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: http://www.trell.org/wagner/motifs.html 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.