Swan Lake - Waltz Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Richard Wagner. Impenetrable music and over-indulgent ideas? Think again. Proving once and for all that the Ring Cycle can speak to anyone and everyone, here are our favourite condensed versions of his four most famous operas.
For some, the four operas that make up the epic Ring Cycle are the pinnacle of musical achievement, a sign of Wagner making his irreversible mark on the world of classical music. For others, a dense story about gods, kings, giants, and curses - told through 16 hours of intense singing, in German - is just, well… a bit much. If you're in the latter camp, allow us to guide you through our favourite condensed versions of Wagner's Ring Cycle, from lego versions, to cartoons and comedy sketches.
The Ring Cycle… in Lego
Wagner's best-known tunes, combined with Lego characters acting out the plot of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, with English subtitles. What's not to like? Clocking in at just over 7 minutes, it's bound to provoke a chuckle from even the most straight-laced of Wagnerphiles.
The Ring Cycle… in less than a second
Listening to the Ring Cycle in its entirety would take more than a day. Sounds terribly time-consuming, doesn't it? American musician David Ocker has addressed this issue in his version of the operas, which last just under one second - 1/1024th of the original length. Using audio editing software, he's condensed every note of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung into four imperceptible blips of sound, sixteen octaves higher than Wagner's original notes. Not sure we agree with his motives, though: "Instead of a time-saving subliminal way listen to Wagner, this process has simply removed all the content from his music. Another problem solved."
The Ring Cycle… on an alternative album
Eerie and oddly out of tune, David Bedford's version might be almost as divisive as Wagner's original operas. While we can't imagine the formidable composer looking too favourably on the music, it's certainly pretty inventive and ground-breaking in its own way. It features on the 1980 album Minatures, alongside one-minute masterpieces based on Mendelssohn, Bartók and Bach.
The Ring Cycle… broken down into themes
Wagner's well-known for using 'Leitmotifs' - that is, a specific musical theme for individual characters, themes, objects, or emotions. But if you don't fancy sitting through the entire 16 hours of music, or if you simply fancy getting a little more out of a Wagner listening marathon, why not let the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra explain a few of the most famous themes, with the help of a brilliantly blasting brass section.
The Ring Cycle… in 200 short sections
Is there a better way to mark Wagner's 200th birthday, than by playing 200 short sections of his Ring Cycle over each other on the piano? Probably. Besides, pianist Hal Freedman has already done a sterling job in his Ring Précis, a 1974 piano piece lasting a little over four minutes. He's divided all four operas into around 200 short moments, and overlapped them so they all sound at once, creating a mini Wagner soundscape. Unfortunately, only fans of vinyl will be able to appreciate the work - it's notoriously difficult to track down on a digital format.
The Ring Cycle… with an accordion
The composer himself didn't even like separating his four gargantuan operas, let alone condensing them. Throw an accordion into the mix, replacing some of Wagner's trademark triumphant brass, and this production by Saskia Bladt sounds like any Wagnerian's worst nightmare. Surprisingly, his great grand-daughter Katharina Wagner has given her blessing to this 90 minute adaptation of the music. Perhaps it's because it's aimed at a younger audience: titled 'Der Ring für Kinder' (The Ring for Children), this version still maintains a lot of the operas' original flavour.
The Ring Cycle… as a play
Once you've come to terms with the plot, surely a large benefit of sitting still for the entirety of Wagner's Ring Cycle is hearing the composer's sublime vocal writing? Not for a few theatre-goers in Chicago. Directors of a 2010 production decided to bid farewell to the orchestral score, and adapted the story into a six-hour stage adaptation - without a single note sung. Yes, it is half the length, but as lovers of the world's greatest music, we can't help feeling it's only half as exciting as enduring the whole operatic roller-coaster.
The Ring Cycle… as a musical sketch
Known for his notable lack of sense of humour, could it be that Wagner's music just isn't light-hearted enough to tickle the fancy of opera fans? Who better, then, than Anna Russell, singer and comedienne, to inject a bit of levity into the even the most impenetrable of plot-lines? Speaking in 1953, she addressed the audience: "I would like to tell you about it as from the point of one average opera-goer to another."
The Ring Cycle… as a novel
Granted, if you're looking for Wagner's musical material, this 1982 novel by Tom Holt is seriously lacking a soundtrack. It does, however, include many a Wagner character, as well as the Ring and the Tarnhelm - the magic helmet allowing its wearer to travel long distances in an instant, or shape shift. And perhaps the title, Expecting Someone Taller, is a Wagner reference too? Despite his big personality and his towering orchestral scores, the composer himself was only 5'5".
The Ring Cycle… as a cartoon
Bugs Bunny and Richard Wagner might not seem like the most obvious partnership, but stow your cynicism and allow this 1957 animated short to change your mind. What's Opera Doc, a Merrie Melodies cartoon, features Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through a series of 19th century opera parodies - and if you're looking for a excuse to sing 'Kill the Wabbit' to the tune of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries', this version is definitely one to watch.