A view of 2005’s ‘Das Rheingold.’
Gary Smith photo
A view of 2005’s ‘Das Rheingold.’ Gary Smith photo
Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" is such a mammoth undertaking, it naturally begs the question: why? Why did the brilliant composer create such a lengthy masterpiece divided into four separate operas? Why has Seattle Opera made such an audacious commitment to staging the "Ring" cycle since 1975? And why has the company adhered to the killer schedule of performing all four operas within a week's time, with the first of this year's three cycles opening Aug. 9?

"Der Ring des Nibelungen" owes its size in part to the lengthy tale it tells of gods, heroes, mythical creatures and three generations of protagonists struggling over a magical ring that confers dominion over the entire world. The story is loosely based on the "Nibelungenlied," an epic German poem about the dragon slayer Siegfried, and on the Norse sagas. Wagner was also replicating the form of ancient Greek dramas that were presented as four plays. Befitting a work so long, Wagner spent 26 years creating it.

For a sense of scale, Seattle Opera provided comparisons between this production of the "Ring" and Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" last May. The running time is a mere 3 hours and 16 minutes for "Figaro" in contrast to the heroic 17 hours and 3 minutes of the "Ring." Artists onstage total 39 for "Figaro" and 141 for the "Ring."

Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera's general director since 1983, elaborated on Seattle Opera's "Ring" history. According to Jenkins, Glynn Ross, Seattle Opera's founding general director, decided in the 1970s that Seattle Opera should perform the "Ring." He was also determined all four operas should be staged within a week as Wagner intended and as performed at the 1876 premiere of the "Ring" at The Bayreuth Festival Theatre, the performance hall in Germany built specifically for the "Ring."

"No one was doing the 'Ring' in a six- to eight-day period as they did in Bayreuth," Jenkins said. "It hadn't been done in the U.S. since 1939."

Jenkins noted that unless the four operas are seen together, their cumulative impact is lost, particularly since the characters often retell the story from different points of view.

"Wotan in the first opera told Fricka he surrendered his eye to win her. But we discover in the last opera he lost it to take the branch of the world ash tree to create his spear."

Ross believed the "Ring" was right for the Seattle audience and that he would draw audience from around the world by providing a traditional rendition.

Seattle Opera performed "Die Walküre" in 1972 and the first cycle from 1975 through 1984, succeeding much as Ross had envisioned. Ross became famous, in part, for introducing a cycle in German and one in English.

When Jenkins became general director of Seattle Opera in 1983, all of the "Rings" in the United States emulated either the early 20th-century German "Rings" or the minimalist Bayreuth stagings. Jenkins brought in Francis Rochaix as director and Robert Israel as designer to take Seattle Opera's "Ring" in an entirely new direction.

"Wotan was the master of the theater," Jenkins said. "In the first opera, he controlled everything. In the second opera, he found the way he thought he could run the theater didn't work, and his daughter betrayed him. In the third opera, his son refused to do what he wanted him to do. And in the fourth opera, everything is destroyed."

The Rochaix/Israel incarnation of "Die Walküre" opened in July 1985, garnering as many boos as it did cheers.

"Up to that point people had gone to opera in Seattle because they were supposed to. This ["Die Walküre"] made opera a center of controversy. There were fistfights in cocktail parties that August."

To Jenkins, the contention wasn't all bad. People wanted to come to Seattle Opera to see what all the fuss was about. The company's board of directors backed Jenkins. In 1986, Seattle Opera performed the entire Rochaix/Israel "Ring" cycle.

After adjusting the elements that tanked in 1985, the Rochaix/Israel "Die Walküre" was accepted by the audience with nary a boo. "Das Rheingold" was also a hit. Unfortunately, Jenkins noted, they had insufficient rehearsal time to do four operas within one week, including three new productions. Several things went awry with "Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung."

With judicious retooling of such missteps as an unconvincing dragon, the Rochaix/Israel "Ring" was a success in 1987. Final performances in 1995 sold out all three cycles.

"It had moved from something half of the audience hated to something everybody seemed to love."

Prior to the 1995 "Ring," Jenkins was already planning a new version, sounding out four directors with whom he had worked.

"In my opinion, no 'Rings' dealt with the theme that to abuse nature is to destroy the world, and Stephen Wadsworth came up with the most interesting ideas."

This time, sets were completed and tested onstage in 1999 for Wadsworth's variation of "Die Walküre" and "Das Rheingold," several months in advance of opening in August 2000. With more time to prepare, both operas generated favorable buzz.

"When we did the 'Ring' in 2001, we sold out the year before we opened because talk of the first two operas was so good. In 2005, we sold out the November before we opened."

Jenkins concedes that differences between this summer's "Ring" cycle and the last one come mostly from the director and actors bringing their individual perspectives to the characters.

"They may be called gods, Nibelungen or whatever, but the reason the 'Ring' has power is it's a family story. No one who comes to the 'Ring' doesn't have one of the relationships the 'Ring' talks about: husband-wife, father-son, father-daughter...."

Seattle Opera's "Ring" cycle plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., from Sunday, Aug. 9 through Sunday, Aug. 30. Limited tickets available. Full cycle tickets: $302-$1,508. Individual "Ring" opera tickets: $80-$397. Information: 206-389-7676 or 1-800-426-1619.

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.


More for adoRING fans

Seattle Opera is offering a full slate of events to enhance the "Ring" experience:

Ring Symposia

Leading Wagner scholars and authors, experienced "Ring" crew and artists from Seattle Opera's "Ring" explore the complexities of the Ring. $70 per symposium.

Aug. 11, 19, 27 - 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Exploring the "Ring"

General Director Speight Jenkins gives three-hour in-depth seminars offering insight into the themes, music and historical context of each opera. $25 each.

Each performance day - 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Overtures to the Ring

Education Associate Jonathan Dean sets the stage for each performance with an informative and entertaining introduction. $8 for ticket holders. Tickets available from the Box Office starting at 4 p.m. on performance days, or by calling 206-389-7676.

Aug. 9, 17 and 25 - 5:30 p.m.

All other performance days - 4:30 p.m.

Q&A with Speight Jenkins

Informal discussions immediately following each performance of "Die Walküre," "Siegfried," and "Götterdämmerung." Free for ticket holders.

Tech Talks

Technical Director Robert Schaub explains the stage wizardry of this award-winning "Ring." $15.

Aug. 13, 21 & 29 - 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m.

All events at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. Tickets should be purchased by calling 389-7676.