The experience of attending Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen at Seattle Opera—a commitment of no small measure—is proving to be something of an immovable feast for me. Not that I’ve attended it before, at least in its entirety. In past decades I’ve attended, at most, just one opera from a given cycle, believing I didn’t have the stamina to go four consecutive performances and hold down a job at the same time. Nor was I going to squander an entire vacation week on something as selfish as Wagner.
August 2005 was the last time the full cycle was produced in Seattle. I retired in July 2005. By the time it occurred to me I could attend all four operas from a fatigue-management standpoint, all the tickets were gone. So this time around, I made the commitment early. In March I purchased one good (and expensive) seat for the full cycle. Now I join 2,899 others for the opera marathon, four operas, three of which last between five and six-and-a-half hours apiece.
Why an immovable feast? The operas seem to be a way for me to measure my own journey—to notice things about myself in the same way the celebration of an immovable feast affords. As I let the music and stage magic flood my senses, my mind busies itself on many levels. I watch the stage action, read the supra-titles, listen to the music, follow the story. Throughout, I’m aware of my body. My feet go to sleep. I get twitchy. A twang in my leg, a cramp in my shoulder (of all places!), my derriere fatigued—all of which make me conscious of how old I’m getting. I don’t remember such physical discomfort in past performances.
It’s easy to drift mentally sideways a little bit, too, to find myself considering where I was the last time I heard the specific opera—what was I doing in my career, who was my boss, co-workers—did I share the experience with any of them (would they understand and should I bother)? Where was I in my wife-and-mother cycle?
Then I drift sideways in the other direction for the inevitable “contrast and compare” opportunity of Tolkein’s Lord of the Ring stories. Their themes, each with a ring symbolizing lust for power and the corruption that ensues, are similar in both works. It seems like yesterday when I read The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time as I nursed my third baby, sitting in the rocker with him and my book in the middle of the night. Reading The Hobbit aloud to my kids is a treasured parent-memory—as well as the subsequent pleasure the kids derived in delving into the next three books themselves. Now I'm thinking about each of my children, considering whether they would enjoy this opera experience.
My mind travels over to my first opera with my parents (don’t even remember which one it was but I remember being bored), and consider my theory about one needing to be fully mature (late thirties? forties?) to enjoy opera. Then I think about the same slow fade-in of appreciation for certain literature, such as The Great Gatsby. (I was thirty-eight before I ‘got’ Gatsby’s greatness.) I begin to wonder if a person eventually fades down onto the other side, out of opera appreciation. Can a person get too old for opera? Is the slow fade on the other side happening to me?
The music is, of course, utterly astonishing in its depth and richness. It’s unending nuance and brilliant orchestrations are what fuel my imaginings. No wonder the Romantic period ended with Wagner. How could anyone top him? The story of the Nibelungen, however, is often dopey and sometimes creepy. Why, the most exquisite music about love is sung by twins fresh from their experience of carnal knowledge—with each other!
Somehow, through the work's greatness, we get into the heads of the characters and empathize with all of them, even the darkest villains, consumed by their preoccupation with achieving power. I ache for Fricka who is starving for fidelity and bound by moral decency. I grieve for Brünnhilde who looses her apple-of-her-father’s-eye status. I yearn for my own personal visit from Erda who rises from the forest floor to transfigure the listener with wise counsel for humankind.
And in empathizing with all these gods and humans, searching my life peripherally in a stream-of-consciousness way—I myself become more aware of my frailties and flaws, more able to assess the meaningful moments. Wagner’s Ring plops into my life’s moment and triggers circle after circle of concentric rings, allowing me to consider my life. And all this in a mere nineteen hours of gorgeous musical entertainment! What a deal!
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What a WOW. This essay belongs in an opera magazine. My first opera was Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1959. It was an astonishing experience and I will never forget it. Thank you for writing this.
Sally, you're so good! I will always remember the operas (M' Butterfly, L'Boehme, and RENT -not that it's an opera) that you took me too, and how thankful I was that you gave me the stories ahead of time!
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