As Angela and I made our way to Seattle a couple of weeks ago, we really had no idea exactly what we were in for. I refer not to our usual winery stops — which are inevitably a delight — but to the four nights in which we would settle into seats to watch Richard Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, now more commonly known as the Ring Cycle.
For more than 20 years we have taken in operas when the opportunity has arisen but in recent years our interest has developed into a passion, thanks in large part to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met opened opera to the world several years ago when it began sending out live satellite telecasts of its Saturday matinees to theatres around the globe. We now plan our schedules to ensure we see every presentation we possibly can, driving to Trail, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Calgary, the nearest theatres that screen the presentations.
The Met Opera satellite experience has fuelled our interest in opera to the point that we have traveled to New York to see live productions and even timed a trip to Europe so that we could see shows in London and Paris. For me, opera is a connection to our cultural history, many having been first performed a century or more ago.
Watching popular operas like Carmen and Madame Butterfly is one thing, though, and taking in Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an entirely different experience altogether. Written over the course of 28 years and first presented in 1876, the cycle comprises four operas that link to form an epic saga. It addresses big ideas like the beginning and end of civilizations, the timeless quests for wealth and power, love and revenge. It references human history, Norse and Greek mythology, folklore and the ideas of great philosophers. And, all told, it takes about 17 hours to unfold.
Seattle Opera is a rare company that presents the entire Ring in a week (six days, actually) and it has been doing so each four years for the last three decades. It’s a monumental undertaking, as the opera is incredibly demanding on the singers’ voices, large set changes are usually required and it demands an audience that is willing to commit long evenings. In some of the world’s top opera cities, a presentation of the entire Ring over a four-year span is considered ambitious.
Seattle Opera has earned a reputation around the world for its Ring and this summer’s three cycles drew viewers from all 50 states and about 40 countries. The audience is extremely knowledgeable and events during the week typically sell out. We attended one-hour pre-show lectures before each of the four operas and about 400 people attended along with us. Dinners and symposiums with varying themes are also part of the weekly events.
I started looking into the possibility of attending the 2013 Ring, getting onto the mailing list and joining the society by making a donation. Then I had to be ready when tickets went on sale. Credit card in hand I made my booking request for one of the cycles, only to learn a few days later that it was sold out, but that I was on the list for the following one. Even then, we were only able to get seats in the second balcony. Fortunately, the 10-year-old Marion Oliver McCaw Hall has no bad seats and the acoustics are wonderful.
On a Monday afternoon we arrived at the opera house to attend our first lecture at 5:30 p.m. Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), which introduces the gods, including Wotan, their castle (Valhalla) and the endless and unhealthy quest for gold, ran for three hours, without an intermission.
The Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday operas, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods — my souvenir T-shirt says “Götterdämmitslong”), followed. On the final night, the opera started at 6 p.m. and ended at 11:30. Did I mention the word epic?
We have seen two Ring productions by the Met Opera, one live in movie theatres and the other on video at home. The live experience, not surprisingly, was far superior. It has only served to increase our interest in this vast and complex story that a musical genius (and yes, controversial, too) created. Der Ring des Nibelungen is one of those “the more you know the more you want to know” creations that has us thirsting for more. And it has made us admirers for Seattle and its residents, who have brought this amazing work to within driving distance.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.