Die Walküre, Act One – Study Guide

Study Guide Sections

What is Opera?

Opera is a theatrical genre that uses music, movement and visual art to tell a story.

Who is Wagner?

He is one of the most influential and recognizable composers of all time because of his innovations.

Die Walküre

Wagner constructed his Die Walküre libretto from a range of ancient Norse and Germanic sources.

What is opera?

Ride of the Valkyries by Cesare

Opera is a theatrical genre that uses music, movement, and visual art to tell a story. Unlike musical theater, music is the key component. The story moves through the music.”  Jacopo Peri wrote the first opera, Euridice, in 1600. Peri based it upon the popular Greek myth about Orpheus’ travels to the underworld. Peri and his compatriots created the operatic art form while trying to determine how ancient Greek drama was performed. What was going to a theater like? 

Opera has evolved since 1600. The first operas were written and performed in private for patrons, that were often royalty. They were strictly entertainment for the rich. They used a technique called monody, which is one person singing with minimal accompaniment. This singing was both elaborate and simple, the goal being to express the text. These melodies were only sung by men, as women were not allowed to perform.  Luckily, inspiration allowed opera to evolve! (eno.org) 

Below are a few terms that are a direct result of innovation in opera according to Dictionary.OnMusic.org.

Vocabulary: Form

  • Aria – a song sung by a single voice, with or without accompaniment
  • Intermezzo – Italian for interlude; a comic play with music performed between the acts of an opera, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in France and Italy; an instrumental interlude performed between the acts of a performance
  • Libretto – a printed copy of the words to an oratorio or an opera; the words of the text
  • Monody – Italian songs written to be performed by one voice and instrumental accompaniment
  • Theme – musical subject upon which a composition is built
  • Overture – an introductory movement for orchestra intended to introduce an opera, oratorio, or other dramatic vocal composition by presenting themes to be heard later in the composition
  • Recitative – a narrative song that describes action, thoughts, or emotion, it follows the natural flow of language and is more speaking than singing
  • Score – instrumental and vocal parts of a composition in written form
  • Through-composed- a piece that has different music for each section

Vocabulary: People

  • Mezzo soprano – a female voice of low range, originally sung by a high male voice; usually the second highest part of a 4-part harmony
  • Bass – lowest male voice
  • Baritone – the most common range of the male voice pitched between tenor and bass
  • Chorus – a large company of singers who perform together usually in parts; a composition to be performed by a large company of singers
  • Composer – a person who writes music
  • Conductor – the leader of a musical ensemble who indicates through gestures and patterns how music should be interpreted by the ensemble
  • Contralto – the lowest female voice, this term is sometimes used to distinguish between an alto and a male countertenor
  • Countertenor – an exceptionally high male voice, usually having the range of a soprano or alto
  • Ensemble – a group of musicians that perform as a unit, in opera each person singing in the group retains their character traits
  • Librettist – the person who writes the text for an opera or oratorio
  • Orchestra – a group of musicians that perform on a variety of instruments
  • Soprano – highest pitched vocal range, usually produced by a female voice, occasionally produced by men’s and boy’s voices
  • Tenor – male voice that is generally the 3rd part in a traditional 4-part harmony

Vocabulary: Theater

  • Ballet – a theatrical representation of a story by means of dance usually accompanied by music, originating as entertainment in opera
  • Costumes – outfits worn by the ensemble to signify their characters and place in the story; these are constructed by artists
  • Intermedi – short, musical, dramatic skits performed between acts of a theatrical performances, including opera
  • Set – the place where the drama of an opera happens, this often gives a period and location; sets are built by artisans and helps to tell the story
  • Props – items on stage or carried by actors that are part of the story

Kinds of Opera

Opera Seria – Serious opera, typically of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The stories are heroic and tragic.

Comic Opera – Light-hearted operas, usually of the 18th Century, often have a comeuppance of the higher classes by someone who is not nobility. Comic operas generally have happy endings. Genres of comic opera include French Opéra Comique, Italian Opera Buffa, Spanish Zarzuela and German Singspiel.

Grand Opera – a style of French Opera developed in the 19th century. Romantic operas involved huge choruses, serious plots, ornate costumes, spectacular scenery, and elaborate dances.

Bel Canto – 19th Century opera that is named for its beautiful singing, Bel Canto. The singing is tender, pure, and sympathetic. The voice is even throughout, and the words are secondary to vocal production. Bel Canto opera is often concerned with passionate love.

Operetta – A less serious form of opera made up of dialogue, songs, and dances. The orchestra size is smaller, and the length of the program is shorter. Operettas often have lighthearted themes.

Wagnerian – Direct contemporary of Bel Canto Opera. Wagnerian Opera uses the voice as an instrument in the orchestra.  There are no “tunes” as there are in other operas. Wagnerian operas often have grand mythological themes.

Verismo – Italian for realism.This genre of opera from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries ranges from one to three acts. This genre of opera highlights life’s unpleasant realities.

Who is Wagner?

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany in May 1813. He was willful, impulsive, and uninterested in much but poetry and music. The composer was self-taught in composition and piano until he enrolled at Leipzig University to study with Theodor Weinlig.

What made Wagner an unenthusiastic student made him a brilliant composer. He is one of the most influential and recognizable composers of all time because of his innovations. Wagner thought of his work as the total work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk. He used leitmotifs, short recurring melodies that are associated with a person, idea, object, or situation. These enable his mature works to stretch tonality, the orchestra and the idea of what singing is. 

Wagner orchestras use instruments not found in previous operas. He added bass trumpets, “Wagner” tubas and is some cases 6 harps and 18 anvils. Singing is part of the orchestration, and the operas are through-composed. There are no arias or recitative; it is all one piece of music.

Die Walküre, [Dee val-Ku-ra]


Siegmund  [SEEK-munt] –  Tenor

He is the son of Wälse, who is missing. In his youth his house was burned down by enemies. His mother was killed and his twin sister, Sieglinde, abducted.

Sieglinde [SEEK-linda]  –  Soprano

She was abducted as a child and is Siegried’s twin. She is married to Hunding.

Hunding [HUN-ding] – Bass

He is a member of the Neiding tribe, an enemy of the Wälsungs.  He is married to Sieglinde and holds her against her will.

Act I of Walküre

Siegmund, calling himself Wehwalt (“woeful one”), seeks shelter as he flees pursuers. Exhausted, wounded, and without his weapons, he comes upon a house in a clearing near a large tree. There he is found by Sieglinde, who lives there with her husband, Hunding. Sieglinde takes pity upon the weary warrior, but says that she and her home are under the authority of her husband, and they must wait for his return before making a decision to grant shelter to this traveler. As they speak, the two share a connection, a pang of recognition and attraction, without knowing why. Siegmund, alias Wehwalt, says that he is plagued by misfortune, and doesn’t wish to inflict that upon Sieglinde, who counters that he cannot inflict misfortune upon someone who is already deeply unhappy.

Sieglinde’s husband Hunding arrives home and agrees to hear Wehwalt’s story, and appeal for shelter. Wehwalt tells them he was born of a mysterious father who wore a wolfskin, and that he had a twin sister. As a youth, his mother was killed, his sister vanished, and his father absented himself, leaving only his wolfskin behind. Wehwalt’s current trouble was caused by him encountering a distressed woman being forced into marriage — he heroically rushed in to save her, killing her brothers and drawing the wrath of her clan. In the course of the ensuing battle, the woman was killed, Wehwalt has now lost his sword and is wounded, and is being pursued.

Hunding listens to this appeal, but reveals that he is one of Wehwalt’s pursuers. He agrees to provide shelter and rest to this stranger for one night, but tells him that in the morning, they must duel to the death in order to settle the score. Sieglinde, hearing everything, drugs Hunding’s drink when they retreat to bed, so that Hunding will fall into a deep sleep and she may steal away to meet with Wehwalt in the night.

Wehwalt, alone, reminisces about his father’s long-ago promise that he would provide a sword to his son in his time of need. Sieglinde rushes to meet Wehwalt, and tells him her own tale of woe. She was forced into marrying Hunding against her will, and at her wedding party, a mysterious man plunged a sword into the base of this very tree. The man said that the sword would belong to the man who could draw it out from the tree. No one has yet been able to do so. Sieglinde believes that the sword must be destined for Wehwalt, and that he can save her from her unhappy life.

They begin to connect that this mysterious stranger must be the same man as Wehwalt’s father, and the two finally come to grasp their undeniable bond of attraction. They finally comprehend that they are long lost twin brother and sister, children of Wotan, and rejoice in finding one another. She calls him by his true name, Siegmund. He draws the sword from the tree triumphantly and names it “Nothung.” Despite their familial relationship, the two passionately declare their love and decide to flee away together. This decision will not go without major, dark consequences in the future.

Musically, Act 1 of Die Walküre tells an unbroken, theatrical story with the three characters in dialogue, but never singing in duet nor – for the most part – in distinct, traditional “arias” in the sense that we may be familiar from other classic operas. This form is the realization of Wagner’s desire to synthesize word and music in a new way, casting aside the existing models for operatic structure. He wished for the poetic word to drive the operatic story in a more natural and unbroken manner, and he put this philosophy into notable practice in this first act of Die Walküre. Wagner’s signature use of leitmotiv – associating certain ideas with certain musical phrases – also manifests prominently here. This act alone contains more than a dozen recurring musical signatures, including distinct motifs for love, Sieglinde, Hunding, and the sword Nothung, among others. The single act functions as a standalone story, even as it provides the foundational prelude to the events of the rest of Die Walküre, and indeed the remaining operas in the full Ring Cycle.

Contributors : Amrita Vijayaraghavan and Andrew Stephens