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Does Your Daughter Know the Name of Brünnhilde’s Horse?

The Wagner Cult in Seattle

by DAVID YEARSLEY

If ever there were a grandly-scaled operatic vehicle appropriate to our current predicament it would be Wagner’s Ring. The World’s Board of Directors—the CEO of the Gods, Wotan—has just finished its dream home, Valhalla.  The problem is, they can’t afford it: granite counter tops, a  ten-car garage, and in-home stereo system that would make even Bill Gates  jealous. They need cash to feed their appetite for the good life. Like most dreams, theirs are built on credit.

The Giants threaten foreclosure and Wotan attempts to pay them off through a bit of white slavery, delivering the fetching Freia—a nifty bit of wheeling-and-dealing since she’s his sister law— to the sex-starved contractors who’ve done the heavy lifting, the Giants. Super rich, but cash poor, the Gods hope for a bailout.

In the meantime, a greedy dwarf called Alberich has plundered the Fort Knox of the Germanic Tribes: the Rhine Gold. Alberich’s brother Mime, and their proletarian underlings, the Nibelungen, have also fashioned a shape-shifting helmet from the booty and the eponymous ring that supposedly confers absolute power on its wearer.  The problem with that claim is that the ring keeps getting ripped off the holder’s finger with alarming ease. No matter, the characters in Wagner’s fantasy world want the thing at any cost, though it inevitably spells their doom.

Like any savvy plutocrat, who can’t imagine digging his way out of debt the hard way, that is, by doing some real work, Wotan tricks Alberich out of his gold. But the earth goddess, Erda, tells Valhalla’s CEO that federal charges loom, and he gives the goods back to the Giants. One these big fellows promptly kills the other in order to have sole control over the gold, then turns himself into a dragon and guards his hoard.  Now money is harder to come by than ever.

What this credit crisis masks, however, is a deeper imbalance in the natural world.  The gold has been extracted from the bosom of Mother Earth and she is not happy the damage done her figure. In the Ring moral degeneration and environmental degradation are equivalent: no ecology is deeper than Wagner’s. Greed and lust threaten not only individual players but human existence itself.

This ecological message lurks and lurches behind the current revival of Stephen Wadsworth’s  Ring in Seattle, since 1975 a thriving outpost of the Wagner cult on the Western edge of the New World. The cycle has been performed three times this August. But deep ecology hardly counts as something new, since it was spawned in the forests of 19th-century Germany.

I always get a kick out of these feel-good nods to the sanctity of nature, especially in such a grandiose medium as opera. The massive fir trunks rising towards the unseen primordial forest canopy in the first opera, Das Rheingold, in the current Seattle Ring, are indeed impressive.  But one can’t help but revel in the irony that the President-Elect of the Seattle Opera Board of Trustees is none other than Dr. William T. Weyerhaeuser, the scion of America’s most notorious clear-cutting family, one responsible for logging off untold acres of the very Northwest rainforest depicted now on the Seattle opera stage. That the Weyerhaeusers have already given their name and a small fraction of their money to the University of Washington Press’s series of Environmental Books will have prepared many for the tortured paths these and other violators of nature navigate in pursuit of their own exculpation. Having Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books is something like Custer Studies in Ethnology. When he’s not at his box at the opera, Dr. Weyerhaeuser sits on the boards of pulp and paper companies, Clearwater and the scandalously-named Potlatch Corporation.

That this Weyerhaeuser is also a clinical psychologist only aids to the bizarre mix: what more modern a Wagnerian could there be than a chainsaw-wielding shrink? It is not just because of the impressively Germanic cluster of three vowels in his name, that Dr. Weyerhaeuser seems perfectly cast to lead the Seattle Ring into the next age of ecological destruction.

As a Seattle youth, I dabbled in the Ring, and went to a few of the operas, but I was merely a bystander to the rituals of the Wagner cult.  Ironically, it was on the East Coast that my attempted induction into its ranks took place. My college roommate hailed from Washington’s Yakima Valley and comes from generations of Wagner devotees. Within minutes of our introduction, he was coming at me with guides to the Ring and singing various leitmotivs with his fine and penetrating tenor voice while wearing a Seattle Mariner’s batting helmet, his answer, I suppose, to Tarnhelm. Needless to say, we’ve remained close friends ever since.

Over in Yakima he passes on the fever to the next generation: his two daughters, ages six and three, can list all the Valkyries and even tell you the name of Brünnhilde’s horse.  Whether this is a form of psychological torture and/or will one day result in a big payout in Final Jeopardy for one or both of these girls remains to be seen.

It was my old roommate, who, as a Seattle Ring  subscriber, landed the $25 tickets—more precious even the Rhine Gold itself and snapped up with in minutes after they went up for sale on the internet back in the Spring—in the cavernous Seattle Opera House’s penultimate row for the behemoth close to the cycle, Götterdämmerung—Twilight of the Gods.  In these higher altitudes and throughout the house, Seattle’s Wagnerians were joined by Ring tourists from across the continent and globe—groups from Japan and China, South America, and even the Old Country of Germany.

Never have I experienced such devoted and hushed attention, even over the epic expanse of opening act and after a big glass of the house wine, Red of the Valkyries. An opera unto itself, this act clocked in at just under two hours, relatively short thanks to conductor Robert Spano’s tempos, which, however brisk, never forfeited the surging emotional dividends paid out by Wagner’s score. When required Spano took the time to indulge. After Siegfried, disguised as a competing suitor for Brünnhilde’s hand, rips the Ring from her finger at the end of the act, the lights came on, and with the music over, the crowds charged for the door. For Götterdämmerung bladder control is as important as a knowledge of Wagner’s web of thematic associations. (Actually, the two-and-half hours of the intermission-less Das Rheingold are more trying on the internal organs, though the entire evening less than half as long.)

In a world dangerously out of balance, it seems fitting that the principals for the Seattle production were outsung by the supporting cast.  The role of Siegfried was given to the diminutive Dane, Stig Andersen, who purports to be a contradictory type: the lyric and heroic tenor. The main problem was that he could not hold up against the massive Wagnerian orchestra arrayed in the pit beneath him. In the opera house’s second-balcony seat his distant voice wandered through its own lonely wilderness, conquered rather than conquering.

Then there is the perennial problem of verisimilitude: should a hero look heroic.  After Siegfried has concluded his Rhine Journey in the first act and finds his way to the Gibichung castle with its runic Arts and Crafts decor, he informs his noble host and soon-to-be blood brother, Gunther that all he (Siegfried) has is body, one that has already discharged many great deeds. Short and fat, the only thing slim about this Siegfried is his voice; he needs to swim more than few laps with the Rhine Maidens. In this production these nymphs are suspended fly through the air in harnesses, and the entire stage becomes the river in which the swim and flutter. Earlier in the year in preparation for the summer’s Ring cycle, this trio—made up of Julianne Gearhart, Michéle Losier, and Jennifer Hines—had extra training and conditioning for this physical and vocal workout. their singing was as lithe and compelling as their acrobatics. Siegfried should have logged their gym hours, and many more to boot.

My college roommate, who was sitting through his second Götterdämmerung in the space of a week, informed me that Andersen  had actually dropped the ring at the earlier performance he’d seen, a bumbling act which seemed to mirror his vocal woes.

Brünnhilde, sung by Janice Baird, was somewhat more convincing than her beloved, Siegfried, but her scattershot approach to intonation, especially high in her range, did not help convey her unswerving dedication to love rather than the immortality that would have been hers had she remained loyal instead to her own father, Wotan.

Encircled by fire on her rocky cliffs, Brünnhilde is visited by one of her Valkyrie sisters, Waltraute, who tries to convince her to give back the Ring to the Rhine Maidens. But the ring has just been given her by Siegfried, and  Brünnhilde refuses, thus sealing the doom of the Gods. The dramatic problem with Brünnhilde’s unyielding stance is that she was blown off the stage vocal by the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, one of our time’s greatest operatic singers.  Against her mighty sister, Brünnhilde came across as weak and self-serving rather than as the towering Romantic she must be to carry the evening and the gods towards its twilight.

Siegfried, too, was outmatched vocally by his nemesis, Hagen, sung with troubled intensity by Daniel Sumegi. In Act Two, Hagen is visited in a dream by his dead father, Alberich, who enjoins him to win back the ring he forged so many operatic hours previous. This relatively short but gripping scene proved to be the highpoint of the evening thanks to Richard Paul Fink’s penetrating realization of the part as an actor and singer. His is a nuanced, powerful Wagnerian voice that glowers darkly in the psychological shadows of the music-drama.

After Siegfried’s Death and Funeral, his pyre emitted greenhouse gases from the wings: where there’s smoke there’s fire.  A scrim dropped and suddenly the gods in Valhalla were illuminated. Wotan waited a moment then flicked his fire starter and torched the world: this is the Seattle twist, the credit-crunched Gods choose the easiest way out of the crisis. To Wagner’s redemptive effusions the world is engulfed in flames.

That the Rhine had flooded its banks to put out the conflagration was suggested by the Rhinemaidens swimming down from the roof of the stage to take the ring from Brünnhilde’s outsretched arm.        

The dramatic and musical tempo raced ahead, especially when one thinks back to the long minutes of the E-flat major triad that began the cycle in Das Rheingold. The cataclysmic conclusion destroyed in seconds what had been built in eons, the music welling-up like the Rhine itself.

With human and godly life forms suddenly gone as the gold is returned, a giant video shot revealed the transcendent Rainforest—giant trunks, and saplings sprouting from stumps: the Natural World is back with the flick of a switch and the projection of a beam. The last chord echoed through the trees, prompting the question if a half-diminished chord falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound?  In Seattle the answer to that philosophical query is a decided yes. The Wagnerians held their breath for a long collective moment.  Then applause erupted, as loud and furious as a gunning chainsaw.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu