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SF Opera Ring Festival 2011: An Over-View

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 24 May 2011 | 9:14:00 am

I was looking at the best way to give some overview of San Francisco's Ring Cycle 2011 when I came accross this. It appears that Janos Gereben at the  San Francisco Examiner has done a far better job than I might attempt

"The Ring of the Nibelung," the beloved cycle of Richard Wagner operas, is coming back to San Francisco for the first time since 1999, bringing with it all its splendor and heartbreak.

For almost a century and a half, opera audiences have flocked to any part of the globe where Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” was being produced.

Now, once again, it’s San Francisco’s turn, and some 40,000 visitors from around the Bay Area and world are expected at the War Memorial Opera House between May 29 and July 3. There will be three cycles of the 17-hour colossus (15 hours of music) divided into four operas (Dates and Booking Information here.)  Including individual productions in the past three years leading up to the complete cycles, the cost of the venture is approximately $24 million.

Ticket income will not cover the cost to the opera, which relies on individual and corporate donations, but the financial, public relations and visitor attraction benefits to The City exceed the expense.

“For San Francisco, having the full ‘Ring’ cycle here is like hosting a Super Bowl or World Cup soccer for the arts,” said Kary Schulman, the director of Grants for the Arts. “We gain not just additional hotel stays, restaurant meals and shopping, but, because these are culture-goers, our other arts and visitor attractions are likely to benefit as well.”

The man responsible for the decision to produce “Ring,” opera general director David Gockley, emphasizes the size of the project, but from another angle.

“It is the most monumental piece of music theater ever conceived by the mind of man,” Gockley said. “Every rational force in our society mitigates against it being done. Yet it is done because there is an urge within us to see the truth and the fate of ourselves as humans played out on a vast, multilayered canvas. For anyone in my position, it is the dream of a career in opera to essay this Everest of challenges.”

So large is that challenge that this will be only the sixth time in the company’s 88-year history that “Ring” is presented. Previous years were 1935, 1972, 1985, 1990 and 1999. The first “Ring” came to The City in 1900, when New York’s Metropolitan Opera performed it on tour in the Grand Opera House, long before the War Memorial opened in 1932.

Beyond size, expense, tradition and fame, at the core of the “‘Ring’ experience” is the experience of basic human emotions expressed in unforgettably powerful ways. What makes it all work is as basic as the anguish of a father (Wotan) over the loss of his daughter (Brünnhilde).

This deep human sorrow hits the audience with unsurpassed impact in a combination of gorgeous music and deeply affecting drama.

“My ‘Walküre’ turns out terribly beautiful,” Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt in 1852, and the century and a half that has passed since only confirmed and amplified his judgment.

Francesca Zambello, who’s responsible for the San Francisco production, said Wagner’s vision of the world “demands a setting in which gods, goddesses, creatures, heroes and mere humans are all equally at home. Many set out on journeys that will take them through terrifying landscapes demanding courage, heart, understanding and sacrifice. As they are transformed, so are we who watch, and [we] sense their stories are also ours.”

Those journeys might sound familiar even to opera newbies: From ancient Nordic mythology to Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, there are recurring stories of the all-powerful ring and what befalls on mortals, and even gods coveting them.

“All of the great themes of the ‘Ring’ — the destruction of nature, the quest for power, corruption, the plight of the powerless — resound through the four operas,” Zambello said.

Unlike traditional staging of the Wagner operas, here “they are not bound to the 19th century’s industrial age, nor to Europe or some leafy Nordic realm of long ago,” Zambello said.

To make this happen, huge forces are coming together. World-famous Wagner specialist Donald Runnicles conducts an orchestra of more than 100. Principal roles are filled by acclaimed singers, and the rest of the cast includes some participants in the Merola Opera Program; veterans of Merola now take on major roles, and there are scores of stagehands, costumers, makeup artists, ushers and others involved.

For the months leading up to the big event in June, local arts organizations collaborate in presenting a wide range of programs centering on the “Ring.”

Zambello said in his (sic) production, American history, mythology, iconography, landscape and “dreams all filtered into our palette as we constructed our stage world.”

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