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Classical 101

Wagner Ring Cycle "Storybooks" a Fun Blast from the Past

Above: A slide show of notable scenes from Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, from the Metropolitan Opera Guild's The Four Books of Wagner's Ring, illustrations by Alexandre Serebriakoff. A good friend of mine, heaven help her, is in the process of downsizing into a condo. She is shuffling paperwork, giving away unneeded furniture and finding good homes for some of her old books - all (and this is the truth) while listening to Classical 101. So, my friend calls me up one day and asks if I were geeky enough to want to have some old books of hers about Wagner's epic, four-opera Ring of the Nibelungs cycle. "Sure," I said, bristling momentarily from the "geeky" remark. "When shall I pick them up?" Turns out that the books are a lovely four-volume set of the authorized illustrated 1939 edition of The Four Books of Wagner's Ring, a four-volume set, published in the Metropolitan Opera Guild's former book series The Opera Books, that tells the stories of the Ring cycle. And if you think the Ring cycle itself is a hoot - what, with the wily Rhinemaidens and evil dwarfs and giants and flying horses and whatnot - the Opera Books about the Ring cycle are priceless. Written more in the style of sophisticated storybooks than run-of-the-mill opera synopses, decorated with colorful illustrations of some of the operas' most notable scenes and containing musical notation of some of Wagner's musical Leitmotiven, the books in The Four Books of Wagner's Ring are sophisticated enough for adult readers and entertaining enough for kids of a certain age or older. Am I geeky enough to want these? Sorry, but is Cleveland still angry with LeBron? The Metropolitan Opera Guild published The Opera Books from YEAR to YEAR as an expression of the guild's educational mission. The series includes the stories of some of the most popular operas in the repertoire, including Carmen, Aida, Lohengrin, Faust and Hänsel und Gretel. Opera writer Robert Lawrence's prose brings the characters to life through quotations in delightfully anachronistic English (for instance, "Alas!" exclaims Brünnhilde. "If he finds Sieglinde here, he will destroy her! On whose steed can we escape?") Lawrence also remains faithful to most of the important details of the narrative across the cycle's four operas, soft-pedaling only the incestuous relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde that unfolds in Die Walküre. And with each of the four operas of Wagner's brobdingnagian Ring boiled down to a 40-page book, The Four Books of Wagner's Ring exhibits masterful economy of means. So if you want to dip your toe into the deep waters of Wagner's enormous Ring cycle and take a fun walk through opera history, get our hands on a copy of the Metropolitan Opera Guild's The Four Books of Wagner's Ring. Ask nicely and maybe the Rhinemaidens to give you one.