If Wagner’s four-opera epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” were a mountain, it’d be Everest. If it were architecture, it’d be the Great Wall of China. If it were a book, it’d be the entire combined Shakespeare. The “Ring” cycle, as the operas are known, is the epitome of opera: big singing, big plot, and over 17 hours of drama. And beginning today, the tale of gods, humans and a cursed gold ring is coming to Seattle Opera.
Yet if you’re not quite sure what the “Ring” is, or what the music’s like, you’re not alone. It’s an expensive thing to mount. It’s long and melodramatically romantic, not to mention all in German with English subtitles. But it has given opera the symbols we all know: big women in blond braids, helmets with horns, Valkyries riding the skies with that famous tune. So what exactly is it about the “Ring” that makes it such an icon, so beloved by devotees, yet so little known in entirety?
Musical genius, size, length, and sheer absurdity, that’s what.
Richard Wagner might have been violently anti-Semitic (in 1850 he published a tract condemning Jews for harming Germany’s culture) but he was an undisputed musical genius. By creating the “Singspiel” style of opera, where everything (including dialogue) is sung, he transformed opera into total drama. By allocating each character or object its own musical theme, or “leitmotif,” he heightened audience understanding and opened up dramatic possibilities in the tapestry of the score (as well as inspiring countless subsequent filmmakers.)
And whether you like his sweeping, never-resolving Romantic style of music or not, there’s no denying that it’s well written. The famous “Ride of the Valkyries” trills the violins in a celestial shiver while galloping the brass and double basses in the well-known ascending tune. The magic fire that surrounds the heroine Brnnhilde and eventually consumes everything ripples with shimmering flutes and violins. The curse motif is unmistakably evil.
For many Ring-goers – and the nearly-sold-out Seattle Opera season confirms there are many – it’s the music that attracts.
“I love Wagner,” says John Marzano, 18, a recent Stadium High graduate and state championship tenor, who will be going to the “Ring” for the first time. “Wagner’s way of writing just amazes me, and watching people express all that emotion through their amazing (vocal) instruments is what entrances me.”
Marzano isn’t alone. “Ring” devotees are known to follow cycle performances around the world, from the original Bayreuth, Germany to – well – Seattle. While 54 percent of SO Ring attendees are subscribers, other ticket buyers come from 23 countries, eight Canadian provinces and 49 U.S. states (all but West Virginia), says Seattle Opera associate marketing director Kristina Murti. Tickets went on sale in April 2008, and, while every opera still has seats, availability is limited.
The size of the “Ring” is another factor. Requiring an expanded orchestra (including a tuba that Wagner invented) plus a large cast and chorus, the “Ring” is one of the loudest operas you’ll ever hear. Wagnerian singers train their whole lives, building up tone and volume until they can cut through all the instruments for the five-odd hours of each opera. What with big sets, special effects like fire and water, and the odd horse or dragon, the “Ring” makes for exciting watching – and expensive production.
“We raised $8 or $9 million for this set of four cycles,” says SO director Speight Jenkins. “Doing a new cycle every time is economically unthinkable.”
First produced in 2001, then 2005, the current cycle is the third of the series, and is essentially the same production: nature-heavy, using technological feats to reproduce the effects Wagner specified and including, says Jenkins, “a tremendous amount of intense acting.” Stephen Wadsworth directs, as per 2001 and 2005.
With 63 percent of the cast new this time, however, the cycle will sound quite different. Heading up the cast is soprano Janice Baird as Brnnhilde, Stig Andersen as Siegfried and Stuart Skelton as Siegmund.
Length might be another reason why the “Ring” is both loved and hated. The first opera, “Das Rheingold,” is just two and a half hours long, but the other three – “Die Walkre,” “Siegfried” and “Gtterdmmerung” – last around five hours each. It’s a slog for singers and instrumentalists (some productions even have on-site massage therapists), and a pretty long time to sit in your seat, even with two intermissions.
For some, though, the more the better. “For me, the length is just a bonus,” Marzano says.
But finally, it’s the operas’ sheer absurdity, in the best sense, that makes them both iconic and hard to approach. The plot (see sidebar) of a cursed gold ring wreaking havoc through the human, divine and supernatural worlds with a myriad of characters and motifs is hard to remember and often has strange results: a hero born of incest, a giant that becomes a dragon, a heroine who turns on her hero and more. The operatic stereotype of a big blond woman with breastplate and horned helmet singing wildly is par for the course in the “Ring.”
For that reason, it’s really easy to spoof Wagner. From Anna Russell’s classic 1950s musical summing-up (find it on YouTube) to Bugs Bunny’s “Kill de Wabbit,” the “Ring” just begs for parody. This cycle, ACT Theatre jumps at the chance with “Das Barbec,” the tale of what the Norse gods do in their downtime on the ranch. A take-off of country music, culture and Texas as much as Wagner, “Das Barbec” was written for Seattle Opera in 1995 by local composer Scott Warrender and lyricist Jim Lugis, and is, says ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie, “one of ACT’s most loved productions.” If you know the “Ring” you’ll appreciate the inside jokes, but it’s also enjoyable for opera newbies.
Some people go to every “Ring.” Some can’t think of anything worse. But for all of us, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” has left an indelible mark on our culture, and for that alone, it’s worth knowing what all the fuss at Seattle’s McCaw Hall is about.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
Sorting out the ‘Ring’ drama
Never heard of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle? Need a refresher? Here’s a synopsis of the four operas that make up “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
The title says it all: This opera’s about gold found in the Rhine river, and the mischief it makes. Alberich the dwarf steals gold from the three Rhine maidens to make a magic ring. Meanwhile, the giants Fasolt and Fafner build a castle (Valhalla) for the god Wotan; for payment they first take his sister-in-law Freia, then demand Alberich’s ring. As Wotan takes the ring Alberich curses it, and when the giants get it the curse takes effect – Fafner kills Fasolt to get the ring.
Wotan’s mortal son Siegmund finds refuge from his foes in Hunding’s house. He pulls out a magic sword, falls in love with Hunding’s wife, Sieglinde, then discovers she’s his long-lost twin. The gods fight over the relationship, Wotan eventually helping Hunding kill Siegmund. Wotan’s daughter Brnnhilde (one of the famous Valkyries) helps Sieglinde to escape. As punishment, Wotan surrounds Brnnhilde with enchanted fire.
Siegfried, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, grows up with Alberich’s brother Mime. Fearless, he reforges his father’s sword, kills Fafner (now a dragon) and takes the ring. Aided by a bird, he avoids Mime and discovers Brnnhilde, defeating Wotan and winning Brnnhilde’s love.
While adventuring, Siegfried comes across the Gibichung family, who trick him with a potion to forget Brnnhilde, marry Gutrune and claim Brnnhilde for Gutrune’s brother Gunther. Brnnhilde plots revenge with Gunther’s half-brother Hagen. Hagen gives Siegfried another potion which restores his memory; he sings of his love for her and Hagen slays him. Brnnhilde immerses herself in Siegfried’s funeral pyre and the flames engulf Valhalla. The gods destroyed, the ring returns to the Rhine and the curse is lifted.