Like Dan Brown, we set out to crack a code…an OPERA CODE.

We performed an experiment and sent two n00bs to an opera with zero information and tasked them to wrap their tiny minds around Wagner.

A collaborative review by Ross Catrow and Susan Howson.

That’s right. We took two opera neophytes (ourselves) and immersed them into The Valkyrie, Wagner’s most popular work. People seem to go nuts over opera, and we wanted to experience that all-consuming nutsiness.

So one of us put on their best pink socks and the other one put on their best pink heels, and we took our places among some really rich old people. Could opera be accessible to the commoner? Kinda-sorta!

Look, between us, we like lots of things. Plays, classical music, good works of fiction, and so on. It follows that we’d be all over opera like an extra layer of padding around a tenor’s midsection. And we were, sometimes. But a lot of the time we were a little lost. So we thought we’d provide a guide to The Valkyrie and some helpful tips for breaking into the entire opera experience.

ACT I – At a house by or near or encompassing an enormous tree

First[1], a guy ends up collapsing in or around the home of Hunding and his wife. The wife, Sieglinde, instantly takes to the guy (behave!), and it comes out that Hunding is a sworn enemy of this dude. Not only that, but it turns out Sieglinde is the long lost twin sister of our guy, whose name is Siegmund[2]. Cute, right? NOT SO CUTE WHEN THEY DECIDE TO NECK WILDLY ON STAGE. Yeah! Incest is OK in this opera. It was the swingin’ 1870s, man! So Sieglinde runs away with her brother. Or, rather, she invites him, arms outstretched, to lie on top of her as the music swells and we all wish we were anywhere else[3].

ACT II – Scary mountain

The god Wotan has a bunch of daughters, the Valkyrie — warlike maidens, who chauffeur dead heroes to Valhalla. His wife Fricka, the goddess in charge of marriage, frickin’ hates them and all of Wotan’s illegitimate spawn — which we learn includes both of the Siegs (-mund and -linde)! She wants Wotan to agree to back Hunding in the battle that’s raging down below between Hunding and the Kissing Siblings. He says OK, despite his misgivings, and forbids his favorite Valkyrie, Brünnhilde[4], to help Siegmund in the fracas. But Brünnhilde is a badass with a heart of gold. She takes pity on the mortals and attempts to back Siegmund, but Wotan intervenes and the hapless fellow bites the dust anyway.


We drink Cokes and wonder how people afford nice suits. Ross sings a little bit of opera[5] in the concessions line and embarrasses us both.

ACT III[6] – Scarier mountain

The Valkyrie assemble (riotously) and wonder where the heck Brünnhilde is. She shows up supporting a grieving Sieglinde, who then chastises Brünnhilde for not allowing her to join Seigmund, her weird brother-husband hybrid, in death. Brünnhilde points out that she’s carrying his child, and everyone accepts this as a good reason to live. Meanwhile, Wotan is hella pissed at Brünnhilde’s betrayal and shows up on the mountain to dole out justice. Her punishment, sadly enough, is to lie on a rock in eternal slumber until the first schmuck who happens by claims her as a wife. Bumz! Luckily, Brünnhilde is able to appeal to her father to create a ring of fire[7] around her as she sleeps, so that not just any old fool will be able to stake his claim. Slightly less bumz!


We walked away feeling full with our fill of Wagner and excited for our next foray into opera, which luckily for us is just around the corner. The Virginia Opera will be performing Madame Butterfly, an Italian opera, the second weekend in April — which we hear will be a totally different experience than Wagner.


#1 — Susan

I recommend doing a fairly thorough study of the opera you’re going to see before you see it. Borrow a recording, read the libretto, and allow yourself to really get into the whole thing. That way, when you see it, you won’t let the supertitles distract you from the really beautiful things that are going on on-stage. « Back

#2 — Ross

Seigmund definitely looked the part of a chubby Wagnerian nordic/germanic-esque guy running around slaying dudes and maidens. Unfortunately, his costume did him no favors. Get that dude a cloak! Or some vertical stripes! « Back

#3 — Susan

Imagine a lady lying down on a stage and beckoning to a gentleman to throw his leg over her. Now imagine they’re your parents. Now stop imagining it. There were some weird things about the blocking and direction of this production that I couldn’t ignore. I’m aware that singing operatically is very tough and that you don’t have the energy to get all Gaga, but I think there should be at least a LITTLE bit of moving around. And now that I’ve spoken to some more learned people, I’m convinced that this is entirely possible to carry off. « Back

#4 — Ross

Brunnz! She was so totally awesome! Voice, acting, costume, all of it combined to make her irresistibly watchable anytime she appeared on stage. Sometimes it seemed as if these super talented singers were just lollygagging about on stage waiting for their next line. Brünnhilde always had a convincing way about her, even when she was standing perfectly still silhouetted by the moon (which looked crazy sweet, btw). « Back

#5 — Ross

Hoyotoho! Hoyotoho! « Back

#6 — Ross

I thought Act III was slow and repetitive — totally Wagner’s fault. There was lots of “Allow me to enumerate your punishment!” and then “Wait, what? Could you let me know the details of that punishment again?” followed by “Sure, here I can just enumerate it once more!” « Back

#7 — Susan

The sets were beautiful, we were really impressed, and they allowed them to use levels in really neat ways. At the end, Brünnhilde’s fiery new eternal bedchamber looked super neat — large clear angular flames jutting up behind her. It was all very German Impressionist. Then some cheap-looking, scrolly flames squeaked out on a track in front of her and kinda ruined the effect. « Back

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