You know this piece of music, right?
You probably even knew the name. It's from an opera by Richard Wagner, Die Walküre, which is the second of four in a cycle of operas called Der Ring Des Niebelungen. If you think that a cycle of four operas sounds like a gigantic undertaking, you simultaneously are right and don't know the half of it: the last of the operas, Götterdämerung, is four and a half hours long (without intermissions). Altogether, Der Ring is about 15 hours.
If 15 hours of opera doesn't sound like a slammin' good time to you, and you haven't stopped reading already, you might think about it now, because I watched the entire Ring cycle this week (on DVD), and it was a slammin' good time. It's an extraordinary piece of art, pretty much unparalleled in scope and achievement, and I was rapt and goosebumped for a decent amount of that running time. I cried when it was over, in part because the music and events were obviously intended to make me cry, but in part because I didn't want it to be over. After 15 hours I didn't want it to be over. That's how good it was.
According to Wikipedia, "The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world..." and if you're thinking that Tolkien might have World of Warhammercrafted his way into LotR thanks to Wagner, you're not exactly wrong. The more summaries you read, the more you think "See! Legendary sword that needs to be reforged! See! Ring that draws everyone in with greed, to their inevitable doom! See! Invisibility!" After seeing the whole story unfold, though, I can tell you that the two tales resemble each other very little. Especially emotionally. It's more like Tolkien took a number of concepts from Wagner, tumbled them around in a lottery drum, plucked them out, and rearranged them to his own liking in a completely different landscape and context. Tolkien and Wagner drew from similar sources to build their stories, so that might explain it, but my personal hunch is that Tolkien saw a Ring cycle at some point and it inspired him to create a mammoth work of his own from the Eddas.
I have many, many, many things I wish I could say about the experience of this opera. Many. I'll be thinking about it for years to come. I know it will inform me when I'm thinking about art and making art. Despite the intensity of the commitment, I'm so glad I watched it all in one week, which is the way Wagner wanted it to be seen: four nights in a row. It built on itself, both dramatically and musically, in a way I'm not sure I could have so keenly appreciated if it'd been all spread out. It felt like inhabiting a special world, and it also felt like watching the creation, existence, and destruction of that world over the course of four days. Big, big, big. Mind-blowing. And very particular to itself.
Wagner was a fascinating, controversial maverick during his life, writing music that was unlike anything else existing at the time (and that I'd venture still hasn't been duplicated). And I could hear that in every damn note of the Ring cycle. Although much of the music is exciting enough inherently (I mean, see the above clip!), what thrilled me throughout was the feeling of complete artistic control and self-direction. He obviously wrote these works exactly how he wanted to, with a fuck 'em all, I'm a genius sensibility. That comes through in every moment, and it's part of what made this work so exhilarating for me.
There were boring parts, too, don't get me wrong. Rossini noted famously that Wagner "has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour." (I was so relieved upon reading that, because it was exactly what I felt when I saw Parsifal.) Wotan had about 15 minutes of monologue in the second act of Die Walküre that just went on and on, expositioning, and I wanted to reach out and tell him to stop, stop singing, please, take a break for half a mo. But any amount of boredom is worth the feeling I got every time the Rhinemaidens started harmonizing.
I'm not going to call the Ring cycle an unmissable piece of art, because there are so many things about it that make it not for everybody. Even a lot of opera fans don't do Wagner, much less non-opera fans, and the time investment alone is pretty ridiculous. But I'm tempted to call it unmissable. That's how impactful and worthwhile the experience of it was.
Just in case you never get around to it, here's a tl;dr for ya. Hojotoho!