One Ring Cycle to rule them all at Southbank

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I run one of London’s great orchestras — the London Philharmonic, founded in 1932. It has been a concert and opera orchestra from its very beginning: our first conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, was also music director of the Royal Opera House and pre-war there was not an Opera House Orchestra as there is today. For the past 55 years the LPO has been the resident orchestra of Glyndebourne Opera Summer Festival.

In between summers we usually present one opera in concert in our London home, the Royal Festival Hall — and today I’m excited to announce that in 2021 we will scale the “Everest” of operas with Wagner’s Ring Cycle over four evenings in January and a second cycle in February. Wagnerians throughout the world have 15 months to plan their London visit. For Londoners it is a special treat. To see the orchestra on stage rather than in the opera pit suddenly brings real meaning to the work. There is no directorial interpretation; the drama simply unfolds with the help of surtitles.

The four operas that make up Wagner’s story, of the theft of the ring of gold are based on Norse and Germanic myths and legends. Like J R R Tolkien, who used legend to underpin his Lord of the Rings, Wagner invented much of his version of the story which he wrote long before setting his words to music. The complex story is told through four operas, each complete in itself but also closely related through characters, the advancing of the tale, and musical themes.

There are some similarities with Tolkien’s tales. Tolkien imagined an evil god-like figure ruling the known world but being destroyed by the efforts of “ordinary folk” who, against the odds, destroyed the one ring that would complete his power. Wagner’s story is about the desire to rule the world through possession of the Ring (one in this case) and its power derived from it being stolen and the curse that thief Alberich placed upon it. The dwarf, Alberich, could only possess the gold owned by the Rhinemaidens by forswearing love. However, when the gold and the Ring were stolen from him it is his curse that is at the heart of the subsequent story.

Alberich is tricked by Wotan, leader of the gods, into losing the Ring. Wotan loses it in payment of a debt to one of the race of giants and, later, in the third opera, the giant is killed by Wotan’s grandson, Siegfried. Later, Siegfried falls for Brünnhilde (one of the Valkyries) whom he rescues and, through further trickery, Siegfried’s death leads to the loss of the Ring which is returned to the original owners of the gold, the Rhinemaidens. The world of the gods is destroyed, and a new world is glimpsed in the radiant music that ends Götterdämmerung, the last of the four operas.

Is it more than a coincidence that the London Philharmonic recorded the original soundtrack for The Lord Of the Rings trilogy?

Timothy Walker is chief executive and artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.