My Walküre turns out ter­ri­bly beau­ti­ful,” Richard Wag­ner wrote to his friend, the com­poser Franz Liszt on June 16th, 1852. “I hope to sub­mit to you the whole poem of the tetral­ogy before the end of the sum­mer. The music will be eas­ily and quickly done, for it is only the exe­cu­tion of some­thing prac­ti­cally ready.”

For nei­ther the first, nor the last, time in Wagner’s life, things did not work out quite as he had planned. By the end of that year he had, indeed, fin­ished the libretto (or “poem” as he called it) to his four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) based on sto­ries from ancient Ger­manic and Norse myths. But the music for Walküre was not fin­ished until Decem­ber 1854, and it was another year and a half before he fin­ished the orchestration.

The Ring begins with Das Rhein­gold, a one-act work Wag­ner called a “Pre­lim­i­nary Evening.” Die Walküre (“First Day of the Fes­ti­val Play”) is next, fol­lowed by Siegfried, then Göt­ter­däm­merung. It all started in 1848 when Wag­ner wrote eleven pages he pub­lished as The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch for a Drama. But it was almost 30 years before the first per­for­mance of the com­pleted work was given in a the­ater Wag­ner had con­structed specif­i­cally for that pur­pose in Bayreuth, Ger­many. The Ring is mon­u­men­tal in both scope and impact. Most mod­ern per­for­mances are spread over a week, and it is not going too far to say many peo­ple who attend a cycle feel their lives have been changed for­ever by the experience.

Wag­ner wanted the Ring to be given as a whole, rather than bro­ken up, with indi­vid­ual operas given on their own. But soon the­aters were pre­sent­ing the parts of the Ring on their own, and Walküre quickly became the most pop­u­lar. Before this new pro­duc­tion by Robert Lep­age opened in April 2011, Walküre had been given at the Met 522 times, con­sid­er­ably ahead of the next most pop­u­lar part of the Ring, Siegfried (255 times), mak­ing it the sec­ond most-given of all Wagner’s operas, behind Lohen­grin (618 performances.)

There are a num­ber of rea­sons for Walkure’s endur­ing pop­u­lar­ity. For one thing, after the gods and god­desses, dwarves and giants of Rhein­gold, Walküre intro­duces human beings into the story of the Ring. It begins with two very sym­pa­thetic peo­ple, Sieg­mund and Sieglinde, and the first act is devoted to them falling in love. “The score of the first act of Walküre will soon be ready; it is won­der­fully beau­ti­ful. I have done noth­ing like it or approach­ing it before,” Wag­ner told Liszt. He was right. The music of Walküre builds sig­nif­i­cantly on Das Rhein­gold, where he had used leit­mo­tifs to con­struct his music. These short seg­ments of melody, rhythm, or har­mony could be asso­ci­ated with a char­ac­ter or a dra­matic event, even an emo­tion or an object. In Walküre Wag­ner used them to help him sus­pend time itself while the drama takes place, word­lessly, inside the char­ac­ters. Thanks to Wagner’s bril­liant writ­ing for orches­tra — some­thing he had to develop even above what he had done in Rhein­gold—the audi­ence actu­ally expe­ri­ences for them­selves the inner lives of the char­ac­ters on stage.

Just moments into Act 1 of Walküre, Sieglinde offers Sieg­mund some water. The stage direc­tions say: “SIEGMUND: (drinks and hands her back the horn. As he sig­nals his thanks with his head, his glance fas­tens on her fea­tures with grow­ing inter­est.)” To under­line these stage direc­tions, Wag­ner silences the orches­tra entirely, except for a sin­gle cello. For nine mea­sures this lone cello plays some of the sweet­est, most yearn­ing music imag­in­able, before being joined by the rest of the cel­los and two basses for another eight mea­sures. Lis­ten­ers need not know what labels com­men­ta­tors have attached to the music to expe­ri­ence for them­selves the long­ing in Siegmund’s soul, the love that is even then start­ing to blos­som. The music bypasses our mind and goes directly to our heart or soul where it seduces us into sur­ren­der­ing to Wagner’s world, to his way of telling his story.

The plot of Die Walküre can be told in a few dozen words. The outer events are rel­a­tively sim­ple. But the inner jour­ney the char­ac­ters go through is almost unbear­ably rich and com­plex. It’s the dif­fer­ence between fly­ing between New York and Cal­i­for­nia, and dri­ving there. You fly because you want to get to your des­ti­na­tion as quickly as pos­si­ble. But if you drive, the jour­ney itself becomes the point: day after day spent in your car gives you a sense of the vast­ness of the U.S., of the grad­ual changes in the land­scape, the shift­ing speech pat­terns of the peo­ple you meet, the way the light seems dif­fer­ent. Your view of the United States is changed for­ever by the expe­ri­ence, it’s become part of you.

In Walküre, Wagner’s music has a new power to com­pel us to get in the car with him, to let him be our guide to expe­ri­enc­ing quest he is under­tak­ing. That’s how he allows us to expe­ri­ence the grow­ing love between Sieg­mund and Sieglinde for our­selves, to feel the right­ness, the nat­u­ral­ness of it.  The com­pelling nature of their love is well estab­lished long before they (and we) dis­cover they are brother and sis­ter, so our emo­tions accept their love, even if our mind — assum­ing we can wrench it away from Wagner’s music – might have a few questions.

In addi­tion to Sieg­mund and Sieglinde, in Walküre we meet Brünnhilde, one of the most impor­tant char­ac­ters in the Ring. (Some would claim, with good rea­sons, she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter.) If we lis­ten care­fully to the music Wag­ner gives her, the dra­matic arc she has in Walküre alone is stag­ger­ing, to say noth­ing about in the rest of the Ring. She enters the story in Act 2, singing one of the most famous (and short­est) num­bers in the whole cycle, Brünnhilde’s “Hojotoho!”

Wag­ner was extra­or­di­nar­ily care­ful in not­ing exactly how it should be sung. The first two syl­la­bles (“Ho-jo”) are a sin­gle phrase, fol­lowed by a six­teenth note (“to”) then the last syl­la­ble (“ho”) to be held for five beats, fol­lowed by a sin­gle beat rest. This gives the music a quick, bouncy qual­ity that is empha­sized later when he asks the soprano to sing the final “ho” on two notes, sep­a­rated by a octave, but con­nected smoothly, end­ing on high Bs and then high Cs. He also asks her to trill — non­stop — for almost two mea­sures before launch­ing up to a high B and hold­ing it for two mea­sures. If a soprano can sing this incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult “Hojo­toho” as Wag­ner intended, the audi­ence can­not help being charmed by the impetu­ous, cheeky, ram­bunc­tious teenage girl who is sass­ing her father, Wotan — to his delight, and ours. Her char­ac­ter, and her rela­tion­ship with Wotan are firmly estab­lished within a cou­ple of minutes.

It is also one of the few gen­uinely joy­ful moments in Walküre, an opera rather short on hap­pi­ness. To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein Wag­ner lamented (while in the thick of com­pos­ing), “I find the sub­ject of Die Walküre too painful by far: there’s really not one of the world’s sor­rows that the work does not express, and in the most painful form; play­ing artis­tic games with that pain is tak­ing its revenge on me: it has made me really ill sev­eral times already, so that I have had to stop completely.”

Another rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of Walküre is that we are likely to find our­selves mir­rored it in. If not in the new love enjoyed by Sieglinde and Sieg­mund in Act 1, then by the dilemma fac­ing Wotan in Act 2 as he real­izes that all of his care­ful plan­ning is for naught and that, despite his best efforts, his life has taken a ter­ri­ble turn, leav­ing him no way out. The scene in which Wotan wres­tles with this soul-crisis caused Wag­ner no end of trou­ble, and he ago­nized over whether or not peo­ple would grasp what Wotan is going through. “For the devel­op­ment of the great tetral­ogy, this is the most impor­tant scene of all,” he insisted.

Wotan’s anguish con­tin­ues, with a new focus, in Act 3. Its end­ing is one of the most extra­or­di­nary in all of opera, with the sense of loss, of grief, of aban­don­ment, yet over­whelm­ing love, as Wotan is forced to let go of the most pre­cious thing in the world to him, Brünnhilde. It seems like a bit­ter defeat for Wotan. His cher­ished son Sieg­mund is dead. His favorite child, Brünnhilde, is ban­ished for­ever.  His plans – to cre­ate a hero who would be able to win back the Ring and return it to the Rhine maid­ens and thus save the gods – have crum­bled to noth­ing­ness. He has nowhere to turn. And yet…

And yet it is because of these appar­ently fail­ures that Siegfried (in the next opera) can turn out to be the very hero the gods need. This glim­mer of hope, in the mid­dle of such over­whelm­ing sor­row, is surely another rea­son Walküre is such a beloved opera.

Bavaria’s King Lud­wig II was not will­ing to wait until Wag­ner had com­pleted the entire Ring before expe­ri­enc­ing Die Walküre in the the­ater. Against Wagner’s wishes, it was given for the first time on June 26, 1870 in Munich, nine months after the pre­mière there of Das Rhein­gold. To show his dis­plea­sure, Wag­ner refused to be involved in any way, and he asked his friends not to attend. The famous vio­lin­ist Joachim was there. So were Brahms and Saint-Saëns. Despite his friend­ship with Wag­ner Liszt went and sobbed through part of the opera he was so very moved. Even news­pa­pers usu­ally crit­i­cal to Wag­ner pro­nounced Die Walküre an extra­or­di­nary work of art.

The fact that opera houses con­tinue to devote con­sid­er­able time and resources to pre­sent­ing Die Walküre in new ways — gen­er­ally to stand­ing room only audi­ences — proves that Liszt did not exag­ger­ate when he wrote to Wag­ner, “Your Walküre (score) has arrived, and I should like to reply to you by your Lohen­grin cho­rus, sung by 1,000 voices, and repeated a thou­sand­fold: ‘A won­der! A wonder!’ ”

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, April 2011.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Die Walküre for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967– 72.