Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What’s Green about the RING?

Wagner’s Ring is an open work, meaning it can be interpreted as many times, and in as many ways, as there are people to interpret it. Over the last hundred years, the two most popular and influential approaches to interpreting the Ring have been political (i.e. Shaw’s Perfect Wagnerite, or Chereau’s 1976 Bayreuth production) and psychological (i.e. Donington’s Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols, or Wieland Wagner’s 1951 Bayreuth production). The current Seattle production has been described as a “Green” Ring, although as Guest Blogger Jonathan Caves pointed out last week, that’s not really a concept, and the production certainly isn’t trying to convince anyone to recycle, or any such polemic. The only goal publicly announced by Seattle’s Ring team-—director Stephen Wadsworth, set designer Thomas Lynch, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski—-was to put onstage what Wagner had in mind, that is, mountain and forest environments in a temperate climate. Speight Jenkins was the one who pointed out that most contemporary Rings, with their focus on politics or psychology, were ignoring the central role nature already plays in the operas. Jenkins knew his core audience of Seattleites would respond to a Ring where nature was front and center.

I’ve always been amazed by how people come to Seattle, one of the world’s great cities, in order to leave it. The urban attractions of the city are many; but the attractions of the neighboring wilderness—-of Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, the Olympic Peninsula and the Cascade Mountain Range, of the San Juan Islands, Lake Washington and Puget Sound—-preoccupy most of us who love this area. Whether you prefer rock climbing, backpacking, skiing, kayaking, scuba diving, white-water rafting, whale watching, igloo-building, or simply hiking, camping, and lying on the beach, Seattle is a haven for all who love the outdoors. And even if you prefer to hang out in a bookstore drinking coffee and working on your laptop, you can’t miss the sublime spectacle of Seattle’s environment.

That’s not to say that we’re all organic-granola-eating, fleece-recycled-from-soda-can-wearing tree-huggers. The current physical layout of the city is a testament to the enormous impact man can have on the natural world: chopping down forests, razing hills, digging canals, filling in tidal flats, polluting lakes and rivers and then trying to clean them up. Sure, we’ve got plenty of environmentalists here nowadays (witness our recent civic slogan of “Metronatural”); but the city was built by capitalists eager to make a buck, and that impulse doesn’t really fade with time. In Seattle there was, is, and probably will always be a complicated relationship between respecting the environment and respecting the human ingenuity which must forever alter the environment.

Similarly, in Wagner’s Ring I for one perceive a complicated relationship between the environment (or characters representing the environment) and the characters who manipulate that environment. I don’t think it’s as simple as Nature = Good, therefore Characters Who Change Nature = Bad. It seems to me that Wagner presents us with a world where active human characters must draw their power from nature, by definition. My evidence? They all do it, and all of them to ash trees, to make the parallel even more clear. Wotan got his spear by destroying the World Ash, before Das Rheingold begins; that scene, that rape of nature and strange bargain between self-castrating rapist (Wotan, who rips out his own eye) and three female guardians of nature (the Norns) gets replayed, when Das Rheingold begins, when Alberich gets his ring by renouncing love and stealing their gold from the three Rhine daughters. The tune Alberich sings as he rips the gold from their river is sung again in Die Walküre when Siegmund rips his sword free from another ash tree, one which Sieglinde later sees destroyed, in a prophetic vision. And as their son Siegfried reforges that shattered sword, in the opera Siegfried, he sings a song all about going out into the forest, chopping down a—-you guessed it—-ash tree, and burning it in his furnace so the sword can live again. Are we to applaud (or censure) Wotan, Alberich, Siegmund, or Siegfried for their various actions, all different versions of the same action? I don’t think the opera takes a position either way; I think Wagner is saying, “For good or ill, this is what men do to nature.”

It’s much easier on our human brains when it’s obvious who’s good and who’s bad. But the Ring, like nature itself, is not easy on our human brains. In the nineteenth century, Romantic artists like Wagner tended to turn to sublime nature for the pathetic fallacy, the image of raw, powerful nature artistically representing raw, powerful human emotion; for example, Die Walküre opens with a physical storm, which (it turns out) is also raging inside the tormented Siegmund. But Wagner went far beyond that pathetic fallacy in the Ring; nature is an entity unto itself, not just a projection of the human world. And Wagner’s nature, in the Ring, like nature in the real world, like the monumental sets of the Seattle production, can be sublimely indifferent to human concerns, completely free from human values and emotions. So understanding the complex relationship between humans and environment is not a simple act of judgment, i.e. this is good, that is bad. Finding wisdom on this question also calls for careful perception, inspired reason, and mysterious intuition.

For those who seek what is Green about the Ring, I would urge you to pay attention to repetitive patterns. Like the elements of nature itself, everything in the Ring returns again and and again, transformed. In our ‘Green’ Ring production, the scenic locations themselves return, transformed. In the cast list, the same voices, the same singers, return again and again, all week long, sometimes as old characters reappear but more often transformed into new characters. Wagner started the tradition of double-casting the highest Rhine daughter as the Forest Bird, or asking the Fasolt to sing Hunding also, and it’s not really a question of economy (more performances = more money for each singer). When Wagner reuses a certain voice type, he wants to connect the characters. Fasolt and Hunding are both uncouth brutes eager to trap a lyric soprano in marriage; Woglinde and the Forest Bird even sing the same pentatonic tune. Wagner uses voices and characters, like the famous leitmotifs in his musical score, to stand for the mythic principles, what he called “mythic motives,” that were his core subject. And the web of his musical score consists of repetitive patterns on the grandest possible scale, Wagner’s ever-transforming, ever-evolving system of dreamlike musical imagery.

I look forward, someday, to a more thorough ‘Green’ interpretation of the Ring, one which (like Shaw’s or Donington’s) goes through, scene by scene and character by character, and tries to sort it all out. Here are four starter questions I would ask anyone who wants to get cracking on such an interpretation:

1) Why should we care whether the gold is taken from the river? If there’s a problem, aren’t the Rhine daughters themselves to blame, because of their cruelty and stupidity? And how is their river, as it appears in Götterdämmerung, an undesirable or diminished place?

2) Why does Erda decide to enter, at the end of Das Rheingold? What does she care whether Wotan and the gods die then, or three operas later? And while we’re on Erda-—who, by the way, is no Mother Nature (Freia and Froh are the fertility gods, in this world)—-what do she and her Norns think and feel about what happens in this story? And why did Wagner leave their attitude so obscure?

3) Why does Wotan as the Wanderer—-a character who has theoretically come to terms with his own mortality, learned some Green wisdom, and accepted his place in the universe—-lose his temper and try to block Siegfried’s path with his spear?

4) If Loge’s deepest desire is to burn up Valhalla, destroying Wotan and all the gods (and the Gibichung castle and kingdom while he’s at it), then why was he so persistently—albeit ineffectively—advocating for the Rhine daughters way back in Das Rheingold? How can technology personified care about the natural order?

I’m happy to pose such questions. But don’t anybody look to me for answers! Instead, I’m going to take Hagen’s advice, “Zurück vom Ring!” (Get away from the Ring!) I celebrated the end of the cycle, the other day, with a yummy cobbler made from blackberries collected as we kayaked through the Arboretum. Although they’re everywhere around here, by the end of August, blackberries aren’t native, so by some impossibly Green standard I’m probably impure. (Don't tell Richard Wagner.) But they sure were tasty.