8 Money Lessons I Learned Watching Opera

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Never heard of the opera "Gotterdammerung"? That's "Twilight of the Gods" in German, and it's long and intricate – and really good at reminding you to save money.

I spent six butt-numbing hours at the movies on Saturday, watching the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of “Gotterdammerung” – the last of four operas based on the same Norse mythology that informed Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” It had spectacle, pageantry, and a buff-and-bitchin’ Siegfried who turned out to have a down-home Texas accent – it was a very successful day.

The only thing better than opera is frugal opera. In fact, the show didn’t cost me anything…

  • I paid for my $22 ticket with movie theater gift cards that I got for free by using a rewards credit card.
  • The theater is only about three blocks away, so I didn’t have to take a bus.
  • During intermissions, I left the auditorium (had to, my butt was asleep!) to stretch my legs. I also enjoyed a cinnamon raisin bagel, courtesy of another free gift card.
  • The soft drink I sipped during the show was free too, thanks to My Coke Rewards – and I was amused to find that large soft drinks mean free refills at this particular chain.

People don’t usually attend the opera to learn smart money practices. But composer Richard Wagner passed along some decent personal finance lessons in this soaring (and loud!) tale of greed, betrayal, mortal passion, and godly demise.

I say you should take personal finance tips wherever you find them, whether they’re from the mouth of a once-was-Valkyrie or a malevolent dwarf played by a regular-sized human. (When it comes to opera, the willing suspension of disbelief is a useful life skill.)

So here’s what I learned…

1. Money isn’t the be-all and end-all. Certainly it’s useful. Gunther has a ton of bucks, a swell castle, fancy clothes, and hot-and-cold running vassals. But it’s not enough. He wants more gold and more power. When is enough enough? After your first heart attack? (Although Gunther doesn’t live long enough to earn that infarction. He gets stabbed to death instead, a direct result of his greed.)

2. Don’t make big decisions based on partial information or strong emotion. Brunnhilde is rightly ticked off by Siegfried’s apparent betrayal, and she responds by telling an enemy how he can vanquish her strapping former sweetheart. What she doesn’t know is that his bad behavior was caused by a magic spell. So he ends up mortally wounded, remembering as he dies the glory that was Siegfried und Brunnhilde. Oops. So don’t invest in a “sure thing” without checking it thoroughly – or lend a panicked friend money without considering whether you can really afford it.

3. Your kids need to choose their own paths. That venal dwarf, Alberich, urges his son, Hagen, to obtain the magic ring so ol’ Dad can rule the world. This obsession with power infects his son, who decides to get the ring for himself. As you can imagine, this doesn’t end well.

4. If you go into a line of work you dislike, you probably won’t end up happy. Or even alive. As noted, Hagen is a crafty dude in search of power (read: the ring) but the machinations leave him “pale and exhausted, old before (his) time.” At the end, his focus on money and power leads to a watery grave. Maybe he should have enrolled in community college to learn HVAC instead of letting daddy-o influence his career choice.

5. Don’t lie to women. At one point Siegfried tells Gunther not to worry that Brunnhilde is furious at being bartered and betrayed, because “women’s anger fades quickly.” Um, no, it doesn’t – we just get really good at hiding it. Which brings me to the corollary lesson…

6. Don’t lie to men, either. Stretching the truth with either sex to get what you want will likely cost you, whether it’s in the form of lawsuits or physical revenge (a whole lotta that in opera in general).

7. Enjoy your youth but plan to get old. Siegfried is in the prime of his life and one hell of a street fighter, but he’s also pragmatic enough to mention that his limbs are sturdy “now, while I am young.” Yes, you should have a life but that doesn’t mean spending every dime you earn. Get some kind of individual retirement account going.

8. Plan to die too. After Siegfried sings his way off this mortal coil, there’s a bit of a tussle over the ring. He didn’t specify who should get it because he didn’t expect to die that day. (He should have listened to those Rhine Maidens. They tried to tell him.) Some people don’t expect to die ever – but when they do, they leave a big mess for their loved ones to untangle. Write a will, already.

Hope I haven’t spoiled the ending for you. But this is opera. You expect a whole bunch of people to die. At least they do it tunefully.

P.S. Free refills of large soft drinks aren’t necessarily a good idea during a show that long.

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Stacy Johnson

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