumstances under which Wotan is morally obliged to give it. The scene would last a couple of minutes at most, were it not for Mime’s compulsive biting of the hand with which Wotan is attempting to feed him.

(If those objectives and obstacles are clearly established in the performers’ minds then there’s a chance of bringing out the genuine situational comedy in the scene, as well as  making sense of the fact that it lasts a lot longer than it might at first seem to need to.)

Back to the mountain. Why does Wotan feel the need to meet Siegfried in person at all? It would appear that the Woodbird is doing a perfectly good job of leading him in the right direction, and only abandons him because of Wotan’s unsociable ravens. Left alone, surely the wheel would just keep on rolling right to its inevitable destination?

“Wer sagt’ es dir, den Fels zu suchen? Wer, nach der Frau dich zu sehnen?”

“Wer reizte dich, den starken Wurm zu besteh’n?”

“Wer schuf das Schwert so scharf und hart, daß der stärkste Feind ihm fiel?”

“Doch, wer schuf die starken Stücken, daraus das Schwert du dir geschweißt?”

This time it’s Wotan’s turn to ask, who? And the final answer is, of course, himself. However…

Siegfried: “Was weiß ich davon?” 

The grandson genuinely doesn’t recognise his (paternal and maternal) grandfather. The first part of the test is complete – he truly is the free agent that Siegmund could, tragically, never be.

From now on, though, the conversation gets testier. Perhaps Wotan sinks deeper into the realisation of how different this version is from his beloved Siegmund. Perhaps he rapidly foresees how dismally Siegfried will fare the instant he encounters a world of human politics and intrigue such as the hall of the Gibichungs.

But consider also the information he manages to impart to Siegfried as the encounter becomes more confrontational.

“heut nicht wecke mir Neid: er vernichtete dich und mich!”

“Den Weg, den es zeigte, sollst du nicht ziehn!”

“Fürchte des Felsens Hüter!”

“wer sie erweckte, wer sie gewänne, machtlos macht’ er mir ewig.”

And so on, followed by a detailed description of what the final stages of the path will look like and the obstacles he will encounter. Sure, he’s telling Siegfried what not to do, rather than telling him to do it – but what better way is there of getting a recalcitrant youth to do what you want? Consciously or otherwise, Wotan has hit upon an inspired piece of reverse psychology.

More than that, he could stand up in court and testify that he has done everything but help Siegfried: in Act 1 he has aided Mime’s scheming, in Act 2 (however ineffectively) he has lent a hand to Alberich, as well as warning Fafner and giving him details of the approaching threat, and in Act 3 he has asked the all-knowing Erda how to stop Siegfried himself, having first exhausted every other source of knowledge in the world, and then confronted him in person and done all in his power to halt his progress, up to and including physical violence. “Wie schüf’ ich den Freien, den nie ich schirmte, der im eig’nen Trotze der trauteste mir?” At this second attempt he has cracked it.

The character’s super-objective my well be unclear, his Stanislavskian through-line hardly a straight one – it is contorted, twisting, and at many points hard to follow at all. It is the path of a man keen to cover his tracks, to set up the probability of a freely-willed outcome, rather than insisting on absolute control over fate and destiny.

It is the behaviour, in other words, of a god who plays dice.

About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. You can contact him via comments here or at: paulcareyjones@gmail.com
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