For almost a century and a half, opera audiences have flocked to any part of the globe where Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” was being produced.
Now, once again, it’s San Francisco’s turn, and some 40,000 visitors from around the Bay Area and world are expected at the War Memorial Opera House between May 29 and July 3. There will be three cycles of the 17-hour colossus (15 hours of music) divided into four operas. Including individual productions in the past three years leading up to the complete cycles, the cost of the venture is approximately $24 million.
Ticket income will not cover the cost to the opera, which relies on individual and corporate donations, but the financial, public relations and visitor attraction benefits to The City exceed the expense.
“For San Francisco, having the full ‘Ring’ cycle here is like hosting a Super Bowl or World Cup soccer for the arts,” said Kary Schulman, the director of Grants for the Arts. “We gain not just additional hotel stays, restaurant meals and shopping, but, because these are culture-goers, our other arts and visitor attractions are likely to benefit as well.”
The man responsible for the decision to produce “Ring,” opera general director David Gockley, emphasizes the size of the project, but from another angle.
“It is the most monumental piece of music theater ever conceived by the mind of man,” Gockley said. “Every rational force in our society mitigates against it being done. Yet it is done because there is an urge within us to see the truth and the fate of ourselves as humans played out on a vast, multilayered canvas. For anyone in my position, it is the dream of a career in opera to essay this Everest of challenges.”
So large is that challenge that this will be only the sixth time in the company’s 88-year history that “Ring” is presented. Previous years were 1935, 1972, 1985, 1990 and 1999. The first “Ring” came to The City in 1900, when New York’s Metropolitan Opera performed it on tour in the Grand Opera House, long before the War Memorial opened in 1932.
Beyond size, expense, tradition and fame, at the core of the “‘Ring’ experience” is the experience of basic human emotions expressed in unforgettably powerful ways. What makes it all work is as basic as the anguish of a father (Wotan) over the loss of his daughter (Brünnhilde).
This deep human sorrow hits the audience with unsurpassed impact in a combination of gorgeous music and deeply affecting drama.
“My ‘Walküre’ turns out terribly beautiful,” Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt in 1852, and the century and a half that has passed since only confirmed and amplified his judgment.
Francesca Zambello, who’s responsible for the San Francisco production, said Wagner’s vision of the world “demands a setting in which gods, goddesses, creatures, heroes and mere humans are all equally at home. Many set out on journeys that will take them through terrifying landscapes demanding courage, heart, understanding and sacrifice. As they are transformed, so are we who watch, and [we] sense their stories are also ours.”
Those journeys might sound familiar even to opera newbies: From ancient Nordic mythology to Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, there are recurring stories of the all-powerful ring and what befalls on mortals, and even gods coveting them.
“All of the great themes of the ‘Ring’ — the destruction of nature, the quest for power, corruption, the plight of the powerless — resound through the four operas,” Zambello said.
Unlike traditional staging of the Wagner operas, here “they are not bound to the 19th century’s industrial age, nor to Europe or some leafy Nordic realm of long ago,” Zambello said.
To make this happen, huge forces are coming together. World-famous Wagner specialist Donald Runnicles conducts an orchestra of more than 100. Principal roles are filled by acclaimed singers, and the rest of the cast includes some participants in the Merola Opera Program; veterans of Merola now take on major roles, and there are scores of stagehands, costumers, makeup artists, ushers and others involved.
For the months leading up to the big event in June, local arts organizations collaborate in presenting a wide range of programs centering on the “Ring.”
Zambello said in his production, American history, mythology, iconography, landscape and “dreams all filtered into our palette as we constructed our stage world.”
The focal point of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) is the ring made from gold stolen from the Rhine River. It can be forged only by one who renounces love forever, and it gives whoever possesses it unlimited power. The cycle is made up of four operas.
1. ‘Das Rheingold,’ 1869 (first performance)
2 hours 35 minutes
Nibelung Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) renounces love and takes the gold, fashioning the all-powerful ring from it. The ruler of the gods, Wotan (Mark Delavan), takes the gold and the ring from Alberich by trickery, with the fire god Loge’s (Stefan Margita) help, but realizes there is a curse on the ring that might destroy the world.
2. ‘Die Walküre,’ 1870
4 hours 30 minutes
Wotan’s human children separated since birth, Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sieglinde (Anja Kampe/Heidi Melton), find each other. Their unlawful union will produce the hero, Siegfried (Ian Storey), capable of destroying the ring and saving the gods and the world. Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), defies Wotan, helps Sieglinde escape and is punished by being put to sleep, not to be awakened until a hero reaches her through a ring of fire.
3. ‘Siegfried,’ 1876
4 hours 50 minutes
Siegfried (the role sung by Jay Hunter Morris in this opera) grows up, forges Notung the mighty sword, slays dragons and enemies, finds and awakens Brünnhilde, and for one grand scene, the dark, menacing story of the ring turns into celebration and a potential happy ending, but ...
4. ‘Götterdämmerung’ (Twilight of the Gods), 1876
5 hours 15 minutes
Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli), Alberich’s son, ensnares Siegfried, who betrays Brünnhilde and is killed. What happens at the end will not be disclosed here so that, for followers of the 17-hour saga to its conclusion, the grand, cataclysmic finale will not be spoiled. Lucky contemporary audiences can follow the complex story with the supertitles.
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
- Premiere of new productions for “Siegfried,” May 29, “Götterdämmerung,” June 5
- Cycle 1, June 14, June 15, June 17, June 19
- Cycle 2, June 21, June 22, June 24, June 26
- Cycle 3: June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3
Tickets: $60 to $360 for individual operas, $460 to $1,440 for cycle; standing room is $10
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Cultural events surrounding the production of “The Ring of the Nibelung” in The City include:
- “Designing Wagner’s ‘Ring,’” exhibition opening and lecture. Museum of Performance and Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, 7 p.m. Tuesday, $15 to $20, (415) 255-4800, www.mpdsf.org.
- “Wagner Through a Jewish Lens,” panel discussion. JCC San Francisco, 3200 California St., 7 p.m. Thursday, $17 to $20, (415) 292-1200, www.jccsf.org.
- “The Transformation of Heroes,” lecture by professor Winder McConnell. Wagner Society of Northern California, JCC San Francisco, 3200 California St., 1 p.m. Saturday, $10 donations for nonmembers. (415) 421-4412, www.wagnersf.org.
- Wagner transcriptions for organ, performed by James Welch. St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough St., San Francisco, 3:30 p.m. June 5, free, (415) 567-2020, ext. 201, www.stmarycathedralsf.org.
- “Ring” preview lecture from the S.F. Opera Guild. Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St., San Francisco, noon June 8, free, (415) 565-3204, www.sfopera.com.
- “Ring Symposium — the Love of Power, the Power of Love.” Wagner Society of Northern California, Veteran’s Building Green Room, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, 10 a.m. June 18, 10 a.m. June 25, $55 to $65 each event (including lunch), (415) 421-4412, www.wagnersf.org.
For a full calendar of events, visit www.sfopera.com/ringfestival
So global, historic and iconic is “Ring” that there have been many comedic takes on it, usually by those who are its greatest fans.
- The inimitable Anna Russell, singer and comedian, made a career of her one-woman “Ring” presentations
- “Das Barbecu” is a well-known spoof show, often performed in cities where the cycle is given
- Chuck Jones’ animated short classic, “What’s Opera, Doc?” has Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the wabbit!” as he hunts Bugs Bunny to the strains of “The Ride of the Valkyries” from “Die Walküre.”
- “The Ride” has been used numerous times, perhaps most memorably as a kind of morbid ballet music for helicopters in “Apocalypse Now.”