Aria Linguistics: Wotan Dreams and Wakes Up

In the following audio clip baritone Kevin Misslich performs Wotan’s entrance in scene 2 of Rheingold.

Wotan sleeps. Fricka has woken up. As she sights the Rhine river and the castle under the receding clouds she starts shaking him, calling, “Wotan, Gemahl, erwache!” (Wotan, husband, awake!)

Wotan dreams.

Der Wonne seligen Saal
bewachen mir Tür und Tor:
Mannes Ehre, ewige Macht,
ragen zu endlosem Ruhm!

Wagner has a knack for word order. He rarely begins a sentence with the subject, the person or thing that is doing something, that is associated with the verb (as English-speakers would expect). What precedes the verb is often the object, the person or thing that is receiving the action. We read the verb bewachen (to guard) at the beginning of the second line but we have to wait to the end of that line if we want to learn who or what are the guards.

Wotan’s first words are words of happiness and tranquility. They are the object of the sentence.

The noun Wonne is an old word for blissfulness. Wagner gives it three dimensions, a space or, more exactly, a Saal (hall), and adds the adjective selig (blessed). It is the blessed hall of the blissfulness, here in the “poet’s genitive”, der Wonne seligen Saal.

Nowadays we say, “der selige Saal der Wonne”, but it wouldn’t be enough for Wagner. He wants Wonne first.

Door and gate (Tür und Tor) guard Wotan’s blissfulness. The dative personal pronoun mir intenifies the guard, makes Tür und Tor as Wotan’s servants.

What is the result of their service highlighted by the colon?

Honor of man, Mannes Ehre (genitive, today we would say die Ehre des Mannes, or even create the compound noun Mannesehre), and eternal or everlasting power or might (Macht means both) rise up (ragen) to limitless or endless (endlos) fame (der Ruhm).

What we don’t hear in the recording is Fricka shaking Wotan and insisting that he wakes up aus der Träume wonnigem Trug, from the deceitful dreams.

Wotan wakes up. His eye catches the castle. He is fascinated and continues.

Vollendet das ewige Werk!
Auf Berges Gipfel die Götterburg;

Again, whatever Wagner puts first is rarely the subject of the sentence. Now it’s the verb’s participle vollendet (completed). What is vollendet? It’s das ewige Werk, the eternal or everlasting work or better: creation, or as he says further, die Götterburg (the castle of the gods). The subject, the Götterburg follows the its location, also typical for Wagner, namely auf dem Gipfel des Berges (in modern day style) or auf des Berges Gipfel.

prächtig prahlt der prangende Bau!

Three words with the letters p and r (they both go together) and the vowel a (the first as umlaut), ending with Bau and its softer b plus au (of course, the subject, the Bau is at the end of that line).

The resplendend (prangend) building (der Bau) shows off (prahlen) magnificently (prächtig).

Now, Wotan marvels at the building (and at his imagination).

Wie im Traum ich ihn trug,

As in my dream I carried it (ihn as the accusative masculine pronoun for der Bau)
(tragen = to carry, simple past: trugen)

wie mein Wille ihn wies, stark und schön
steht er zur Schau; hehrer, herrlicher Bau!

As my will it directed (weisen = to show a direction, simple past: wiesen),

strong and beautiful (stark und schön)

it is on display (zur Schau stehen = to be on display), the personal pronoun er stands for der Bau,

noble, magnificent building (hehr is an old poetic word for noble).

I have the honor to know Kevin Misslich for several years and I had the pleasure to tutor him in the German language.

Kevin Misslich will sing Wotan in the Rheingold production at the Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis on August 17th , 18th , 24th and the 25th . If you are there, don’t miss it.

Next update: Sunday, July 29th .

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s