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HELDENDIVAS OF WAGNER’S RING DES NIBELUNGEN

HELDENTENORS ARE RENOWNED for their heroic Wagnerian singing. But what about the divas? They’re typically portrayed as plumpish, large-bosomed ladies wearing cow-horned helmets.

Tenors, Helden and Otherwise. Nick Slonimsky has entertaining comments about tenors in his book Lectionary of Music, 1989: “In operatic history, tenors enjoyed the greatest social and financial success as well as female adulation. But tenors were also traditionally regarded as being mentally deficient; an Italian joke lists the degrees of comparison, “stupido, stupidissimo, tenore.

Held is the German word for hero. Because German nouns are capitalized, Heldentenor often retains its upper-case H in English.

Heldendivas. The word diva is Italian, a divine person of feminine gender. Slonimsky says the term was “introduced by Italian impresarios to describe a female opera singer for whom even the description prima donna assoluta, ‘absolute prima donna,’ seemed inadequate.”

Thus, when a diva adds heroism to her divinity, why not call her a Heldendiva? Here are tidbits of several Heldendivas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, together with modern-day analogies.

Brünnhilde. If anyone deserve the Heldendiva title, it’s Brünnhilde. Sir Denis Forman writes in A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to The Plots, The Singers, The Composers, The Recordings, 1998, “Brünnhilde pretty much saves the day. She is brave, she is good, she is true, she is lovely, and the only throughly respectable person in sight.” 

My favorite Brünnhilde, a postcard from 1897 by Gaston Bussière. I admire her glam.

That Brünnhilde sleeps with her nephew Siegfried, the product of twins Sieglinde and Siegmund, is perhaps a character flaw, but necessary to Ring proceedings. I can think of no one like Brünnhilde in modern life, thus heightening her Heldenhood.

Erda. This Heldendiva is the Goddess of Earth and frequent er… pal of chief god Wotan; cf., Brünnhilde, Waltraute, and what Forman calls “Seven other rank-and-file Valkyries.”

Erda is sometimes portrayed as a thorny bushy creature. I liken her to a mid-Sixties hippie in jeans, an Earth Mother hottie of the first order. 

Fricka. Fricka is the Goddess of Marriage. What with her husband Wotan being the loose cannon he is, she has her work cut out for her. I think of her as a feminized Lou Dobbs, or maybe an inner Melania sans soft-porn heritage.

Stephanie Blythe portrays a particularly compelling Fricka to Bryn Terfel’s Wotan in the Met’s 2012 Ring. Image by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Sieglinde. An unnamed mortal of the Volsung clan sleeps with, you guessed it, Wotan. And is it any wonder that Fricka gets all nerdy? Offspring of this union are Siegmund and Heldendiva Sieglinde. They’re twins separated at birth, but destined to fall in love at her husband’s house, the center of which contains an ash tree with the sword Nothung stuck in it. Wotan, in disguise, put the sword there as part of his Grand Plan.

Heldendiva Sieglinde and Siegmund in Joseph Hoffman’s set for Die Walküre, Bayreuth, 1876. 

The twins’ kid Siegfried sleeps with his Auntie Brünnie and becomes the star of the Ring’s second half.

It’s difficult indeed to think of a Heldendiva Sieglinde modern analogy. Maybe she’s the original #ustwinstoo?

Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde. Because these three specifically identified Rhinemaidens begin and end the Ring, they deserve Heldendiva status. Think of them as the original gold diggers, but in a good sense: protecting the gold, not seeking it through hookups. 

The three Rhinemaidens. Illustration by H.A. Guerber from Stories of the Wagner Opera, 1905.

The Norns. Erda’s three daughters (father unspecified but I have my suspicions) ravel and unravel the threads of life, thus ruling the destiny of gods and mortals. They’re sort of semiHeldendivas, what with being known only as First Norn, Second Norn, and Third Norn. On the other hand, I cannot recall the names of the three Andrew Sisters either.

The Norns spin the threads of fate at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of the world.

What’s more, their sole gig comes in the Prologue of Götterdämerung, the last twist of the Ring. Forman says, “… the Norns tell us rather more than we want to know about the past, have some interesting information about the future and meet with an industrial accident.”

That is, their Rope of Destiny snaps, which, Forman says, “is lucky for us since otherwise the opera would never have got started.”

And I never would have thought up the term Heldendiva. ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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