It was during the first intermission of The Ring cycle, about three and a half hours into a 15-hour opera, that I saw my first audience member sleeping on the floor.
Seeing his head leaning against the wall, his jaw half-open, his hands loosely clasped around a program for Richard Wagner's interminable masterwork, four words came to my mind: “I don't blame him.”
I'll be honest. I signed up to see The Ring for one reason, and that's to be able to say that I did it. Like reading War and Peace, climbing Mount Everest, or running the Boston marathon, you see The Ring at least in part for bragging rights. I came up playing in punk bands and listening to rap music, and while I'd grown to love some opera, my foundational years were not exactly proper training for 15 hours of it, spread over four days.
But something inexplicable happened to me, sitting there in the War Memorial Opera House, around the halfway point of The Ring. All the story's threads started coming together: the rampant greed of the characters, their betrayal and incest, the corruption of power on grand display. The musical motifs overlapped on each other, and began triggering emotional synapses that I couldn't deny. Nothing about The Ring is what you'd call “catchy,” but I was suddenly drawn to its music and lyrics more fiercely than any pop music I'd known.
What the hell was happening to me? The fantasy-saga of The Ring—about an actual ring, made from stolen gold, that grants power over the world—is not something I normally enjoy. The ring changes hands between gods and mortals and giants and mythical creatures, over three generations. Whoop-de-doo. There's a man-child warrior (Siegfried), an avenging Valkyrie (Brünnhilde), a conniving God (Wotan), and dozens of others in a complex family tree. Visualize me, twirling my index finger in the air and rolling my eyes.
And yet I stumbled out of that third night's production and onto Van Ness Avenue, with lunatic Wagner-worshipping fans all around me in lederhosen and horned helmets, and typed into my phone:
DUDE ALL THE ELEMENTS ARE COMING TOGETHER I’M EVEN ROOTING FOR THE INCEST NOW PLUS THERE WAS A GIANT DEATH ROBOT WITH STEEL CLAWS INSIDE THE OPERA HOUSE IT IS BANANAS I AM HOOKED PLEASE JOIN MY RING FAN CLUB
Ten hours in, after three parts of The Ring (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, but before Götterdämmerung), I'd witnessed power-hungry gods, adultery, brutal death, rapist giants killed, flaming hammers, a revolt by enslaved miners, and a guy who turns into a snake. I'd come into it ready to quit at the first moment of boredom, and now nothing, not even a giant death robot with steel claws, could stand in my way of seeing the The Ring to completion.
It helps that San Francisco Opera's current Ring—similar to its 2011 production, and again under the direction of Francesca Zambello—is not what newbies think of when they think of opera. Rather than vikings and braids and portly sopranos in breastplates, it opens like a psychedelic light show from the 1960s Fillmore, with a low-octave rumble as slow, formless swirls undulate on a massive projection screen. When the curtain comes up, it's as if 200 teenagers have been Juuling on stage, smoke spilling into the orchestra pit. From the start, you know this is something different.
Technically, the set is a marvel. Giants enter on a hanging I-beam. The Valkyries enter on parachutes. Two live dogs race across the stage. An oversized hammer spews fireworks. A long bridge descends from the wings. An underground mine looks like a Richard Serra sculpture on PCP. A huge Cypress Structure-like freeway looms large. Lights projecting from the floor create eerie atmospheres. At one point, the entire stage is aflame around Brünnhilde.
Thematically, in 2018, there's a lot to chew on. It's quite a thing to see an opera about the corruption of power during a week when the U.S. government is busy separating children from their parents and putting them in tent camps. (“I would never steal a cub from its mother,” Siegfried sings at one point.) And while Zambello has remarked that her Ring is a lesson in environmentalism, beginning in pre-Gold Rush California and spanning into the future, the production's degradation of people's living environments brings to mind those same child tent camps on the border—if not conditions in Puerto Rico, or even Division Street right here in San Francisco.
Perhaps this is the abiding achievement of The Ring, this ability to reflect current events 140 years after its premiere. This production contains a daughter buried in bags of money as her rapist sings “Woman, your suffering is all your fault,” evoking Bill Cosby's out-of-court settlements. It has Siegfried dunking a man's head underwater until he gets what he wants, a reminder of Bush-era waterboarding. It contains a scene of women tending to a pile of cables and circuit boards; "our eternal knowledge," they call it, plainly recalling the internet. There's even an oath, taken on a spear, that amounts to Bill Clinton's famous claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
It makes you wonder: in 10 more years, give or take, when SF Opera likely mounts The Ring again, which themes or characters will resonate most? What will the ring, a symbol of dominion over the world, represent to us then? What will we have learned from this moment in America?
All of this is to say that I understand, now, the legions who call themselves the Ring Cult—the people who travel the world seeing entire Ring cycles. (A spokesperson from SF Opera tells me that one couple flew into town from Europe to see all three complete cycles this month; I also saw a mother in the standing-room section so dedicated to The Ring that she'd brought her baby, breastfeeding it at intermission.) Most folks think these people are crazy, but then, I think the same about those who memorize Pi to the 100th digit, or ride a bike across the country, or do hot yoga. We all have our forms of self-torture that, for whatever reason or another, benefit our soul.
Yes, The Ring at times constitutes self-torture. Binge-watching television is a common analogue cited for watching 15 hours of The Ring, except no television executive in the world could greenlight it without losing their job. It contains numerous prolonged sections of inner monologue and narration, redundant to an exasperating degree. Here are some notes I wrote while watching it:
- It just took these people 5 minutes to say, basically, “It's getting dark”
- After 15 minutes of singing about it, the guy finally pulls the sword out of the tree
- More endless singing about the weather
- A half hour later and the story has not advanced one bit! They are still talking about the same thing they were talking about a half hour ago, which in itself was rehashing things that already happened earlier! Jesus Lord make it stop
- This is really one overdramatic soap opera with 4 hours of explaining, arguing and whining, and 20 minutes of action
- “A burning spell pierces my heart! My mind is reeling!... How shall I awaken her? Do I dare?” BLAH BLAH BLAH DUDE. “Yearning consumes me.” UGGGGGG
But yes, this benefits the soul. These stretches, however maddening, are not mind-numbing. The Ring is so long that it lulls one's brain into a state of semi-hypnosis, resting but active. This is where the magic happens. Your mind floats above the story, free to think upon its greater themes, to weave them into your own life and your flashes of memory.
Meanwhile, the orchestra (in San Francisco, under the direction of Donald Runnicles), repeats Wagner's many leitmotifs, tiny musical signals of character or plot or theme, feeding them to you subconsciously. You think they're boring the hell out of you, but you are wrong. What they are doing, in essence, is rewiring your reality.
And then it all comes to a head—the swaying pocketwatch is snatched up, the fingers snap—and you're back in the story with a new understanding of its world. The threads of character and music stack atop each other with greater and greater frequency. Suddenly, for the first time in 12 hours, there's a full choir on the stage, bellowing loudly. The Earth is on the precipice of destruction. The heart rate quickens. It's basically like watching the Warriors and the Lakers, tied 101-101 in the fourth quarter with 38 seconds to go.
At the Opera House, before the final act of Götterdämmerung and the final lap of my marathon of opera, my seatmate—a well-known classical critic from a national weekly magazine—turned to me and quipped, “Here we go.... now everyone lives happily ever after!”
I'll spoil it for you: everyone does not live happily ever after.
But I'm telling you, the next time The Ring comes around, you might just see me in lederhosen and a horned helmet, sleeping on the floor between acts, and waiting to be transformed all over again.
The third and final cycle of 'The Ring' runs June 26–July 1 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Tickets are $100–$535 for each part of the cycle, with $10 standing-room tickets available the morning of each performance, in person, cash only, at the box office at 10am. Details here.