Wagner’s monumental “Ring” tells the story of the end of the old world and the dawn of a new one.
In this respect it shares some similarities with Seattle Opera, which has presented “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) 38 times since 1975. This summer is indeed the end of an old world: the possible finale of the company’s ultrapopular third “Ring” production, and the farewell season for the company’s beloved general director, Speight Jenkins.
International audiences are flocking to Seattle for what should be an epic set of three “Rings” under the baton of conductor Asher Fisch. It’s a great “Ring” for first-timers and cognoscenti alike. Thomas Lynch’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are strikingly beautiful; Stephen Wadsworth’s intelligent and natural stage direction makes all of the relationships tellingly real. The tech department’s stagecraft offers a humdinger of a dragon and spectacular magical effects.
Like all great works of art, the “Ring” gets more interesting when you are more deeply acquainted with it. Here are a few advance tips:
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1. Know the story. Thanks to Jonathan Dean’s projected titles above the stage, you will be in no doubt about what the singers are singing, but knowing the plot and background of each opera beforehand will make your “Ring” experience far more enjoyable. One good option: “Wagner’s Ring: A Companion,” a $29.95 book (Kindle, $14.95) by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington, with the full translation and some helpful essays.
2. Listen to some recordings. Wagner’s “Ring” is chock-full of motifs, short musical phrases that are associated with a given character (like Wotan, king of the gods) or a certain event (like evil Alberich’s curse on the Ring), and every time you hear them, they gain in subliminal power. This year, because it’s the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth, record companies have been reissuing top-flight Wagnerian discs.
My favorite: Deutsche Grammophon’s boxed set, “Wagner: Complete Operas” ($77.17 on Amazon.com), with 43 CDs offering everything from the early rarity “Die Feen” to Wagner’s final “Parsifal.” Its “Ring” has James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and a cast including Hildegard Behrens, Jessye Norman, Cheryl Studer, James Morris, Reiner Goldberg and Gary Lakes. (The other opera casts are pretty impressive, too, with the likes of Plácido Domingo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Sir Georg Solti and Carlos Kleiber.)
3. Listen to the experts. Consider attending one of Seattle Opera’s Symposia — in the Nesholm Family Lecture Hall at McCaw Hall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Aug. 6, 14 and 22 — each exploring a different aspect of the Ring, and each costing $70 (lunch is available but must be purchased in advance).
World-renowned experts, including Fisch at the piano, will discuss the “Ring,” and general director Jenkins (as well as some of the “Ring” singers) offer a lunchtime Q-and-A. (Symposium 2 is sold out.)
On the morning of each performance day, Seattle Opera education director Sue Elliott presents “Inside the ‘Ring’ with Sue Elliott,” a three-hour interactive exploration of each “Ring” opera ($100 for all four). She’ll take you behind the scenes of the Wagnerian epic.
Shorter preperformance talks start 90 minutes before each “Ring” opera performance in the Nesholm Family Lecture Hall ($35 per cycle). And a “Rheingold Revelry” party follows each performance of the first “Ring” opera; check the Seattle Opera website for details about this and other events.
4. Visit Seattle Opera’s gift shop in McCaw Hall, where you’ll find lots of Wagnerian merchandise — some of it available online at seattleopera.org/shop
. Here you’ll discover everything from the Deutsche Grammophon “Ring” recording to “Valkyrie Air” T-shirts.
There’s a lot more available in the actual store, though the premises are always mobbed at intermissions (the shop opens two hours before each performance).
5. Don’t drink a lot. The approximate running time of the first and shortest opera, “Das Rheingold,” is two hours and 30 minutes (sometimes it stretches to two hours and 45 minutes), and there is no intermission. The other three operas are considerably longer, but there are two intermissions in each.
6. Leave your cellphone off or in your car. Silencing the phone isn’t enough; in a darkened hall, the white glare from the phone screen will be visible to all the people around, who may rise up and clobber you. Of course you already know that it is illegal to photograph, record or film any of the operas.
7. Keep quiet. If you need to bring some sustenance into the hall with you, or if you are at all prone to coughing, make sure whatever you choose can be unwrapped noiselessly and consumed without audible crunching (or any other annoyance to your neighbors). Pre-opened Lifesavers, Mentos or unwrapped cough drops that dissolve in the mouth are better choices.
The “Ring” commands an unusual degree of rapt attention and reverence, especially from people who have come from all 50 states and 22 foreign countries, and paid big bucks, to get to the performances. Their displeasure at interruptions from audience noise, or chit-chatting during orchestral interludes at scene changes, will be very intense. Don’t incur it.
8. Think ahead. Bare-shouldered operagoers who enter McCaw Hall during a hot afternoon will discover that the theater can be aggressively air-conditioned. Bringing a wrap or a warm stole is a good idea. (For more tips on attire and opera etiquette, visit seattleopera.org/attending.)
9. Arrive early. Traffic is dreadful; parking is tricky. Latecomers are not admitted until an intermission, which can mean a long wait. If you get there late for “Das Rheingold” (no intermission), you will not be seated at all and will have to watch the opera from a video monitor in the lobby. Besides, it’s fun to arrive early and stroll, dine and try on that irresistible horned helmet in the gift shop.
10. Stay late. After each performance (except the three “Rheingolds”), Jenkins will conduct an audience Q-and-A in the Lecture Hall, with candid and informative answers to all “Ring” questions. You won’t be sorry you stayed.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.