School Board Wagnerian Opera—Why Not?

Confession: I love Richard Wagner’s operas and have seen his famous ‘Ring’ cycle three times, the third time a week ago in San Francisco.  If you have seen or read Lord of the Rings, you sort of know the story line:  Gods, giants, Rhinemaidens, dragons, dwarfs, Valhalla, and all that.

It is now fashionable for directors to forget any ideas Wagner himself had about the production and invent their own interpretation of the story.  Nowhere is that kind of thing done more brazenly than in San Francisco.  Our gods were New York hedge-fund investors, our dragon was a machine, and the beautiful, flowing Rhine river, where maidens guarded the Ring, became a cesspool.  As the New York Times reviewer, Anthony Tommasini (NYT, July 5 2011)  generously put it, the director should have put all of her ideas on a single page and then cut a third of them.

Twelve hours into the opera, distraught, I let my mind wander.  Would it be possible to get some opera company— perhaps students at some adventurous school for the performing arts—to do a school-reform Ring cycle?  The story might unfold at a New Jersey school board meeting, and the characters would be school board members, union leaders, ed school professors and so forth.

I envision school board president Wotan and his fractious board member, Fricka, fighting over the child, Freia (the beautiful girl with the youth-preserving golden apples that she brings to school each day), who has been doomed by the collective bargaining contract signed with the Teacher Union Giants, AFT Fafner and NEA Fasolt, to have four years in classrooms managed by dreadful teachers–who would have been fired were it not for that contract.

Meanwhile, Fafner and Fasolt, in exchange for beautiful Freia, have built the palatial school administration building, Valhalla.  Duly elected with union money, Wotan and the rest of the board will enter the palace if only they can free Freia from her contractual fate.

To the Nederland Wotan goes to meet Chief Dwarf Professor Alberich, the ed school guru, who has the Ring that he had stolen from frolicking, book-reading, math-computing, Rhinemaiden school children by promising that he would never love another child nor create a school where kids could learn.

Empowered by the Ring, he rules the education world with his brilliant lectures—and pockets the gold received on the lecture circuit (where shriek his minions, the Niebelungen).  When Wotan tricks Professor Alberich into turning himself into a toad. Wotan captures the ring. The Professor curses all who shall ever touch that Ring.

Wotan ignores the curse but is forced to give the Ring and the gold to the Union Giants.  It goes to pay union membership dues and pension fund contributions under the control of the Union Giants in exchange for Freia, who escapes her fate by taking her golden apples with her to classes with effective teachers.  No sooner do the Union bosses get the Ring than they fight over it. Fasolt kills his buddy and turns himself into a dragon where he hoards the gold.

The education world would be altogether lost were it not for the series of unlikely accidents that produce Siegfried Duncan and Brunnhilde Rhee, strong-willed, valiant education reformers.  Siegfried kills the Union Dragon and retrieves the Ring, but is then killed by Professor Alberich’s son, Policy Analyst Hagen. Yet Brunnhilde finds a way to rescue the Ring, then sacrifice her life to return it to the Rhinemaidens, bringing the era of the School Board Gods to an end. Analyst Hagen drowns himself in a futile effort to grab the Ring from the children swimming in the water, now happily learning their lessons.

Sorry, Wagner, for the happy ending, but this production is for young people.

– Paul E. Peterson

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College