Re-Setting Wagner’s Götterdämmerung

When I hear music, I see pictures. The same is also true in reverse: a painting will evoke an array of sounds; determined viewing of a particular aspect of landscape, even an object, will activate all senses. Slight noises might annoy me, but they also enrich the visual plane. It’s like Coleridge’s synaesthesia, I guess. Sometimes the static – the cascade of sound and colours – overwhelms, but at others it translates into language and becomes poetry. I’ve never been able to separate poetry from music or art, and this sensory overload is probably why.

Being commissioned to adapt Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by the Perth International Arts Festival, I felt this might be an opportunity to let such an interplay of the senses become a focussed articulation. The libretto has taken a year to adapt. Along the lines of Wagner’s “music of the future”, I have attempted to create a “poetry of the future” but, as with Wagner, one also firmly imbued with notions (and rejections) of tradition.

To adapt a libretto as immense as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung into an Australian setting, and with a contemporary multicultural audience in mind, was always going to be a challenge. To remain narratively and artistically true to the original, but create a new poem, a fresh way of seeing, out of the original. Through a combination of “dictionary” roughs from the German, and several pre-existing English translations, I re-set Wagner’s libretto for this, the final opera in his Ring cycle. Though written in Stabreim, linking it to the alliterative verse of the Icelandic Eddas and the Germanic Nibelungenlied that so strongly influenced Wagner, Götterdämmerung also shows a great deal of tension with the Romantic prosody he was working through and against. In my adaptation, I have played up this tension, shifting between the two modes of poetry according to the dictates of mood and setting, as well as using other more innovative verse techniques.

Wagner had a vision of opera that extended to theatre, to the visual. He melded the poetry to the sound in a very distinct and specific way. His “music-poetry”, despite appearances, has much in common with a mid-twentieth century avant-gardist like John Cage, as well as with the traditions he worked out of. In this sense he was radically ahead of his time.

In a physical sense, the adaptation of the opera’s setting to Western Australia seemed obvious to me – it is what I see when I close my eyes and stop thinking – it’s just there, if over many years of living in Britain and the USA it has become imbued, hybridised with other geographies.

The Valkyries’ rock was, for me, Mount Bakewell, or Walwallinj, which is the highest peak in the central wheatbelt and just outside my mother’s back door. It is also a place of great and sacred importance to the indigenous peoples of the region – its mythology is its own history, and has to be respected. Or the rock could also be Mount Eliza – the location of King’s Park as it’s known in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, and they say (whoever they are) the most isolated capital in the world. King’s Park is a place of memorial to the Western Australian war dead, a last refuge of the bush in the area, and vitally, a place of great Aboriginal significance. King’s Park is a “natural” oasis overlooking the Swan River, sandwiched between the modern city and the suburbs. It is another Valkyries’ rock.

The Swan River operates as the Rhine. There are similar cultural codes at work, as well as vastly different ones. Further south, in the Stirling Ranges, another Valkyries’ rock – Bluff Knoll – also a place of great indigenous significance, and the highest peak in the southern part of Western Australia. This is a place of winds and lost spirits. Snow is even seen briefly most years on its summit. Yet it’s a place where temperatures in summer soar easily to 38 degrees centigrade. (Around Mount Bakewell in recent weeks, they’ve been at 46 degrees centigrade!) Fire and water. BrŸnnhilde has been encircled by fire which our hero Siegfried has breached to “conquer” her.

The river runs through the story, the picaresque that binds the narrative. The fires of Valhalla, the hall of the Gods, must be, in the end, quenched by flood, by the rising waters of the river. The key is gold – the gold of the ring pursued by Alberich the Nibelung dwarf, through his son Hagen. Obsession with the ring stirs fate and brings disaster. The Rhinemaidens, or “river maidens” in my adaptation, long to get it back, to return it to the safety of the river depths. Beyond the narrative, there’s the love story of Siegfried and BrŸnnhilde, and love’s triumph in death.

Gold of course, is still perceived as being a central part of the Western Australian identity. The gold rushes of the late nineteenth century that turned Kalgoorlie, Boulder and other towns into thriving metropolises has long passed, but gold mining is still a major industry. There was even a school of Goldfields poetry, and a particular kind of Australian nationalism arose out of the communality of the Goldfields. The Goldfields symbolise more than wealth and opportunism; they symbolise struggle and triumph, temptation and loss Ñ they are the complete divine comedy, all parts rolled into one. One fellow’s inferno becomes another’s paradise.

So gold is going to echo through the audience as they watch the opera. My grandmother was brought up on the goldfields. Her father was a miner who worked at the South Champion Mine in Kookynie, a thriving town of a dozen pubs that’s now entirely deserted. My great grandfather died of miner’s disease; digging gold killed him. As a child I’d visit my grandmother and be shown old photos from the early years of the twentieth, my great grandfather standing with his workmates at the mine head, or pictures of hessian-walled coffee houses.


The Three Rivermaidens (briefly stopping mid-stroke)The goddess of the sun
streams down her light-rays;
night is bound in the river’s depths:
once they glimmered with light
when father’s gold – secure
and magnificent – glowed there.
Rivergold! Electric gold!
Polished by the sacred river,
washed by the goldfields.
How brilliantly you shone
down there, radiant star
of the blackened depths.
(They continue swimming.)
Weialala leia wallala leialala.
(Horncall. They listen attentively,
resume joyfully splashing.)
Goddess of the sun,
return our warrior
who will return our gold!
If he returned it
we’d cease to crave
the glimmer in your eyes!
Rivergold! Electric gold!
How joyfully you shone
down there, liberated star
of the blackened depths.
(From the high ground –
Siegfried’s hunting horn.)


Water was a rare commodity on the Goldfields, carted hundreds of miles from Perth before the Mundaring-Kalgoorlie pipeline was built, and then carted from Kalgoorlie or taken from small, almost always dry, dams. It was a place of heat and bitter desert cold at night. Fire and flood take on epic meanings in this context. These imbue my poetic language.

Wotan, king of the Gods, wielded a spearshaft made from the world ash tree. The forest is central to the mythology of power and fertility. It is also the place of darkness and foreboding, where the cave of the dragon, or fire-beast, Fafner, that guards the Nibelungs’ horde of wealth, the tarnhelm and the ring, is located.

It takes Siegfried, who is in tune with nature and the forest, to locate the cave, slay the dragon with his sword Notung, and “free” the ring. Through tasting the blood of Fafner, he learns to commune with the birds. This transference of the old knowledge of the ancient fire-beast – inchoate, primal entity – to the modern hero, is an ars poetica from the adaptor’s point of view. It is the same process: I have tasted the Wagner, and now transfer it to the modern. As steeped as he was in ancient mythologies and struggles of creating German national identity, in speaking to the people and almost substituting a “holism” of Art for contemporary displays of religiosity, Wagner was equally concerned with progress, with change. It’s a paradox that compels the listener, the watcher. One of the most enjoyable aspects of making this adaptation was working on the scenes where Siegfried interacted with his environment in a “spiritual”, if “primal” way.

The forests of Western Australia vary – from the jarrah forests that reach down through the Darling Ranges above the city of Perth, looking out to the river and white-sand coastline, down to the tuart, karri, and tinglewood forests of the southwest. The karri is a massive tree, and in every way as majestic as the world ash. These “old growth” forests are ancient, and are perceived as a connection with the environment that has been otherwise systematically destroyed through human occupation. European farming methods and “settlement” have left little. Before the “settlers”, indigenous people had cleared land through “fire-stick farming”, but on nothing like the scale that “settler” culture brought. I hope that elements such as the rich fern undercover, and the diverse bird life, resonate throughout the adaptation, as much as the starker, harsher elements. There is also the lower scrubby bush that exists in remnants throughout the wheatbelt – as with the forests, fighting desperately to survive, as farming and logging interests erode the little that’s left. Art becomes the protest; without pushing a polemical political line, it’s clear where the language, and language through the music, incline.


Siegfried…But now, pay attention closely
to my story: things weird and amazing
I am compelled to tell you.
The blood of the firebeast
corroded my fingers,
and to relieve them
I placed them into the cool
of my mouth; the caustic blood
had barely touched my tongue
when suddenly I could interpret
birdsong, understand precisely
what they were singing.
On the bough of a marri tree
a golden whistler sat and sang:
“Hey, Siegfried, new possessor
of the Nibelung’s treasure –
to be found if he searches
the limestone cavern
beneath the forest floor.
If he wrests the Tarnhelm
from the pit, great exploits
and accomplishments await him.
But if he can draw the ring
out of the hollow, global conquest
will follow.”


The ring and the Tarnhelm –
did you bring them to the surface?

A Vassal

Did the golden whistler
sing you again?


I collected the ring and Tarnhelm,
then fell to listening once again
to the majestic song of the golden whistler
gold streaming out of its syrinx –
thinner than air but stronger
than metal, delicate but sure –
and as it perched in the branches
of the tall tree it sang:
“Hey, Siegfried is proud owner
of helmet and ring,
deceitful Mime who guided
him to the treasure in order
to acquire it for himself.
He lies in hiding in thick undergrowth
waiting to ambush and steal
the life of Siegfried.
Oh, Siegfried must be wary of Mime!”


Setting is not simply landscape. Setting is also tonal and temporal: the relationship between people and place. Landscape isn’t nature, it’s nature mediated through people. And mythology is reinvented through the people telling the stories – the here and now. So we’ve got military language of spears and shields translated into the language of stealth and “blasts”. The characters have colloquial inflections and deploy “manners of speech”. There’s a dialogue between the environment that’s described and the way it’s being described.

As a poet of “place”, I interact a great deal with the environment/s of composition. I like to go in-situ. Working on the adaptation, I spent a couple of months at the base of Mount Bakewell already mentioned, near the town of York, surrounded by wheat fields – my family home. I also spent a couple of months on and off in a flat next to King’s Park, taking regular walks through the Park and looking down from my vantage point onto the Swan River as it trailed away from the sea up into the hills. I visited Snowdonia in North Wales, I researched in Cambridge, I drew on memories of many visits to Germany. And I completed the opera surrounded by walnut and maple trees in central Ohio. But the location is decidedly Western Australian, and photographs of the various locations that I took on as tropes travelled with me everywhere. Key locations: the devastated salt lakes of Yenyenning, the reclaimed salt land on my cousin’s farm, Mount Bakewell, the jarrah and karri forests, wheatfields, the Darling Scarp, the coastline of Western Australia. And always at the back of my mind, the particularly weird geological formations peculiar to western Australia: the Pinnacles, the Gap near Albany, the colour of the sky.

The opera itself is a wonderful blend of Wagner’s earlier optimism and the pessimism of his Schopenhauer-influenced later years. It thrives on oppositions and almost contradictions, in the same way that the re-setting burns with juxtapositions between Euro-mythology and indigenous mythology. To reset the opera like this is a political act. It’s a way of confronting issues of colonisation and usurpation, of dealing with issues of respect. As an aside regarding the interactive nature of the project, when working with the “mountain” aspect of the rock, I actually took notes in Snowdonia. A subtle sublime I needed to play with. The Australian setting is fire and dry aged rocks, crumbling and gnawed. So it’s all about creating these comparisons in language.

Wagner’s Ring cycle is a cosmic drama in which the power and primacy of the Gods are challenged and ultimately overcome. This eroding of the heavenly will is linked with the rise and necessary cathartic destruction of the hero figure. Wagner’s ultimate redemptive figure is the “nature-based” Siegfried of Götterdämmerung. Through his betrayal of the Valkyrie Brunnhilde, he brings about his own betrayal and downfall, but ultimately the time of humanity has dawned.

In constructing the textual re-setting of the opera, sunsets and dawns figured large. The colours of both in the Western Australian wheatbelt I come from are often overwhelming. With achingly blue skies, and the orange, magnetic, deep purple, golden, and blood-red sunsets, a dry sparse environment is filled to the point of exploding. A key to understanding Wagner’s mixing of sound and sight is the use of leitmotifs – the signature music attached to a particular character or evocation. In a sense, I have reinterpreted these, so that elements of the Western Australian landscape are verbally at play when a particular musical register repeats itself. These are fluid, somewhat as they are in the original, but there is a structure there that I hope bears scrutiny.

Setting the opera in Western Australia has a specific political meaning. Wagner is open-ended enough in his use of myth to be adapted positively as well as negatively. Issues of indigenous rights, of multiculturalism, and environment, can be implied just by evoking a particular landscape, or by juxtaposing a new setting against the traditional or original Wagnerian direction.

Yet another of the joys of this project has been witnessing the text’s insertion into the visual construct that the opera’s director, Neill Gladwin, has developed to accompany the performance. The evocation of place through sight, sound, and text is very much in keeping with the Wagnerian vision of Gesamtkunstwerk.