For now, here's what I'm planning to say at the forum. (It was necessary to write this speech ahead of time so it could be translated into Mandarin, since many of the attendees are coming from opera companies around China. I can usually make myself understood in Italian, French, and German--languages which I translate into English for Seattle Opera's supertitles--but I haven't yet gotten very far with Mandarin!)
Alan Alabastro, photo
The Challenges and Rewards of Presenting the Ring
By Jonathan Dean
Dà jìa hăo! (Thank you so much.) It is a tremendous honor to me and to the city of Seattle that I have this opportunity to speak to you about Wagner and Der Ring des Nibelungen, today, as May 22, Wagner’s 200th birthday, dawns in the Far East. I am here on behalf of Speight Jenkins, General Director of Seattle Opera, who unfortunately couldn’t be here at the World Theatre Forum today because, in about 24 hours, when May 22 concludes in the Far West, he’ll be cutting a giant birthday cake at a tremendous birthday party for Wagner in Seattle.
I could tell you a lot of things we’ve learned at Seattle Opera about putting on a good production of the Ring; I could tell lots of entertaining (and sometimes horrifying) stories about things we’ve learned the hard way, about how NOT to present the Ring: stories about prop malfunctions, casting mistakes, ill-conceived designs, orchestral problem-spots, and, of course, special effects disasters, including the mermaid who swam into a dragon by mistake and the magic fire that burned a little TOO brightly.
But in Wagner’s honor, I’d rather talk today about why. Why did Glynn Ross, the founding General Director of Seattle Opera, decide in 1973 that our fledgling company should attempt to scale this Mt. Everest of the opera world? Why are we still putting it on, forty years later? Why do so many opera lovers become Ring fanatics, following productions of Wagner’s Ring to the ends of the earth, forever yearning, like Goethe’s Faust, for some unattainably perfect ideal production? What is this hunger people have, to experience this mighty work and make it their own, to find new ways of listening to it, approaching it, thinking about it? Why, for so many of us, is the Ring the work we’d take with us to a desert island—the one opera I wish everyone had a chance to attend?
To begin with, the Ring is unique—unique in its challenges and in the rewards it offers. There is nothing else like it in the world of music: nothing so vast in ambition and scale, so organically unified, and yet so popular and accessible. In drama, film, and narrative fiction there may be works of art that have much in common with the Ring; but because the Ring tells its story through music, such comparisons are ultimately meaningless. The Ring is one of a kind, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, Dante’s Commedia, or the Xī Yóu Jì. We pursue it because it is very large and we are very small, and we know our lives will be richer if we engage with even a little bit of this amazing work.
No opera has so much in it. It touches pretty much every field of inquiry the mind can pursue: it is at home in every department at a university, every section in a newspaper. Wagner took a wondrous legend from ancient northern Europe, arranged it into drama following the theatrical tradition of ancient southern Europe, and with the most compelling music hitherto created in the West told stories that explored all the issues of his nineteenth-century European world. But these are today’s issues, too. Political issues, about the warring of the tribes and nations, about labor and capitol, power struggles between competing ideologies. And psychological issues—stories about people from broken homes, about messed-up relationships between parents and children, about love and sex and marriage and unfulfillable need. And philosophical issues: a story that questions the nature of good, the origin of evil, and that climaxes in the death of a god. In the 19th century, the Ring may have been a parable about industrialization, the most pressing issue of the day in Wagner’s Europe; for our 21st century, it certainly is a parable of environmental degradation, an issue which concerns us all. No matter who we are, we continue to find our story in the Ring.
The Ring manages to show us ourselves in the most curious way—it takes us away from our lives in order to show us our lives. Although it is attractive, at surface level, with its cast full of wonderful characters, dramatic situations, huge orchestra, and glorious voices, the Ring is too big for superficial acquaintance. Its vast size demands a commitment: you have to undertake the journey and enter its world. And as it whisks you farther and farther away from the world you thought you knew, the stranger and more wild and weird its situations get, the more you discover yourself and what is most important in your life.
We saw this feature of the Ring in a dramatic way in Seattle when we did a production of Das Rheingold, the first opera of the Ring, for elementary school children, ages 8, 9, 10 years old. For the thousands of children who became fascinated by this opera, Das Rheingold wasn’t about gods and dwarfs and giants and mermaids: it was about teasing and bullying, very real issues in the lives of every child in America. It may be easier to talk about poor loveless Alberich than your own wounded heart; but it turns out they’re the same thing. Alberich only exists in us.
The Ring rewards all those who dare enter into it and find themselves. And its rewards are also its challenges, for the Ring is nothing if not challenging.
The Ring poses enormous challenges to everyone involved. It challenges the singers, the orchestra, every department backstage, and even the audience. In America, where television and now social networking encourages short attention spans, some people find the commitment necessary to be a member of the audience for the Ring daunting. But that’s fine, Richard Wagner understood that situation, even in the 19th century, and made that choice. He envisioned a Festival Theater situation where the audience would have made a pilgrimage to his temple of art; and he would reward them for their sacrifice, for taking all that time and coming all that distance, with a work of art that was bigger, more complex, and more engrossing than what was typically offered up at their opera houses. In my experience, this question of audience commitment takes care of itself: those who shy away from the Ring are probably not ready for it; and those who are ready develop a hunger to experience the work and participate in the community that gathers around its week-long production. To put it in terms of the story, you have your timid Mimes, cringing forever inside their little caves; and also your bold Siegfrieds, ever eager for new challenges, mountains to climb and dragons to defeat. Those are the opera-goers who will rise to the challenge of the Ring, and there’s no stopping them.
The Ring is a challenge for the performers. There are no more difficult pieces that an orchestra will ever play in an opera house than the Ring. In Seattle, we’re fortunate today because of our long history with the work; our Seattle orchestra started playing the Ring a generation ago. So the musicians have the piece in their fingers (or their lips, if we’re talking about the horn players who perform Siegfried’s famous call); they’ve worked on it every few years, and many of its trickiest passages are in their muscle memory. For some, the great challenge is no longer the technical difficulties of the music, but instead the focus and stamina this vast work demands.
The singers face the same challenge and more. Vocally, singing the Ring is exhausting—it’s all night every night for many of the performers. Voices with the requisite steel to cut through Wagner’s enormous orchestra don’t grow on trees, and it can be a challenge for Young Artists Programs to identify and nurture them properly. That's why Seattle Opera inaugurated our International Wagner Competition in 2006, a competition which returns next summer.
And, although the Ring needs extraordinary voices, the performers must be better actors than they are musicians, or else the operas don’t quite work. More so than almost any other opera, the Ring is a play set to extraordinary music. Ultimately, Wagner was more interested in drama than in music, so one of the greatest challenges with the Ring is staging it properly. Each of the scenes, each of the acts, each of the operas is long and complex. Each of the scenes requires a strong beginning, a middle that ramps up the tension, and a satisfying ending. Until that shape is felt by all the artists working on the production, the scene is not ready for the audience. That makes for a challenge!
The magic tricks that go into the Ring—the dwarf that turns into a toad, the sword that cleaves an anvil apart, the dragon and earth goddess and magic fire, are literally the stuff of legend. They must not only delight the audience: it’s best to surprise the audience at each of these moments, since many will know the story and may be expecting some kind of magic trick. Getting these tricks to succeed, so that the audience squeals with joy, can be incredibly challenging. But that’s fine, we love those challenges and we will continue to rise to them as we create Ring cycles in the years to come!
It is tempting to think of the Ring as something like the nearby Great Wall, or the Great Pyramids of Egypt, you know, a phenomenon which has been there so long, and which is so vast, that its future will likely look much like its past. But that is the wrong way to think about the Ring. It hasn’t always been there—it’s only 137 years old, and it has already changed enormously over those 137 years, just as it has changed the culture around it. The Ring first revolutionized the way operas were written, then planted the seeds for cinema, and, in the years following the Second World War, changed the way all classical theater is produced in the west.
Even in remote Seattle, the Ring has meant different things over the course of its 40 year history. The company’s first Ring, which had an enormous romantic appeal not just to classical music buffs but to ‘70s hippies from up and down the west coast, might strike us as a bit simple nowadays. I can’t speak to this production from personal experience, but from my research I can tell you it was a straightforward fantasy of mythic monsters, Valkyries with winged helmets and gods in tunics, and beautiful lighting effects. I get the sense that this was a Ring that seized people’s hearts, but not necessarily one that challenged their minds. Our second Ring, which we presented between 1985 and 1995 (when I worked on it), was influenced not only by the many conceptual productions then the norm in Europe, but by the alienation-theater of Bertolt Brecht. Although you might think that Brecht would make an odd bedfellow with Richard Wagner, the pairing proved inspired: the ironic distance afforded by the staging kept the mind ever alert and focused, while the music continued to command our emotions. And our third Ring production, which premiered in 2001 and which begins rehearsal today, seeks to build on the successes of these previous productions: to enchant the heart with dazzling beauty while drawing the mind logically through Wagner’s gripping story. Technological advances in stagecraft enabled us with this production to represent the true organic chaos of nature onstage in a way that audiences find extremely satisfying—and, what’s most important, in a way that supports the storytelling.
What comes next for the Ring in Seattle? And in the world? The future of this work is up to us. It’s up to us to embrace its challenges, to meet its demands, and to reap its rewards. There are solutions that others have tried in the past; some of them have worked, others haven’t worked so well. Our responsibility is to find solutions that are ours, with whatever tools are at our disposal. We must continue to try to give life to this extraordinary work and make it available to people. Although the recent economic slump has meant that there isn’t as much opera being produced in America as there was even ten years ago, the Ring is still more accessible, to more people, today than ever before in its history. And I want to see that access continue to expand.
What are we to do with the Ring? If the story itself is any guide, we cannot just put the Ring back in the river—the cycle will simply start all over again. Nor can we hoard it, like greedy dragons in our cave, or use it to pay off old debts, like the irresponsible gods. Let us do something nobody in the story ever managed to achieve—let us find a way to share the Ring, so that people everywhere can benefit from its magic. Thank you, xiè-xiè.