Skip to content →

A Ring Cycle For The Anthropocene

This past week I attended the San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, the work is comprised of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdamerung. They tell the story of the twilight of the gods. When presented as The Ring, the four operas are presented within a single week and the total running time of the work is about 17 hours. It’s a massive work consisting of 2,092 pages of orchestra music, and this production requires the participation of 415 people and 12 animals. Mounting a production of the Ring Cycle is one of the most challenging things an opera company can attempt. Generally, three full cycles are performed. When a company with the stature of San Francisco Opera performs The Ring, it draws an audience from around the world. This was my third Ring Cycle. The Ring is too vast to address fully in a blog post, so instead I’ve decided to just string together some notes, some moments that stood out to me this time through. This was an American Ring, the tale begins with the California gold rush and ends in the near future.

* * *

The characters and narrative of The Ring are loosely derived from Norse mythology. But as new productions are mounted through the years, The Ring attracts the major threads of modern thought. The unconscious, capital, class, gender, power, sexuality, and race have all surfaced in one production or another. In director Francesca Zambello’s American Ring, ecology and the interconnectedness of things provides the environment in which the story unfolds. Here the canvas of the story isn’t a neutral backdrop, it’s affected by the actions and decisions of the characters. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Timothy Morton, so the idea that The Ring should address the ecological thought seems completely natural.

Alberich steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens and forsaking love, he fashions it into a ring of power. Wielding that power, he begins a massive gold mining operation, delving deep into the earth, he turns the magic power of the ring into the material power of gold. The stage pictures bring to mind Sebastiao Salgado’s photographs of gold mining in Brazil. Meanwhile in the world of the gods, Wotan has flipped the structure of the gold mine upwards toward the heavens and created a Valhalla of skyscrapers. But like so many in the recent mortgage crises, he’s purchased a Valhalla that he can’t afford. In order to avoid default on the fortress of the gods, Wotan resorts to crime. He must steal the gold from the thief Alberich—a little money laundering to cover up the stains on the foundation of the godhead.

In Zambello’s Ring, the concentration and exercise of power drains the earth of its life. Power is drawn from the environment, but the earth isn’t an infinite resource. As the operas unfold, the environment has been turned into a standing reserve– a battery, or a gas tank, to power the regime. At the beginning of the third act of Gotterdamerung, the Rhinemaidens are destitute, collecting trash in big garbage bags as their river has been choked with the flotsam and jetsam of the industrial wasteland surrounding them. The struggle for the Ring taking place in the foreground is interrupted by the background of the story. The river would like its gold back.

At the end of the Ring Cycle, Brunhilde has understood that the Ring must be returned to the river and that this will mean the end of the gods. The music registers the cataclysm of the fall of Valhalla and the cleansing power of the river to wash the sins from our hands. The end of the Cycle points to an ending as beginning. One door closes and another opens. Zambello is an optimist, the return of the Ring represents the possibility of renewal. Throughout the story we’ve seen the earth’s finitude, the director’s gesture in the very last stage picture indicates the damage is not beyond repair.

* * *

The Ring Cycle is so large that there’s no vantage point from which to take it all in. Well before the first notes, the experience begins to engulf you. There’s a review of the motifs with Deryck Cooke. Listening to favorite recordings, trying to get the sequence of events in the story lined up. Thinking about the singers cast in various roles and whether they’ll be up to the daunting task ahead.

Believe me, nobody has every composed in this manner. I think my music must be frightening. It is a morass of horrors and sublimities.

—Wagner to Liszt, January 1854

Once the performance begins you’re well into the middle of it. The opera is broadcasting on all frequencies and flooding the senses. In this experience of the Ring Cycle, I had the distinct impression that the music continued between performances of the individual operas. While there aren’t hummable tunes in the Ring, the motifs of the music seemed to detach themselves from the opera and emerge from the America that exists outside of the opera.

Even after the final end, the music continues to play, the cycle begins again. Once inside, there may be no outside.

* * *

Several years ago, the San Francisco Opera commissioned a work by John Adams called ‘Doctor Atomic.’ It’s the story of the creation of the atom bomb. The director of the premiere was Peter Sellars. In a talk he gave about the opera, he noted that the stage of the War Memorial Opera House directly faces City Hall, the seat of power for local government. The relationship between the buildings provided an avenue for art to speak to government.

Perhaps we no longer think that art has anything useful to say to government. But the two buildings sit across from each other, waiting for the moment when the conversation begins to flow in both directions. Like ‘Doctor Atomic,’ the Ring Cycle had something to say to government.

* * *

The curtain came down after the final act of Gotterdamerung and applause erupted. Then the curtain rose for Nina Stemme, the Brunehilde of this Cycle. A solo bow, in acknowledgement of her achievement. The crowd leapt to its feet applauding, shouting, whistling, in a unanimous ovation. It was a thrilling moment.

And an unusual moment between the second and third acts as Donald Runnicles, the conductor, took his place. A spontaneous standing ovation for the orchestra. As a friend said during that intermission, “man, they’re just wailing.”?

* * *

Leafing through The Ring’s program, I noticed the names of the individual and corporate sponsors. Opera is an expensive business, and David Gockley, the general director of SF Opera, has made it clear that the company is in financial straights. The big donors to the opera are small in number and advanced in age. He openly wonders where the next generation of patrons will come from.

This brought to mind Cynthia Salzman’s book ‘Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures.’ The new world started from cultural scratch.

“In the late nineteenth century, as industrialization transformed the United States into a world power, artists and writers decried the nation’s meager collections of art. “I cannot tell you what I suffer for want of seeing a good picture,” Mary Cassatt complained from the confines of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, in June 1871. The twenty-seven year old artist had spent five years painting in Europe and longed to return. The novelist Henry James view the problem more broadly. Americans, he told his mother in 1869, seem to have “the elements of the modern man with with culture quite left out.” Ten years later, in writing about Hawthorne and famously listing the cultural assets missing from the United States in the early part of the century, James, who had himself decamped for England in the mid-1870s, conveyed his own sense of deprivation: “no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches, no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures.” Later, in 1906, when the British critic Roger Fry served as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he tallied the museum’s pictorial shortfall: “no Byzantine paintings, no Giotto, no Giottoesque, no Mantegna, no Botticelli, no Leonardo, no Rafael, no Michelangelo.”

The giants of industry, Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, H.O. Havermeyer and Henry Gurdon Marquand, took an interest in redressing the imbalance of culture in the new world. The great fortunes amassed during this period were put into service for one of “history’s great migrations of art.”? It was an event that fundamentally changed the character of this country.

In this day and age, it’s something we take for granted. The museums are filled with pictures, the symphony hall with music, and the opera house with divas. Perhaps we think this high art is the province of the upper classes, the restricted playground for old money. It’s a living legacy and if the next generation doesn’t take it up, it could very easily disappear. The performing arts are in particular danger.

Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, collected more than 1,000 contemporary paintings and eventually donated them to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But could it be that his is the last generation to have a real connection to the arts? The new generation of technology billionaires seems more interested in popular culture, sports and science. As I leafed through the program of the Ring Cycle, I didn’t see the names Google, Apple, Intel, Oracle, Cisco, Facebook or Microsoft. Rich technologist seem to prefer to put their money back into technology through venture capital investing.

I’m not sure what it would take to connect the Silicon Valley’s Techno-Elite to Opera. But if it were to happen the possibilities would be immense. San Francisco has a long history with opera. The gold rush of 1849 brought masses of people to Northern California. San Francisco’s first opera production was in 1851, Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula.’ Morosco’s Grand Opera House held an audience of 4,000, including standees. A signal event in the rebirth of the City after the 1906 earthquake was the concert by the soprano Luisa Tettrazini in front of Lotta’s Fountain. It’s said that as many as 250,000 people attended. More recently the annual Opera in the Park and Opera in the Ballpark events draw enthusiastic crowds from all walks of life.

In the era of the 140-character communique it may seem counter-intuitive to yearn for the total theater of the opera, but opera performance actually delivers on what 3D HD movies promise. And strangely, at this moment in history with music, singers, musicians, technology and composers we could be at the cusp a of great new era of opera. Here are two examples of new operas that take up the current of our times. This Fall, San Francisco Opera will debut ‘Heart of a Soldier’ by Christopher Theofanidis, with libretto by Donna Di Novelli. It tells the story of Rick Rescorla, a man trained to be a consummate solider who gave up his life saving thousands during the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001.

And perhaps closer to the pulse of technology flowing through the Bay Area, the English National Opera recently debuted Nico Muhly’s ’Two Boys’ with libretto by Craig Lucas. Here’s a description from a Wall Street Journal review:

A prepubescent boy is stabbed, and a teenaged boy is caught leaving the scene on CCTV. But the middle-aged female detective in charge of the investigation, caught up in the intricacies of chat-rooms, user-names, apparent espionage and cybersex, comes to realize that she has to change her own mind-set if she is to understand the behavior of these children and the morality of the internet age.

We say that this technology we’re creating here in the Bay Area is changing everything. I wonder if we’ll every take it seriously enough to engage technology in a deep conversation with art and culture? The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco could be the site of one of the great historical conversations about the times we live in. If only the right connections could be made…

Published in art culture economics identity money music opera performance politics theater tribes value venture capital


  1. Thanks for the kind words. I’m very familiar with Anna Russell, she’s a good antidote when things get too stuffy in Wagner-world. Summarizing the Ring is a bit like Monty Python’s ‘summarize Proust’ bit. And while I’m a big proponent of taking large-scale art seriously, part of that has to be seeing the humor in it. Even the humor in taking it seriously. Cheers. cmg

  2. Frank Hicks Frank Hicks

    From here, DownUnder, I watch US generally and SFO and California, with bug-eyed fascination, enough said, apart from adding that when I occasionally ‘drop in’ on Echovar, it is ALWAYS inspirational. Thank you. As for the serious Wagner, and even more serious Ring Cycle, can I suggest a nice light, inoculation in the form of Anna Russell, the British comedienne, who on The Anna Russell Album, takes more than 20 minutes to ‘summarise’ “The Ring of the Nibelungs”. I do hope you find it an enjoy the liberating waft of humour.n[Addicts can follow on to the DIY version of a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, set – where else? in New York]nbest wishesnfgh

Comments are closed.