Episode 2: Wagner's Women, with Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and Lee Bisset

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In this episode, writer and librettist Sophie Rashbrook chats to the historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and soprano Lee Bisset, who was set to have been Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre at Longborough in the postponed 2020 season. In their discussion they explore the roles and mythical origins of Wagner’s women.

Thanks to Stuart Essenhigh on trumpet in the introduction. For further reading, see Eleanor's list in the Guardian of top 10 books about the Vikings.

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Sophie Rashbrook: 

At the beginning of Das Rheingold, Wagner’s music conjures the story and the world of the Ring cycle from the bottom of the Rhine. It's a piece that is so much of its time: a work born out of the desire for a unified Germany, and a masterpiece which is viewed by many as a defining work of that nation's culture.

It is also often the case that the men in the story seem to generate the most column inches, as summarised in Natasha Walker's 2006 Guardian article, Wagner’s Women. She writes: “whatever one knows of the Ring operas is that they are peopled by a hero called Siegfried; a God called Wotan; and giants, and dwarves, and a dragon, against whom they can do battle”. 

So Germanness and masculinity. These are two of some of the major images that circulate around this mythical saga that we are going to interrogate - or perhaps more accurately overturn - in our conversation today. I'm delighted to be joined by two leading experts in this field: Lee Bisset, who, had current events not intervened, would have been playing the role of Brünnhilde at Longborough, and who has previously played several other pivotal female roles in the Ring cycle; also with me is Dr. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, an expert in Viking Age history, BBC broadcaster, and associate professor of medieval history at Durham University. 

So, Ellie: I wondered if we could start at the very, very beginning, and go back to the origins of the Ring cycle itself. Could you tell us a bit about what some of the Norse myths are that Wagner based his version of the Ring cycle on?

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough:

So we really have to go back to the Viking age, which is roughly from the middle of the eighth century when the first raids start happening, all the way up to possibly the 11th century, so that's the time period we're talking about. But our sources that Wagner drew on, and by far and away most of the sources that Wagner drew on were Old Norse sources, come mostly from the 13th century, and they come from Iceland. 

So the Viking Age in the Nordic world, that's the whole of Scandinavia, and then Iceland, Greenland for a time as well. It's very broad. But it's in 13th century Iceland that these sagas and myths start to be written down, and Wagner was very interested in a few in particular. Quite confusingly two of them have the same name, or nearly the same name: so we have the Poetic Edda - and the Poetic Edda is a series of mythological and legendary poems that were written down in a manuscript called the Codex Regius - the King's Manuscript - in around 1270. And the second half of this collection of poems is all the sort of material and the sort of characters that Wagner then draws on for his Ring cycle. 

But then there are other sources as well. There's another - this is the confusion - there's the Prose Edda, which is a mythological text for poets. Because to be a poet in the Viking age and the medieval Scandinavian world, even once they'd converted to Christianity still had to know about the Old Norse pagan myths and legends. And this Prose Edda is written, again in the 13th century, again in Iceland, in around 1220 by Snorri Sturluson. He's a politician, a historian and a poet himself; and he writes this mythological poetic handbook.

So Wagner is drawing heavily on those two texts; but then he's also drawing to some extent on some of the sagas, and these are stories, these are prose texts. And there's one in particular called Völsunga saga or the Saga of the Volsungs, and that is very much the story and the characters again that Wagner draws on for his Ring cycle. 


A kind of mishmash really of lots of different sources…


...and then of course, there's the German stuff; so he draws a little bit on Das Nibelungenlied which is from around 1200, and there's a little bit there that makes its way in, and it seems to be based on the same sort of old stories; but given how German and Germanic the Ring cycle is he draws surprisingly little; in fact there's a letter where he says “if I only had that source I couldn't have come up with the Ring cycle. I needed the Icelandic material for that.” 


And of course these written versions, we don't know when they were first told orally; presumably it's a transcription of something that existed for centuries before that as well. 


Well, this is it - it's really hard to tell when these stories emerged and the poems emerged. The sagas, and also this eddic - eddic is a style of poetry, and there are other types of poetry - but these poems and saga texts, and this mythological treatise that he's drawing on, they're all founded in oral storytelling traditions, and we know that - that they're being passed down the generations. And they're anonymous, in terms of the sagas and the poems, which suggests that they're collectively owned, in terms of the culture and the society. People are thinking of them as something that can be told around the winter fires, and can be passed from generation to generation. 

But of course all we have is a snapshot: we have, in the case of the poems, this one text, this one manuscript. It doesn't mean that the person that wrote that manuscript out came up with the poems, but how far they go back - how far before the conversion to Christianity in around 1000 AD they go back - we just don't know. 


And that's an interesting notion, in terms of ownership when it comes to performing the role of Brünnhilde - in that there's also a whole quasi-mythological background to this role, in terms of how it's viewed. And so Lee, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what your performance journey has been through the Ring cycle; and how did you first come across the operatic Brünnhilde? 

Lee Bisset:

Well, I started my first Wagner role and my first exposure to the Ring was at Longborough in 2010, and I sang Sieglinde - which I've then sung since in Singapore and Brazil, and for Opera North - and then I've sort of gradually made my way through all the other characters in the Ring that I could possibly sing; so I've sung Gutrune, and Freia, and Third Norn, and Gerhilde - one of the Valkyries - so I think I've sung everything that I could sing, so it it is a sort of natural progression to move on to Brünnhilde anyway. 


And was it a role that you always wanted to do? Is it something that you always aspired to do? I mean, I know only a handful of human beings are actually capable of doing it, so I realise it's kind of one thing wanting to do it; another thing being able to do it. So, how did you kind of realise that you had Brünnhilde within you? 


I'm sorry to say that I never had any desire to sing Brünnhilde [laughs]. I sang Sieglinde, and I fell in love. I fell in love with the music, and with Sieglinde, and I always made very good friends with my Brünnhilde colleagues, and said “I have no desire to sing Brünnhilde because Sieglinde is so fabulous”. To be honest, to be fair, every time I sang Sieglinde, almost every performance after Sieglinde goes off to the West to have her baby, and she's finished and you have a quick cup of tea - I always came back to watch the final scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan, because I do think it is one of the greatest scenes in opera. 

But I didn't really have a longing to sing Brünnhilde, until I was already - I did a studio version, a performance of Götterdämmerung a couple of years ago, and it was really only in the middle of rehearsals, and the director just left me - we were halfway through the opera, and there was a big play out at the end of Act 2, and Brünnhilde has decided, they've agreed to murder Siegfried - and she just left me there in the middle of the music, and everybody else went off stage, and she just said, “do what you want”, and I thought “what she's doing leaving me here? I don't know what to do”. And I just stood there, and the music came at me; and the music, the leitmotifs that I realised I knew from my experience with her before: oh there was Gutrune, there was a Norn, and I suddenly knew - it sounds very arrogant - but in the way that Brünnhilde does, she says ”I know everything”. I just stood there, and I thought “I have it all within me”, I know from my years of experience singing all the other characters, I realised that I I had her too. So then I was desperate to sing her. 


So to begin with: Brünnhilde, when see her she appears to be the image of this compliant daughter in that she agrees to do what Wotan asks her; but then when she sees Siegmund reject the prospect of eternal life in the Hall of the Gods because of his love for Sieglinde, Brünnhilde is moved to save the woman that he loves from destruction. 

And then [Brünnhilde] defies her father with these immense consequences for the rest of the cycle. And I know a lot of fuss is made about the heldentenor role, the hero tenor role, of Siegfried; but do you think there's an argument that Brünnhilde - I know she's the Valkyrie of the title of the second opera - but do you think that she is the true hero of the story? 


Yes. Yes. Yes, I think there's no doubt. I mean in terms of accomplishing the deed that has to be accomplished, which is getting the Ring back from Fafner and returning it to the Rhinemaidens, they're both needed. It's like Pamina and Tamino in The Magic Flute. They're both necessary to accomplish the tasks, and so Brünnhilde and Siegfried are needed. There's no way that Brünnhilde could take the ring from the dragon. And Siegfried’s sort of like a cartoon hero, I think. I mean, he's like Superman. He is amazingly strong, and he has this sort of purity of spirit; but he's sort of unreal in a way. 

So he has the capability of getting the Ring back, but it's Brünnhilde I think that goes on the human journey. She's the character that we can all identify with, even in Die Walküre when she's a so-called goddess. She's still extremely human and she doesn't start out as a hero. She starts out there very clear that she just does what her father wants, and it's just little by little that she starts asserting her own free will. She takes the steps towards becoming the hero that is needed. 


Well, I was just I was thinking it's amazingly telling because that characterisation of the men and the women - the men as these larger than life superheroes, but pretty hollow, shiny, not particularly psychologically exciting; versus the women who are human, who are psychologically complex, who you can really identify with on this very human fundamental level - that's very much a feature of the Old Norse texts as well, both the sagas and the mythological heroic material. 

It's the women over and over again that you feel “you’re real, you have all the dimensions”, and the men are often these glittering husks. So, I think it's fascinating that that's what Lee also is reading from the opera. 


It's interesting as well because that's often a criticism that's leveled at male composers of opera, that women are somehow seen as these kind of ciphers for what a woman should be, supposedly, in musical terms; but there seems to be such depth in Brünnhilde certainly, and many of the women in the cycle. 


Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, but to be fair in Wotan as well. I mean, there is so much depth to Wotan. We mustn't just say that all the men are ciphers: it's just Siegfried. 


And well, I guess while we're on the subject of the kind of mythical, of Brunhilde's Old Norse ancestry before she gets to Wagner; could you tell us, Ellie, maybe a bit more about who or what are the Valkyries; and maybe about some of Brünnhilde’s other adventures, before she was fixed in Wagnerian form in the opera?


So the word Valkyrie gives us the clue to everything. It's from the Old Norse valkyrja which means “the choosers of the slain”, because of course it's that image that we know so well from Wagner of these women descending on the battlefield, and picking up the dead that are destined to go to Odin's halls in Valhalla. Although I should point out that at least in one Old Norse mythological text it's not just Odin who has the glorious halls of the warriors via Valhalla; Freya also is said to get the other half of the dead to join her in her halls, the dead warriors, that is. So again it's not as cut and dried, in terms of the male/female roles in the mythology. 

Valkyries appear in many of these Old Norse sources that we can talk about: they feature in the Poetic Edda, so this 13th century manuscript containing so many of the poems that Wagner was drawing on. They've got wonderful names, they're called things like Göll which means “tumult”; and then Gunnr which means “battle”; Skeggöld which is “axe age”; Sigrdrífa, which is “victory urger”; and then of course Brynhildr herself - it means something like “armor battle”. And all that once again hints at their very bloody occupation. 

And for Snorri Sturluson who wrote the Prose Edda, this mythological poetic handbook in 13th century Iceland, the Valkyries are presented as almost mythological barmaids for Valhalla: you know, they're serving the drinks every night, and they appear on visual sources from the Viking age, so on runic pictures, for example, where they're offering what seem to be horns - drinking horns - to the dead, as they reach Valhalla. 

Now the interesting thing about Brynhildr is it's possible that there are historical antecedents that go way back before the Old Norse texts, and it's interesting that some of the Old Norse texts are very much harking back to the migration period. So we're talking after the Roman Empire, the sixth century - the Roman Empire has collapsed, it's very much what used to be called the darkest of the dark ages so to speak - and there was a character called Brunhilda who was a Visigothic princess. So she came from northern Spain, and she lived in the middle of the sixth century, or that's when she was born. And she ended up being married to a king up in the Frankish region, so what's now France and Germany. And he was a king called Sigebert who was having awful trouble with his half-brother Chilperic. 

And Brunhilda comes and gets in on the act, because she then promptly starts a feud with Chilperic’s wife called Fredegunde, who's another absolutely amazing character. So, again like the Old Norse sources, like Wagner, we have an awful lot of dynastic family feuds, and it all gets very very bloody; and Brunhilda actually ends up becoming regent, as it were, three times - for her son, for her grandson, and then for her great-grandson. But in the end, when she reaches old age, her past and her feuds catch up with her: so she's actually sentenced to death by the son of Fredegunde, her old enemy - by this time Fredegunde’s dead. And it's said that she's taken through the streets on camelback, and then she's torn apart by wild horses; and then according to one eighth century Frankish text - so a couple of centuries later - she's then burnt on a pyre. It says “that was where her end was, her bones were burnt”. So actually, it's not a million miles away from the ending that Brünnhilde then has all the way forward in the 19th century when she finds her voice with Wagner. 

So in itself, I mean, I think the possibly-historical Brunhilda would be worth her own opera. It's an amazing period, and it's very bloody and very exciting. 


The reference to the Valkyries serving drinking horns - Brünnhilde makes reference to that in Walküre as well: when she's when she's telling Siegmund how enticing Valhalla will be, that's one of the things she mentions - that you will be given your drink by one of the Valkyries. So [Wagner] gets that in there as well. 


That brings us quite nicely to some other very early sources, and other kind of mythical precedents we have for this kind of female defiance as well, as in Sophocles’s play Antigone. The chorus tells Antigone that she is the victim of her own self-will; and obviously it all ends very badly for her as well. And I was wondering, Lee, what do you think - is Die Walküre a tragedy? Is there tragedy in the fact that both Wotan and Brünnhilde are unwilling to compromise, and this is the kind of rift that emerges between them? 


I think Wotan can't compromise. We've seen that he's tied himself in so many knots that there's nowhere for him to go. And in a way the story of Walküre is Brünnhilde asserting her free will. So she says in the final scene, “I had to see what you couldn't see. I had to see Siegmund”. And so Wotan is so interested in seeing the big picture; and she sees the little people, she sees the people who are actually affected, and that's what makes her do what she does. And in a way for her there was no other choice: if she wanted to stay in Valhalla, she would have to only do what Wotan wanted. She could have no free will. By asserting her free will she has to leave Valhalla, the gods don't have free will. It’s the mortals that have free will. 


That makes me think though about the punishment that Brünnhilde is given: it's her body that is sacrificed in a way. I mean, we're not talking “liver being pecked out” but in a way it's not that far off in a sense that, you know: Brian McGee writes that, “when Wotan disgraces Brünnhilde by putting her to sleep on a rock, the chief point of her punishment is that, whether she likes it or not, she will belong to the first man who finds her”. And this leads us to quite a big issue for the female characters in the cycle - in that they are often, if not almost always, forcibly subjugated by men: Freia, Sieglinde, Gutrune - this kind of violence is one of the central themes of the story, and even with the theft of the gold from the Rhinemaidens, this is a kind of metaphorical rape, some people have seen it as. 

And I think it's interesting that Wagner originally titled Das Rheingold as Der Raub des Rheingoldes, “The Theft of the Rhine Gold”. But this word “theft” or raub has the same etymological root as “rape”. Alberich has rejected affection, it's his resentment that causes him to steal the gold - so I was wondering, Lee and Ellie I guess, what is your perspective on Wagner’s treatment of female bodies in his operas; and similarly do we see something like that happening in the Norse myths as well?


Well, yes everything you've said I agree with, and woman are currency. And Freia is the best example of that. Wotan, until all his family stops him, is ready to use Freia to pay the Giants for the work they’ve done building his house; and when his family objects he says, okay, well you can keep Freia for the moment, and until I bring back some gold. Now, what do you think happens to a woman who is given on loan to some angry giants? 

What happens in that time, that's never something that is really referenced in the opera; but I think in a lot of productions it's quite clear what has happened. And even when they bring her back, she's so degraded that they pile up the gold to cover her up: that's the amount of gold the giants want. They want enough gold until she's completely erased, not even the glint of her eye must come through. And that's very clear how much currency Freia is.

And Gutrune is also part of a bartering arrangement. She's used as bait for Siegfried. We’ll give you Gutrune - who they've already made Siegfried fall in love with, with the magic potion - you can have Gutrune if you will go through the ring of fire and bring back Brünnhilde for Gunther. So that's poor Gutrune who I think of as a victim in this way as well, because she doesn't know about Brünnhilde. She just hero-worships Siegfried. 

She's caught up and she's another victim I think. And then Sieglinde goes through the most harrowing time: she's abducted as a child and sold as a wife to Hunding. And you can tell what sort of character Hunding is by his music, you know: [sings]. He's a bad guy, that's a very unhappy marriage. And when she finally finds her person, she finds her person and she asserts her agency: she drugs her husband to sleep so that she can escape with Siegmund, and they escape and they have one blissful moment; and then she loses her mind. I mean Act 2 is basically for Sieglinde a psychotic episode, in which she's wracked with guilt - not for sleeping with her brother incestuously, she's wracked with guilt for the fact that by having slept with Hunding without love, she is somehow besmirching her wonderful brother. 

So really the only thing that saves Sieglinde is Brünnhilde: the fact that she then knows that she's going to have a baby. So yes, it's a theme for all the women that they are, I don't know, they're punished as well: they're punished for having sex. Sieglinde’s punished for having sex with Siegmund by going mad; and Brünnhilde is punished for having sex with Siegfried because she loses all her power. She has this, she calls it her knowingness, something that she gets from her mother Erda. She just knows things. She knows that Sieglinde is pregnant. She knows a lot, and as soon as she has sex with Siegfried that disappears, we don't know quite how but again it's another punishment for having sex. 

So I think in a way within this culture, it's a huge surprise that Brünnhilde manages to come through as someone with agency. She does come through, she forges her own path and comes through as a heroine, but it's despite the world that she lives in. 


There's some truth in that as well, in the Old Norse texts there’s certainly echoes of that idea of both savagery and control of women, but also agency and finding ways in which to subvert or rebel against quite violent - it could be violent at times - male control. To some extent, it depends what sort of source material you're looking at. So the sagas are, well the sagas that people will often be most familiar with, are set in Iceland in the first few centuries of the settlement of Iceland. 

So from the late 9th century up to, say, the 11th/12th century. And women in there are often married off without any say, by their fathers, by their brothers. But what you often see in the narrative is what a stupid thing that is to do: because women will often come back and find a way to reassert their own agency and dominance. And one of the most interesting examples of that is very much relevant to what we're talking about. 

It's called Laxdæla saga, or the saga of the people of, well, literally “salmon valley”. And it's been suggested that in the love triangle, or actually it's a love square for some of the time, between two half-brothers called Kjartan and Bolli and then a formidable woman called Guðrún who’s married four times, has one other love affair, and outlives all the men - not entirely coincidentally. 

It's been suggested that this is actually the myth of Brunhild and Gudrun and Sigurd translocated onto a realistic saga society setting. And so actually these characters are what would happen in that context if these mythological figures are brought down onto a human scale. But it's significant that the most important, and most psychologically complex, the most ruthless, in the end, character is Gudrun: who is initially married off against her will to a very unpleasant, very violent man, manages to find a way to divorce him; and then works her way through husbands and a lover with a huge amount of agency and intelligence and ruthlessness - it's not a fluffy flowery story by any means - but it is significant that that happens.

And then within the mythological sources - so the gods and the legendary characters that we've talked about - again the female characters are often mucked around with, but it's then what happens to them. So Lee mentioned Freia, or who is in the Old Norse texts Freyja: now again in the Old Norse stories she is repeatedly an object of desire for the giants, and a lot of Wagner’s material there does come very closely in line with the Old Norse sources, but when there's an amazing poem in the Poetic Edda, this collection of poems, where Thor wakes up and he finds his hammer has been stolen. And his hammer, it turns out, has been stolen by the giants - and they want to exchange the hammer, which is the big source of protection for the gods against the giants, for Freya. So this giant wants Freyja as his wife. But what's really interesting is Freyja’s response, which is almost unprintable. She's not having any of it. She's like “no, no, that's not happening thank you very much. You go off and deal with this, this is your problem you stupid men”. And so what then happens is that Loki, classically known as the trickster god, persuades Thor, with his big red beard and his big muscles, to dress up as Freyja, in drag. And the two of them with Loki - who is very interesting sexually and in terms of his gender fluidity - Loki is very happy to be the female handmaiden of Thor as Freyja, who has a veil to cover his big beard; and the two of them go off to the land of the giants, to persuade the giants that actually “this is Freyja and she's desperate to marry this giant”, and of course, it ends up with him getting the hammer back, and then Thor killing all the giants. But what's interesting is Freyja's response at the beginning, which is that “there is no way I'm doing this, you go sort this out, this is your problem”.

And also the other character that's really interesting within the context of the Ring cycle is Gudrun, as she's known in the Old Norse mythological texts. Because, again, she starts off - and in a way I think she doesn't really seem to develop past this to the same extent in Wagner’s Ring cycle - but she starts off very much as a victim, who is pushed around and married off, and used and abused, and is very much just a pawn in the games of these powerful males and gods. But it's what happens to her after Sigurd’s death. So once Brunhild and Sigurd have died, Gudrun is married off to a man called Atli. Historically that would have been Attila the Hun. But Atli is really problematic, and he lures Gudrun’s brothers Gunnar and Högni to his halls, so he can basically kill them. Which he manages. But it's Gudrun’s response to this which is, depending on which poem you're looking at, she basically kills her sons with Atli in order to punish Atli for what he did: and she feeds them to him, and then she kills Atli, and then she sets the halls on fire. And there's a wonderful verse describing what the poem thinks of Gudrun, and what happens to her: it says, “this is the whole tale. Henceforth no wife will dress in armour like her in order to avenge her brothers. Before she died this bright lady was responsible for the death of three kings, and of a nation”. And so once again it's this motif that we see coming up again and again, whatever area of Old Norse literature we're looking at: which is, the woman who has been pushed too far until she snaps, and then she does actually take back that agency, and she takes terrible vengeance on the men who messed around with her in the first place. 


We can bring this back of course to Wagner’s text, because of course he wrote the libretto for all of the Ring cycle, but - what are some of the distinctive features of these Poetic Edda that Wagner was trying to mimic, and can you maybe demonstrate a little bit for us? 


I can do a little bit, hopefully no Icelanders are listening, that's always my worry. But it is true that Wagner was directly influenced by this Eddic verse form. So, very briefly: I say Eddic, there are two main verse forms, give or take. So one is Skaldic verse, and Skaldic verse is by named poets. And it reads like a cryptic crossword. All the lines jumble together, and there's very strict rules about what goes where, and everything like that. Now we're not talking about that, we're talking about Eddic poetry, and Eddic poetry is more straightforward, it's more readable; but it also has these very strong alliterative features. And Wagner very much picked up on that, and I'm sure Lee might be able to give us some examples, but it's very much there, in his version of of these myths. 

So I've got a verse, it's the last verse of a poem from the Poetic Edda called [Old Norse] which means “Brunhild’s hell ride”. So Brunhild and Sigurd have just been burned on their funeral pyres, and Brunhild has been burned on a wagon, which then takes her down into the underworld for her journey to the next life. As she's trundling along the road to hell she passes by the dwelling of a giantess, and this giantess comes out and starts berating her: for basically being a husband stealer and saying well, you know, “you stole a woman's husband, that was pretty uncool, you brought about the ending of whole dynasties, how can you possibly justify that”; and very tellingly Brunhild is absolutely able to justify that - and she describes how much she was messed around in the past, and how this is all the response to people trying to control her. And this is her last verse, she says: [Old Norse].

Which means, “forever with grief and all too long must men and women be born, but we too will never part, Sigurd and I. Sink down, giantess”. 


Lee, what's your thoughts on that? And anything that the operatic Brünnhilde can offer in reply?


It's so interesting to hear about the use of alliteration in the original text because that is something that Wagner goes for all the time. I mean in nearly every line of the opera he uses alliteration, to show the words that he thinks are important. I had chosen a piece of text for you that actually doesn't show that; so maybe I should change - but for singing he gives us lots and lots of you know, voice consonants that are so great to sing on. But I had chosen just a little bit - he's very, very careful always to avoid repetition, and this is the only time I think where he uses repetition of words, poetically. This is just at the opening of Act 3 Scene 3, when Brünnhilde and Wotan are left on their own: she says [German]. “Was it so shameful what I did wrong that misdeed is so shamefully punished; and was it so base what I did to you that you should debase me so deeply”. And the music here is so strange in that there's no orchestra; there's no orchestra for half a page. And we have these awkward leaps, and because there's no orchestra we don't know what key we're in: so you realise that she doesn't know what she's doing, she doesn't know how to talk to him. She's just sort of talking and seeing what happens. And eventually she finds a key, and the orchestra come in, and she finds a way of addressing the problem that she's made. But I just chose that bit because it's the one bit where he deliberately uses repetition.


There's an interesting thing there I think about Brünnhilde the human and Brünnhilde the goddess. And why do opera composers so often find themselves drawn to myths; and what is it about mythology, which as Ellie was saying, is such a mutable art form in its original form, before it's transcribed it so much belongs to the teller; but then by comparison you have the polar opposite really of opera, where everything is so precisely notated. 


I think Wagner tried more than any composer to dictate. I mean, he dictated what the scenery should look like; he did he try to dictate everything. But the fact is, you can't. It's a collaborative art form. He can't dictate - he can try - you can put as many markings in as he likes; but there's still a certain way that everything that all the artists involved bring is going to be different, every time. And there’s space within those myths - you say why are people, why are composers drawn to the myths, it’s because they're so human, isn't it. They're so human that they leave the space for us to see ourselves, and the more realistic you make a production the more - it's like a soap opera - in a way you exclude people, you stop people imagining themselves, I think. The other thing about myths is that they deal with huge emotions, and opera by its nature has to deal with huge emotions. Because why do you sing? I mean, you don't just sing “oh well I'm off to brush my teeth”, it just doesn't make sense. You only sing when words aren't enough, and you need music to tell something more - so the fact that myths are always on the grand scale is very suited to opera. 


I think it's really significant that, as you say, they are grand scale but they are also human scale; and Norse myths are I think, rather like Greek myths or Roman myths, they're very different to say in Abrahamic religions - where the idea of God is very much all-knowing, all-powerful, but separate and judgmental from on high - whereas the wonderful thing about Norse, Greek gods, is that of course they, exactly as you say, they operate within the human world: they're bawdy, they’re larger than life, they can be really stupid, they're flatulent, they fornicate, they drink, you know - they're a lot more fun. But we can also then identify something within ourselves, and of course exactly, as you say, they operate within the human world as well. It's Zeuss in a shower or it's Odin trying to sleep with as many women as possible on earth, or whoever it is: it's very much that sense that the gods are amongst us, with us, around us. And as flawed, and as stupid, and as vain as we are. 

And I think it's really interesting that you say, Lee, that with every performance you have that space. You can't, Wagner can't control everything about the performance, and how people interpret it - and again I'd say that is very much I think a feature of these Old Norse texts, because we only have them today because they survived being written down in a moment. But of course they were orally transmitted; they were performed; these Eddic poems were probably performed with music, and always in different contexts, with different voices, with different emphases. They are performances. And so again, they change, or what people care about within a story is going to change, depending on who's telling the story; or where they're telling it; or who the audience is; whether you're telling it for a load of little Viking children, or the whole family and the elders.

So again what we have, and historically people often struggle with, that when you look back in time there's a tendency to view things as a kind of idealised canon of textual sources, that are perfect and inert as they are. But of course that's absolutely not the case with the sagas, with the mythology, with the legends, and it wasn't even the case after they were written down. So, sure, we have a few manuscripts; but these stories kept on being told, and Wagner is very much part of that tradition as it appears in the 19th century. But the same is absolutely true of performers of Wagner today, that I think very much that you're part of this mythological storytelling tradition, going all the way back to the Viking age. 


Yes, I think we in music are always told that we have to be so faithful to the text, and and we have to, we have to be faithful to the text, exactly as you're saying - but by the same token we have to make what we're doing relevant to the audience that is listening today. And we're playing for a 21st century audience, not a 19th century audience; and the fact is that these pieces allow that - there is space in them to make them relevant now, and as relevant now as they were 200 years ago. 


The treatment of women is problematic; but the treatment of women nowadays is problematic - certainly the last few years and the Me Too movement has only highlighted that. So again, things are relevant - and so again when we ask questions like, “Well, was Wagner sexist?” for example; well, yes by our standards, but today there's an enormous amount of sexism by anyone’s standards. So these things are no less relevant now. But as you say, you have to remake them, and change the emphasis, and make sure you're speaking the truth within these myths and these legends, as it is now. As well as it was then. 


Yes that's brought us to a really lovely conclusion, actually - we began talking about Iceland and Greenland and Germany, and we've ended up at this this kind of plane in a way I think with these stories: the openness that the form allows - the kind of the mixture of constraint and space, in a way allows you to leave all of that kind of baggage behind. And they are open to interpretation, that's the beauty of them - and in the moment of performance, they can move us and I think that in a way is the lesson that they can teach us, or they continue to teach us. 

And how pleasing that Brünnhilde can adapt and continue to defy her creator, whether it's Wotan or Wagner. I think that's very satisfying somehow. That's a great place to end so, thank you so much Lee and Ellie for joining me.