Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Digital Scenography and the Mimetic Aporia of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Digital Scenography and the Mimetic Aporia of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle

Article excerpt

Copyright: ©2015 J. R. D'Aoust. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Jason R. D'Aoust, Comparative Literature & Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICON), Utrecht University, Trans 10, Room 2.22b, 3512 JK Utrecht, The Netherlands. Email:

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at

In the last decade, an increasing number of opera productions have not only relied on digital technology to transmit content outside the hall but also to create (parts of) sets and decors. While the involvement of digital media in scenography varies from one opera house and from one production to the next, the practice has developed to the point that critics have shown concern with opera's saturation with Hollywood-style special effects. Such equations fail to consider, however, the theatrical conditions in which this media technology is deployed. Perhaps the most controversial debate over these problems in the last five years converged around Robert Lepage's production of Richard Wagner's cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen for the Metropolitan Opera of New York, premiered between 2010 and 2012.1 Of course, Lepage does not stand apart: productions of Wagner's music dramas have long been associated with developments in stage technology and media, visual elements of which have caused considerable friction over the past century and a half. This article first examines this theatrical tradition of technological innovation in regards to Wagner's works. The arguments presented here draw upon discourse analysis in Michel Foucault's The Order of Things , the scenographic history of Wagner's Ring , insights from media archaeology, and the critique of the Gesamtkunstwerk as phantasmagoria, before turning to Lepage's production. In conclusion, it compares the rendering visible of sonic gestures through the interactive digital technology of his production with analogue technology described in Sean Michael's novel, Us Conductors .


In comparison with the ever-present Ring and the crucial importance of the sword Nothung to the plot, the Tarnhelm is not as conspicuous in the Ring Cycle.2 Yet the magic helmet at once protects the Ring and brings about its end, both in the sense of the ring as a material object in the narrative and of the cycle's plot. It only briefly makes an appearance--or rather, disappearance--in the third scene of Das Rheingold , vanishes in Die Walküre , then returns to play a cameo role in Siegfried , before finally instigating a series of mistaken identities and double-entendres in Götterdämmerung . The helmet drives the plot because its apparitions coincide with transfers of power. Indeed, Alberich orders his brother Mime to wield the helmet in order to protect his ownership of the Ring, as the means to mine and transform more gold. Under the helmet, Alberich can disappear, immediately travel to distant places, and change into any human or animal form. The helmet's potential for omnipresence is the prototype of a mass-surveillance device, which enforces mass labour and makes its owner omnipotent. When Wotan travels to Nibelheim with Loge to steal the hoard of gold in order to pay the giants for building Valhalla, he only has a vague idea of the Ring's power and even less knowledge of the Tarnhelm. He quickly realizes, however, the threat they pose to the order over which he presides. …

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