Brünnhilde: the horns, the spear, the pigtails

What's Opera Doc?

Tell the truth... when you think opera, doesn't this come to mind?

Brünnhilde–the epitome of a stereotypical operatic character. Say the words “opera singer” and visions of a rotund woman standing center-stage in a helmet with horns, braided hair, and carrying a spear often come to mind. Even amongst those of us who actually live and breathe opera on a daily basis, this image is so firmly engraved into our psyche that it is difficult to forget. After all, this character was well represented in Loony Tunes’ “What’s Opera Doc?” cartoon which we probably all watched growing up. To this day, whenever I hear the Ride of the Valkyries, I hear Elmer Fudd’s voice singing “Kill da wabbit” with such fervor that any operatic performer would be proud.

Richard Wagner’s character Brünnhilde, and to a lesser extent, the entire opera Die Walküre, are considered by non-opera-lovers (and some opera-lovers) to be the embodiment of operatic absurdity. When two Met audience members showed up on the Met HD screen wearing knit hats with horns and pigtails, the entire hall burst out laughing… if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

All this changed, however, with the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Die Walküre. This production literally blew all of the old stereotypes out of the water… or out of the opera house.

the Valkyries "riding horseback" on the machine

Just as in the HD Met Broadcast’s season opener “Das Rheingold,” Die Walküre made extensive use of “the machine”– a metal structure weighing 45-tons which consists of 26-foot towers at either end of the stage with a horizontal bar running between them that supports 24 planks. These 24 planks move as if vertebrae on a spine, each plank moving independently, able to rotate in any direction or to combine in groupings. (For more information on “The Machine” read my review of Das Rheingold at Unlike in Das Rheingold, however, this machine was not the star of the show. Instead, it was used more as a backdrop for projections and for generating props.

"The Machine"

The machine faded seamlessly into the background rather than screaming at the audience “I’m big, expensive, and impressive! Look at me! Ignore those silly singers up front!” This time the machine, having already made it’s debut in society, let the singers take the limelight.

But, in all fairness, how could the machine be the star of the show with Deborah Voigt singing the role of Brünnhilde? This powerful dramatic soprano traded in her helmet and horns for a steel-winged headband and her pigtails for fiery-red flowing hair. Looking svelte in her fish-scale armor and fishnet stocking sleeves, Deborah Voigt is no longer the fat lady who sings. After her gastric bypass surgery in 2005, Voigt has kept the weight off, endured the vocal changes that rapid weight loss brings, and now looks and sounds the part of a physically fit, young, warrior goddess. Among a star-studded cast of Met regulars, Voigt stood out for her uncanny acting ability. She turned this oft-ridiculed mythological role into something that every modern woman can relate to—the overly-demanding father, the strong sense of responsibility at such a young age, the fear of being stripped of her stature as her parents’ caretaker, the fear of losing her beauty and subsequent power, and the fear of becoming enslaved and ruled by an unworthy husband. Voigt’s portrayal of this woman’s heartache and fear literally drove me to tears as she watched everything she had in her life be literally ripped from her hands.When viewed thus, we find that Brünnhilde has much in common with the leading lady in any of the latest chick-flick movies.

Add to Brünnhilde’s updated character the drama of Sieglinde and Siegmund’s incestuous and adulterous marriage, the constant bickering and power-struggle of Wotan and his wife Fricka, and the image of “girl power” with the Valkyries and you have the makings of a blockbuster hit! Anyone who thinks that opera is outdated should really take a look again. The Met is changing everything–one opera at a time.

If you missed this season’s Met: Live in HD presentations at the performing arts center in San Luis Obispo sponsered by Cal Poly Arts and Opera San Luis Obispo, don’t worry. They will be back next season starting October 15th with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The ring cycle will continue on November 5th with Siegfried and February 11th with  Götterdämerung. Visit or call 805-756-2787 for more information.


One thought on “Brünnhilde: the horns, the spear, the pigtails

  1. Opera has always been a joke to those who do not understand. Actually, Brunnhilde is not stereotypical at all . She is an archetype in an opera that has universal symbolism.The Met’s production was shameful. They spent something like 6 million on a machine that was actually very dangerous for the singers and in a time period where the Met almost went bankrupt. To spend that amount and then wonder how they were going to pay the cast and orchestra and stay open was truly mismanagement and for what?

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