Sunnyvale, California, United States
February 05
I was born the same year Kennedy was assassinated. My parents got divorced during the Summer of Love ('67) I'm not a journalist, I'm just a dedicated Democratic Library Assistant with a lot of bottled-up rants. But I'll try to be amusing when possible. _________________________ My Late Friend Kim would agree with this: "Nobody should die because they can't afford Health Insurance. Nobody should go broke because they get sick." Teddy, Greg and Roger, I'm SO with you on this one. And also with everyone else displaying this. --------- "I wrestle like Jane Austen and write like Jesse 'The Body' Ventura." Justice must be done for Trayvon Martin.

JUNE 30, 2011 6:39PM

The Ring Thing

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            Few experiences can condition one so well for a long trans-Atlantic flight as attending Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera. 


I know you’re wondering how these two experiences could possibly be related, but hear me out.  Up in the second balcony where we have our seats, the chairs are narrow, the aisles are narrow, the leg room is negligible. You’re packed into a small space with a lot of other people, and you have to find a place to put your purse and coat. The only thing missing is the carry-on luggage. And then you sit there for several hours, over four different evenings.   On planes, the ambient temperature is rarely comfortable, whether one is too cold or too warm; At the War Memorial Opera House, I always know it’s going to be hot up there.  So I dress in the coolest, lightest skirts and blouses I own in order to be comfortable, and still exit the auditorium briskly fanning myself with my program at the end, stiff and aching after so long in the same seat.


 Last summer, my mother and I agreed we wanted to see the complete Ring of the Nibelung to be staged this summer at San Francisco Opera, after having seen the first two installments of this production in 2008 and 2010 respectively.  Last January, our upcoming July trip to France was planned somewhat hastily.  Around mid-May, an awful thought occurred to us both; were we even going to be in the country to see the Ring, after ordering two sets of really expensive opera tickets on one hand, and non-refundable plane tickets on the other?  Fortunately, we’ll attend the final opera, Götterdämmerung, on Sunday July 3, and we fly to Paris on July 5th. Crisis cancelled.


Anyhow, back to the Ring. I know opera is an acquired taste, and not everyone acquires it. This seems particularly true of Wagner’s operas.  Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle is 2 hours and thirty-five minutes; not too extreme a playing time, but it is traditionally performed without an intermission. Part two, Die Walküre, is four hours. Siegfried, Part 3, is  four and a half hours.  Götterdämmerung  the final installment is the great grand-daddy of them all, the running time clocking in at five and a half hours. (Fortunately, all of them are played with intermissions for the sake of the singers AND the audience.)


Richard Wagner was in love with the sound of his own words and music, and to put it kindly, was not much into self-editing. Wagner makes the assumption, and really the demand that his audience will be as enthralled with his creation as he was himself.  Even Wagner, after the manner of Doctor Frankenstein, was a bit daunted; it took him over twenty years to complete composing the Ring with a long hiatus between Das Rheingold and the other three operas.  I honor the Ring for its sheer uniqueness; no other composer wrote anything quite like it. (Which is probably to the good.)


To stage the complete Ring Cycle is a major artistic and fiscal  accomplishment for any company. It requires singers of a rare caliber and endurance, and the performance fees for such artists does not come cheap. However it's a false economy not to engage the very best singers a company can assemble.  Assembling such a cast was no easy thing even for Wagner at the first complete performances, and is even more difficult now.  Frustrated with the trivial attitude of Europeans for whom an evening at the opera was a social occasion at which the actual performance was something of an afterthought, Wagner, then at the height of his fame and influence, even built his own theater, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth.  He broke away from the then-traditional horse-shoe shaped auditorium of existing opera houses with a floor plan that was like a half-opened fan with all the seats facing the stage.  Furthermore, during the performance itself, the house lights were to be lowered, virtually forcing the audience to pay attention to his opera rather than to each other. A common practice now, but in 1876, it was radical.


The length of the Ring is both its weakness and its strength; it’s the Un-Twitter, or perhaps Twitter’s antidote--entertainment for people who still have attention spans of more than ten minutes, and wish the pace of life would slow down  a bit. Really, the only thing to do when attending the complete Ring, bing bang, bang, boom, is to surrender to it; invest the time, let it take the time it takes, and give up any notion that you’ll pay your taxes, exercise, catch up on correspondence, or even cook your dinner.  For me, it’s somewhat like allowing myself to read a really long, enthralling novel; daunting at first, but also deeply satisfying. I notice the time, I do get stiff, but I reach a plateau rather like a Runner’s High and discover my own powers of endurance. A great Wagnerian performance is like the aural equivalent of a rich beef stew; I don’t want that all the time, but every now and then I crave it. It’s expansive, it’s satisfying, the experience becomes its own reward. 


Part of what makes me love the music of the Ring is that  the orchestra is fully integrated into the action until the orchestra is a character in its own right. Much has been written about Wagner’s system of Leitmotifs which are like an aural map for the listener. He experimented with recurring themes in his non-Ring operas, but really took the ball and ran with it in the Ring. He really wanted the audience to understand what was going on onstage and thus kept providing little musical synopses as the story progressed.  Anyone interested in learning more about leitmotifs can go here: They serve as reminders of important previous events and characters and sometimes as warnings that a character is not being honest, or of the God’s interference in mortal lives.  


However grating his personality in his non-musical writings, and as egotistical and ungracious he could be in person, Wagner put his best self into his music; no man who did not understand the power of parental, filial and romantic love on a profound personal level could have written the Ring. He not only understood love, he valued it and pointed out the evils of the disasters can happen when the unfeeling gain power and use it to selfish ends. For all its great length and the large cast, it’s a very intimate work; it’s rare to have more than three or four characters onstage at once.


Love and its tremendous importance runs through the Ring which is a long series of musical dialogues.  To wield the power of the Ring, one must be willing to renounce love forever, then deal with the evils that come with that. Only Alberich, the eyponymous Nibelung and maker of the Ring, his brother Mime, and Fafner, the Giant-turned Dragon appear willing to go that far and they are all pretty unlovable characters to begin with. When the Ring is stolen from Alberich at the end of Das Rheingold, he curses it; everyone will covet it, but it will only cause trouble for its owner.  This prediction that comes true even for Siegfried who, not understanding the nature of the Ring’s power, gives it to Brünnhilde as the  symbol of his love. Brünnhilde, who does understand its nature, values the Ring purely as the symbol of Siegfried’s love--she's not after world domination. in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried is deceived into betraying Brünnhilde, and she, humiliated and enraged, takes her revenge upon him for it.  


Entire books have been written on the Ring of the Nibelung, so I don't think I'll attempt to explain the whole thing in a blog. Interested parties who would like a crash course, can click on the three parts of Anna Russell’s hilarious introduction to the Ring.  She uses humor, but after listening to the whole thing, you surely will have learned more about it than you knew when you began. 



I doubt though, that I'll get a performance of the Ring on Air France; maybe we should try Lufthansa, next time.

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I sell classical music and I have never seen this in person. But I love Anna Russell.. and must look it up on the web.
Sweet round golden ring
you make my heart sing
for this world is mine
as I sail sparkling Rhine.
This was such a satisfying piece to read. I don't know much about opera but the classical station on my radio occasionally features one and listening to it, even though I don't understand the words and it's just a portion, is the perfect antidote to lightweight "ear candy." I imagine the total experience, in an opera house, is divine - even the ones that make you feel like you're on a trans-Atlantic flight!
Almost enough to convince me to attend. Almost. We did watch the Ring on PBS decades ago (the young #1 kept spotting leitmotifs). But, you know, if it ain't in Italian . . .

Great piece, Shiral. Enjoy your physically cramped but aurally and spiritually expansive performance followed by your physically cramped but culturally and culinarily (but not waistliney) vacation!
this is just terrific, Shiral. Well done! r.
I have always wanted to see the full Ring cycle! I haven't even seen one of the operas in the series, alas. I love how you explain the experience - so much humor and very relatable similes (love the beef stew and good, thick novel). Ultimately, this does indeed sound like a great, unique way to prepare for a long flight. And I wish you a happy, safe one, and an amazing time in France! Bon voyage!
When you made the comparison at the beginning---it required NO explanation for me. I knew exactly where you were going!

What I really liked about this is that the physical challenge of sitting thru the Ring is something I've never seen written about----but its kinda ESSENTIAL to having the experience!

You've inspired me. One of these days!
I'd say you've accomplished a feat that should be on the bucket list of most lovers of music, or at least classical music. This was a very enjoyable read. I wish I had some Wagner to listen to while reading it! Well, perhaps not. Based on what you've just written, Herr Wagner would have been appalled at the thought of his creation being used as background music!
Hey Linda, did you un-flounce? =o) I'm always glad to see you! Anna Russell is hilarious, and also knowledgeable. I love the way she says "Das Rheingold opens in the Rhine.... IN it." And her protestations of "I'm not making this up, you know!" HUGGG back!

Surazeus, exactly. =o) Thanks for reading and commenting.

Hi Margaret--people have called the Ring many things; I don't think "ear candy" has ever been one of them. =o) When I'm driving around, or doing housework, sometimes it's nice to have pleasant background musisc to hear; but I regret that classical music stations all seem to feel they need to dumb down their play lists. This Ring has been fabulous, and I'm so glad and feel so privileged to have seen it. SFO has done a marvelous job with it.

Ah well, Pilgrim, I love me some good Bel Canto too! And as I said in the post, a steady diet of the Ring would be way too much. But it's been an incredible week of music. I didn't think I liked Siegfried the third Ring installment, but the performance was so engrossing, I found I actually DID. I even liked Siegfried himself as he was portrayed in this Ring; he can sometimes err into being portrayed as a Hitler Jugend. In this, he was much more endearing, very young, inexperienced and knowing that he was, but with a good heart. As we went home late last night we were all rather mourning that we had only one opera left to go....

Right now, trying to decide what to take, what 's needed and looking forward to next Tuesday when we actually finally leave.

Hi Jonathan, Thanks! And thanks for reading and commenting.

Hi Alysa, well, it's a looong experience, but in this case, it's been a hugely rewarding one. =o) I'd advise starting small. Die Walkure is the Ring opera most often performed independently without the other three. And it's a great work. But after last night, I have an entirely new appreciation for Siegfried, as well. Thanks, I'm sure I WILL have a great trip. I'm just sorry we'll be spending so little time in Paris. I'll be staying in a hotel near Charles de Gaulle on Monday the 18th if you want to try to hook up...I'm just not sure what time of day we'll be arriving.

Hi Roger, if you get a chance, see this Francesca Zemballo production. It's a masterful telling and staging of the whole Ring Story. She's paid such attention, thought things through so carefully and obviously knows and loves the work so well, she's not only pulled it off, she's done a first rate job. And I'm a person who's not always a fan of "updated" opera. Ten hours into the full cycle, neither my mom nor I want to see the Ring end.

Hey Procopius, thanks for reading and commenting! I'm definitely glad to have seen a live performance of the whole cycle, and really feel privileged to have seen this one; it's been magnificent.
(I sometimes listen to Wagner as background music too; tough for him, since he's dead!)
Delightful! Thanks for this Sunday morning lesson. Aquatic Andrew Sisters...too funny.
R! Sorry to be so long in getting to this. _ I'm a Wagnerian from back in the day :) Really appreciate the effort you put in helping to explain the complexities and providing great examples, including the leitmotif site, as well as your analysis and personal reflections on this great musical storytelling.

p.s. check out my latest when you have some extra time :)