Thursday, August 27, 2009

Learning to Love the Concept

Please welcome back to the blog guest writer Jonathan Caves. All opinions expressed in our guest posts are those of the author and not necessarily those of Seattle Opera. Read on!

I believe that all productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen exist on a continuum. At one end is, maybe, the ideal production that, so far, has only existed in Wagner's head. At the other end (if there is in fact an end) lie the most abstract productions which bear little or no resemblance to the world that Wagner imagined. I suspect that the current Seattle Opera production lies pretty close to Wagner's ideal production, and close behind the current Seattle production I would place the just retired Schenk production at the Met Opera in New York. These are both examples of what are sometimes called "traditional" productions: a term I don't particularly like. Examples of more abstract productions would include the Wieland Wagner Bayreuth production of 1951 and the Kruper production at Bayreuth 80's and 90's: as well as the upcoming Ring cycles at both LA Opera and San Francisco Opera (just take a look at the full page adverts for these productions in the program for the current Ring at Seattle Opera - on the surface the LA Opera Ring appears to be the more abstract of the two). I would place the Israel/Rochaix Ring and the Chéreau Ring somewhere in the middle.

So far I am just measuring "abstraction" - a difficult idea to measure by itself. At a very coarse level I consider realism to be the opposite of abstraction. Of course this leads to the question of what exactly does "real" mean in terms of a work of art that arose from the imagination of its creator? Can an invented world be real? If the world of the Ring only existed in Wagner's head then maybe some of the productions that focus on the psychological aspects of the work are the most "real" and that more traditional productions that, like the current Seattle production, are in fact abstract? Maybe the continuum I mention above is in fact itself a ring?

So what is it that defines a production of the Ring? A term you often hear used, especially by the people involved in the creation of a production, is "concept": it seems that every Ring production needs to have a concept. Unfortunately a lot of times the concept either doesn't work or it only works for part of cycle. A current example of this problem is, I feel, the "American Ring" concept of the new production that is being shared by Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera. On the surface the idea of having Alberich portrayed as a '49er in Das Rheingold has a certain appeal to it; and the concept of Wotan as a capitalist (a steel baron in this case) is by no means new - George Bernard Shaw proposed this interpretation in the Perfect Wagnerite. But having Siegfried and Mime live in a rundown trailer park seems like a bit of a stretch. Unfortunately the Götterdämmerung of this cycle has not yet been produced so we can't tell if the concept of "An American Ring" will work across all four operas. [Note: San Francisco Opera is doing Die Walküre from this production in June 2010]. To me the problem with a lot of Ring concepts is that sooner or later they break down. Partly this is because of the nature of the work and its long gestation: the Wagner who started work on the Ring was not the same Wagner who completed it 25 years later - so the work itself is not completely internally consistent. But I also feel that sometimes directors first think up the concept and then attempt to force the Ring to fit their view of what they think it is about. There are some very difficult factual realities in the Ring - at the very least you need a ring, a spear, and a sword. A ring can, I hope, fit in any concept - but what is Siegfried doing forging a sword in a trailer park? It is discontinuities like this that I feel can distract the audience and break their connection with the production on the stage.

Getting back to the current Seattle production: how does the concept of "Green Ring" hold up? The problem I have is that I don't really understand what this concept means. If the idea is to show how greed and the thirst for power destroys nature then I think it fails: at no point do we see nature itself being damaged. Each set looks like a beautiful Pacific Northwest location: even the Hall of Gibichung with its beautiful wood panels looks like the lakeside home of a rich software CEO or maybe a Salish longhouse. True, we do see nature being reborn at the very end of the cycle - but what does this mean if we haven't seen nature being destroyed? Don't get me wrong: I think that this is a beautiful production and in the most literal sense of the word it is "green" I just don't see the ecological or environmental message.

So far in this blog entry I have tried hard not to use the terms like "good" or "bad" in addressing the overall feel of a production. And there is a reason for that: the time I have spent in the last two and a half weeks attending lectures, talks, and performances of the Ring here in Seattle has brought home to me that at its heart the Ring is about relationships between people. This is what defines a production: we must get involved with these people. Scenes like the start of Act II of Die Walküre are the defining moments of a production: we must feel Fricka's hurt, Wotan's despair, and Brünnhidle's confusion and fear. The characters on the stage must connect with each other, and we as the audience must sense that connection and empathize with the characters. We must feel their pain.

These relationships are the bedrock on which everything else in a production of the Ring must be built. So I believe that a good production is one of which the relationships between characters are the focus and a poor production is one in which these relationships are downplayed or even ignored. So how does this connect with the concept of a production? It tells us that as long as the concept doesn't get in the way of the relationships between the characters and doesn't distract us from connecting with these characters then it doesn't really matter. If I can enjoy the relationship between Mime and Siegfried and between Mime and The Wanderer then it doesn't really matter if it is set in a trailer park, on the moons of Jupiter, in some dark corner of our minds, or in a forest glade in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, a great set helps - but if the director and singers do their job then it isn't necessary. As Wieland Wagner once said "Why do I need a tree when I have Astrid Varnay?"


  1. Jonathan Caves, thanks for your well-informed take on this issue of "traditional vs. concept" Rings. I've been wanting to address the question of Seattle's "Green" Ring on this blog, as I've been doing in our pre-performance lectures, because you're right, it's not exactly a concept, it's far more subtle than that. The production's idea is to let the Ring speak for itself, and it's obviously all about human beings and their relationships, and about the natural world and man's place therein. Give me another week or so (busy time, this August!) and I'll try to address the issue here. Not promising anything exhaustive, but thoughtful, if nothing else.

    -Jonathan Dean

  2. Hallo, Jonathan (Caves, not Dean)!
    If you don't like the word "Traditional", use "werktreu"
    (roughly "true-to-the-original"), which is more-nearly correct than "traditional", as "traditional" now (at least here in Germany) now means as un-true to the original as an egocentric stage director can make it!!
    However, as the "Ring" is timeless, a setting in modern times can also be werktreu, IF what one sees on stage conforms to what eminates from the orchestra pit and the libretto text! Such a "Ring" is now in the process of development in Lübeck (Germany) in the excellent stage direction of Anthony Pilavachi. One year at a time; "Rheingold" two years ago, "Walküre" last year, and "Siegfried" this coming Sunday (6 Sept.); I've attended some of the rehearsals and love the way Pilavachi has fitted what I see on stage to what Wagner composed in text and music, fitted to today's times!!
    Win H.