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Ian Wilson-Pope on preparing to perform Wotan: "Finding the character"

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday 4 May 2012 | 4:40:00 am

Fulham Opera's Wotan,  Ian Wilson-Pope,  is providing an unique opportunity for Wagnerians over at the "Ring Cycle micro site" as he takes us through - week by week -   how he works on developing and preparing  for the role of Wotan in their complete Ring Cycle. From" finding the character", to recordings and performers to whom he turns for inspiration, to the rehearsal method, to how one remembers that much German text!. This provides an unique insight into a process that none Wagner, or indeed opera performers, rarely get to see.

Reprinted below is part two: an insight to Ian's thoughts about who Wotan is, and how he develops throughout the course of the Ring. You can continue to read his insights each week by bookmarking the link below. And shortly, we will have an interview with Wotan himself.

On Learning Wotan… Part 2 – Finding the character

Apr 13, 2012

Last week I mapped out the role and gave some background on the musical pitfalls of a role of this size. This week I am thinking about the character of Wotan.

Of course, Wotan is really a much bigger role than he appears in “Die Walküre”, if you think about the other two operas he appears in, “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried”. In learning each role separately, we gain more of an idea of where he has come from, as his character changes in each of the operas. In “Das Rheingold” for instance, he seems full of his own self-importance, slightly immature, vain, arrogant and also knowing that he ought to be doing the “right thing” but not doing so… In “Die Walküre”, we meet a man whose earlier actions are about to catch up with him, with quite catastrophic results. He’s still quite sure of himself (the Gods are now firmly established in Valhalla, and Wotan has subjugated all the races on earth: giants; dwarves and men), but he’s now concerned with how he can put right what he did (or didn’t) do in “Das Rheingold”.

A bit of filler for those of you not so familiar with the story. Having promised his wife’s sister Freya (Goddess of Love) as payment to the giants Fasolt and Fafner in exchange for them building him Valhalla, Wotan is tricked by Loge into finding an alternative: Alberich the Nibelung dwarf’s gold, which he cursed love to obtain from the river Rhine and the Rhinemaidens. From this gold Alberich made a magic ring with the power to rule the world, and this too, Wotan tricked Alberich into giving him, but the giants then demanded this as part of their payment. Warned by the ancient earth goddess Erda to flee the curse Alberich placed on the ring when Wotan tricked him, he reluctantly gives it to the giants, and Freya is restored to the Gods. Alberich is building up an army to gain back the ring and destroy the Gods, and having sought out Erda and learned of the end of the Gods, Wotan now seeks to ensure that Alberich should never get the ring back, for if so he would destroy everything Wotan has created. But he’s now stuck in a dilemma: Wotan cannot take the ring from Fafner, (who slew his own brother and now lives as a dragon in the forest), as the ring and all the gold was payment to the giant for building Valhalla. So, he needs a free hero to kill Fafner and take the ring. But, he cannot create a free hero, because everything he creates is part of himself, therefore a slave to Wotan. He deceives himself that Siegmund, his son by a mortal woman will be this free hero, but when his wife Fricka demands justice for the marriage vows of Hunding, (who is married to Sieglinde, Siegmunds twin – and the twins have eloped as lovers!), he has to concede that Siegmund can never be that free hero.

So, in “Die Walküre”, Wotan is torn between wanting to make amends for his past deeds, but being unable to put right what he did, and then paying a very high price for both: the death of his son, Siegmund, and the anguished separation from his favourite Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde, whom he instructs initially to fight for Siegmund, but after his fight with Fricka, has to recind this command in favour of Hunding. Brünnhilde, on seeing Siegmund and the love he has for Sieglinde, decides to pursue Wotan’s original wishes, and tries to protect him. Wotan has to intervene, and Siegmund is killed by Hunding. He then has to punish Brünnhilde for disobeying his commands. He decides to cast her out of the Gods, as a mortal woman she will belong to the first man who finds her. Begging him not to bring such dread shame on her, (and him), she persuades him to finally agree to protect her with magic fire, that only the free hero (who she knows will be Siegmund and Sieglinde’s child, Siegfried) can penetrate.

In this opera, Wotan’s tragedy is revealed. He could have easily averted all this strife, dilemma, and agony by returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens, who would have cleansed it of Alberich’s curse. In trying to find the character of Wotan, it isn’t about thinking of him as a “God”, but rather as a man! Fallible, and totally human. The emotions go from complete tenderness and elation to terrible despair, rage, bitterness, sorrow, anguish, and almost violence. He’s in a terrible position, having made deceitful bargains and his guilt now brings him to a state of impotence. Only some other “agent” can avert the foretold downfall of the Gods, for Wotan cannot do this himself. He’s also a father; not only of Brünnhilde, but her eight Valkyrie sisters as well as Siegmund and Sieglinde. Psychologically, it’s a massive journey, and one that happens in the main throughout the first two scenes of Act II, as he is confronted with his own lies by his wife, and then reflects on how he came to be in this position. This is the reason why the monologue is so vitally important in the opera, it fills in some of the gaps between the events of “Das Rhinegold” and “Die Walküre”, but it also looks towards the end of the whole cycle. In it, we understand the agonising pain the events of “Das Rheingold” cause him, and how he is unable to attone for his actions. As Wagner himself put it: Wotan has to learn to die.

There’s no single tool one can use to find the essence of this character, other than reading the text through and through, understanding the words Wagner himself wrote, and by reading as much background as can be obtained in books and other reference materials, and this is not a quick process to go through. It takes a long time to assimilate this complex character, and understand where Wagner was going with him. Along with learning the music, one has to be constantly thinking about the character, and his interactions with other characters. Next week I’ll discuss how I use CD and DVD recordings in the early stages to familiarise myself with both the drama and the music.
To continue reading go here: Fulham Opera: Ring Blog