Here’s a timely operatic plot: When the mortgage on an oversize dream house proves unaffordable, the owner has no choice but to raise more cash by plundering little people, triggering a tsunami of greed that eventually results in global calamity. That synopsis, give or take a dozen subplots, helps explain why Richard Wagner’s fifteen-hour, four-part “Der Ring des Nibelungen” always feels current. Even with its cursed baubles, wrathful giants, and shape-shifting gods, Wagner’s “Ring” cycle remains a deeply modern work. Mesmerizing to many, horrifying to some, it is essential even to those who know it only from “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, or the Bugs Bunny version (“What’s Opera, Doc?”) that dispatches the whole story in under seven minutes.
The four separate works—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—return to the Metropolitan Opera over the next two months in the final outing of Otto Schenk’s production from the late eighties. (In 2010, the company will start rolling out a wizardly, high-tech version by Robert Lepage.) Schenk’s is one of the last of the old beard-and-breastplate extravaganzas, and zealots from across the planet are converging on Lincoln Center to mark its retirement. Some will attend in tuxedos and horned helmets, and perhaps take the Wagner Society of New York’s river cruise, “Rhine Journey on the Hudson.” This is the high-culture equivalent of a Star Trek marathon.
Chris Whitaker, a retired Australian port executive, is making the pilgrimage from Perth for the first of three “Ring” cycles he’ll attend this year: After New York comes Vienna, then Seattle. “The music is addictive,” he says, “but you can go beyond the music into the depths and layers of meaning. My wife’s been discovering the theme of Buddhism that runs through some of the later works. Just when you think you’ve got your brain around it, you listen again and you think, I’ve never been aware of that before. It’s like looking at a mountain from different sides.”
Wagner did his best to instigate a cult of himself, and was spectacularly successful at it. With the backing of his feverish—and addled—admirer King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he built himself a temple-cum-theater in the village of Bayreuth. He designed the Festspielhaus around the “Ring’s” extravagant theatrical demands, and founded a summer festival that is one of music’s meccas. Penelope Turing, an octogenarian British writer, has become mildly famous for having attended every Bayreuth Festival since the early fifties. (Asked by an interviewer from WagnerOpera.net about her first Die Walküre, she recalled that she went home “dead drunk with the music. I remember an hour sitting on the side of my bed.”) Devotion requires patience: The waiting list for single tickets runs to roughly a decade.
Within a few years of the composer’s death in 1883, the mania had spread so decisively that Wagner nights at Coney Island’s 3,000-seat Brighton Beach pavilion regularly sold out. Gilded Age audiences got a heavy diet of Wagner at the Met, which went so far as to present French and Italian composers’ works in German translation. Today, there are Wagner societies in New South Wales, Hawaii, South Africa, and Abu Dhabi, whose members organize their travels around productions of the “Ring.”
The wellspring of all this obsessive energy is a fog-shrouded landscape of Icelandic myths, populated by so many characters that a synopsis reads like gibberish. As in Greek tragedy, family dysfunction acquires epic grandeur. The god Wotan and his spouse Fricka play out their disputes on the destinies of two golden siblings, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who consummate an incestuous romance. The prolific Wotan’s offspring also includes a gaggle of ferocious sisters, the Valkyries (Walküre), who ride winged horses up to their peak-ringed perch. Wotan punishes his favorite, Brünnhilde, by imprisoning her in a ring of flame. The mix of mythology and pathology is so ripe for satire that the surest way to mock the entire art of opera is to invoke a spear-wielding shrieker from the “Ring.”
Wagner has always attracted scorn and rage as well as reverence, sometimes all from the same people. Friedrich Nietzsche swung from worship to late-life rejection. “Wagner is a great corrupter of music,” he wrote. “He has discovered in it a means to excite weary nerves—and in so doing has made music sick.” I have inherited this supercharged ambivalence. Each time I return to this vast work, I thread a path between fanaticism and disdain. I find it as seductive to mock the Ring’s grandiloquence as to abandon myself to its riptides. But to take the drama seriously and still hold on to my misgivings, to bathe in Wagner’s music without being pulled under—that’s an act I haven’t quite mastered.