Parlando: The COC Blog


Siegfried, Memory, and Identity

By Stephan Bonfield 

When we first meet the hero Siegfried, we encounter a man-child-demigod trying to learn about his own past and identity from someone who can tell him very little about either. What the unscrupulous Mime does know, he buttresses with untruths in a petulant, fitful manner, claiming to be both Siegfried's father and mother, so as to use him for his own sinister purposes to acquire the Ring.

We may not realize it right away, but our first encounter with Siegfried is with someone whose very human qualities we know all too well, recognizable from earlier stages in our own lives—naïveté, innocence, manipulability—in short, someone with an underdeveloped identity.

When we begin to seek first awareness of our own identities we start with who our parents are. Unlike Siegfried, most of us are fortunate enough to know our parents' identities, and even to know a lot about our own heritage. Knowing our past becomes a guarantor for taking first firm steps toward knowing ourselves.

But for Siegfried, the basic first step toward taking action in the world is hampered by his disconnection from his own past. He knows nothing of the events we saw in the previous music drama Die Walküre, nothing of his parents Siegmund or Sieglinde, nor of his infamous grandfather Wotan, who now seeks truth about the fate of the gods and the world disguised as The Wanderer. Above all, Siegfried knows nothing of fear itself, that great human attribute that makes us cautious in our tentative first steps toward self-knowledge.

Wagner presents Siegfried's lack of knowledge about his own identity in revealing, metaphorical fashion. The hero, for all his strength and eventual indomitability in battle, still remains a mystery to himself, something like how the human race discourses with its own obscured past by trying to seek clues to its own evolutionary emergence. Humanity is symbolized in the personage of Siegfried, emerging nascent, fresh and new in the primeval world, which Wagner describes in darkest primordial woodwind hues as the curtain rises on the forested cave of our hidden unconscious origins.

Wagner liked to say that his earliest understanding of Siegfried could be seen in "each throbbing of his [own] pulse, each effort of his muscles as he moved," and in him, he "saw the archetype of man himself." Siegfried was Wagner's artistic representation of the emergence of human consciousness.

Furthermore, Wagner composed Siegfried when Germany was itself emerging as a nation during a time of great political upheaval; struggling to life; flexing a newly-unified, muscular national identity, and likewise, the composer came to envision humanity in much the same way, being birthed from the cosmic undergrowth into a visibly new thicket of life. Siegfried's character also stands as a representation of humanity birthed into fledgling self-awareness, emerging from a primordial past, long-ago forgotten.

Siegfried is descended from the gods but does not know it. Even when told something of his past by Brünnhilde at the end of the opera, he seems to lack the fundamental curiosity to explore this cosmic relationship further. He even forgets the meaning of fear he learned when he first encountered Brünnhilde. Siegfried seems to have lost his way in understanding his own lineage, a vital piece of information needed to establish a connection with the past, his own present identity, and an emotionally secure path toward responsible future action. In other words, cut off from memory of his past, and lacking an emotionally mature present, Siegfried lacks the profound conscious self-awareness necessary to construct his own future.

Wagner appears to be making the interesting but astonishing assertion that somewhere along the way, we too forgot, or worse, became oblivious to the notion that, like Siegfried, we were descended from some transcendently creative power. Wagner often wrote of Greek epic heroes who were descended from gods themselves and in Siegfried, seems to suggest that in our mytho-poetic understanding of our own origins we have forgotten that we too were stamped from a similar forge of eternal fire.

Much like Siegfried, who cannot even recognize his own grandfather, Wotan, king of the Norse pantheon, we also seem to reside in a sort of collective amnesia, cut off from our past origins, and still seeking clues as to our present identity as human beings. When Wotan, disguised as The Wanderer confronts his grandson to ask whether he knows who he is, Siegfried impertinently answers that he doesn't much care, and essentially tells the Ruler of the Gods to stop speaking in useless riddles and to get out of his way. He over-runs The Wanderer and splits his spear, smashing the old-world order, destroying any connection with the past and effectively securing the eventual doom of the gods in the next music drama Götterdämmerung.

Much has been written about this epic moment, often described as a cost borne of colossal human ignorance. Humanity, in its rush to overthrow its gods because of the imperturbable need to move forward, effectively guarantees its own inevitable destruction by sequestering the past into ignorance, dooming the human race to repeat its mistakes. When we lose memory of both our past and our identity, we ensure our own fall into ignorance and destruction, just as surely as Siegfried does when his naïveté tragically betrays him in Götterdämmerung and he is treacherously slain.

And herein lies the point of Wagner's central message in Siegfried. As Siegfried forges his sword—a bold metaphor for the creation of his new and heroic identity—so we too as a civilization must forge identity and memory together, based on an unstoppable love that thirsts for the knowledge of our origins. For Wagner, anything less meant being cursed by a loveless Will to blind power, like Alberich's curse on the Ring. If we remain naïve to this evil tendency of human nature, then like Siegfried, we ensure our own destruction.

How can we escape such a fate? To find out, we will have to return next season for Götterdämmerung.

To learn more about our current production of Siegfried and to buy tickets, visit here.

Stephan Bonfield is a frequent speaker at the COC and other opera companies across Canada and is the opera and ballet critic for The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal.

Photo credit: (left to right) Alan Held as the Wanderer, George Molnar as the Bear, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime in Siegfried (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper

Posted by Stephan Bonfield / in Siegfried / comments (0) / permalink


In Conversation: Christine Goerke


On Wednesday, February 3, our Opera Insights series featured Christine Goerke, the opera world’s most sought-after Brünnhilde (currently starring in our production of Siegfried), in an intimate evening of conversation about her life and career. The host was recently retired Toronto Star theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian. Listen to their immensely entertaining and candidly revealing conversation here!



For more information on our FREE Opera Insights events, visit here


Photo credit: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Siegfried (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper

Posted by COC Staff / in Siegfried / comments (0) / permalink




Before the performance of The Marriage of Figaro on February 4, 2016, Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef shared some thoughts celebrating the freedom we have to create and enjoy the arts and the privilege to live in a country like Canada. Included in his remarks was the news of the beginning of an initiative providing access to refugees and newcomers to Canada to COC dress rehearsals and performances.

The program is still in its infancy but is moving forward and we wanted to make our intentions known.  The timing was such that it was appropriate to share at the opening night of Figaro.  More details about the development of this new initiative will be forthcoming as plans progress.

Below is a transcript of Alexander Neef’s pre-performance speech before the opening night performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company.
Don't worry, all our performers are fine.
But I do want to take a moment to speak to you before we start tonight's performance.
Over the last few months we have witnessed terrorist attacks all over the world, in Paris, but also in Beirut, Bamako, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Jakarta, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
The common theme of these attacks seems to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the values that form the base of our western societies, most importantly freedom of speech and expression. The terrorists chose to attack places that belong to the entertainment sector, stadiums, concert halls, bars, restaurants and hotels.
At the same time our country Canada, has decided to welcome 25,000 refugees from Syria, one of the countries most affected by terrorism and civil war.
At the Canadian Opera Company, we feel it is important to not only reflect on the impact of the attacks, but also to honour our Canadian values of freedom, respect for cultural differences, and a commitment to social justice.
Tonight marks the beginning of an initiative that will provide access to COC dress rehearsals and performances to refugees and newcomers to Canada.
I would like to recognize our partners Lifeline Syria, the Institute of Canadian Citizenship (represented tonight by the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul) and the Canada Council for the Arts (represented by its CEO Simon Brault).
I would also like to acknowledge two other special guests: Han Dong, MPP for Trinity-Spadina on behalf of the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport and Councillor Norm Kelly from the City of Toronto.
Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is uniquely suited to this purpose. It is deeply influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is a piece about personal rights and the freedom of speech.
But it deals with those matters in the form of a comedy. As you will see, almost the entire second half of the opera is dedicated to a celebration, a double wedding and the party that follows.
Tonight, we want to invite you to celebrate with us the freedom we have to create and enjoy the arts and the privilege to live in a country like Canada.
I will leave you with a quote by the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein: "This is our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
Before we begin the performance I would like to ask you to stand for the national anthem

Posted by COC Staff / in Canadian Opera Company / comments (0) / permalink

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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