Mastodon Francesca Zambello: "The Ring Remains Relevant" - The Wagnerian

Francesca Zambello: "The Ring Remains Relevant"

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 4 June 2011 | 8:42:00 pm

In an interview published in the Mercury News, Zambello suggests it is easy to "demystify the mystery of the Ring" and that by doing so, it remains as relevant as ever.

Director finds 'Ring' themes -- love, abandonment, greed, abuse of power -- relevant today

In the popular imagination, Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung") has come to represent some sort of pinnacle of high art snobbiness and inscrutability. All that Norse myth. All that over-the-top music. All that length -- four operas, totaling about 17 hours, with a million characters (gods, semi-mortals, giants, dwarves), all related through a crazy thicket of marriages and liaisons.

Francesca Zambello, director of San Francisco Opera's new "Ring" cycle production (opening June 14 at War Memorial Opera House), demystifies the mystery.

Born in New York and raised in Europe, she was introduced to Wagner by her mother, and understands Wagner's epic as story. It's about relationships, love, abandonment, greed, abuse of power. Yes, it's filled with archetypes and reveals deep layers of meaning as the world collapses around the characters, who are clamoring for possession of a golden ring and the power it confers.

But it's approachable, the "Ring."

"Kill da Wa-bbit!" Zambello sings during an interview, following a "Ring" rehearsal in San Francisco. It's her imitation of Elmer Fudd in the old cartoon, the one that spoofs the "Ring" as spear-wielding Elmer goes after Bugs to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Not every internationally acclaimed director is so down-to-earth, but that was Zambello throughout our conversation -- direct, clear, enjoying herself.

Q Francesca, let's hear how you got into the "Ring."

A I think my real loving of the "Ring" started here at San Francisco Opera in the mid-1980s, when the company did the "Ring" cycle under Terence McEwen, who was the general director. And I was a house assistant director at the time, and I wrote the supertitles for the production.

Q You wrote the supertitles?

A Yes. This was just when supertitles were beginning. And suddenly I understood everything that was going on in the "Ring" -- the stories and the characters. And from that time on, I realized what a character-driven piece it is. The "Ring" isn't really about spectacle. Ultimately, it's about the people.

If you look at all of the opera "Siegfried" (Part 3 of the cycle), there's rarely more than two people on stage at once. It's very personal. You've got to make the characters vibrant so people become engaged with the drama.

Q Yet a lot of people think of the "Ring" as a spectacle.

A I'm focused on the characters and their evolutions and journeys. That's what drives me, and I hope that's what people take away from it -- that they'll see bits of themselves in these characters.

However, I do think it's important to have a rich visual language. I think the audience expects that, and it's our job to give it to them. So you try to create a landscape where the audience immediately has a visceral feeling, and then they become immediately receptive to what the characters bring. We put Wotan, chief of the gods, in his office; Wagner says he's high on a rock, but to me that means this great big place of power. So you put him in this big office, high up in this skyscraper. And then everybody goes, "OK, I know what's going on."

Q Tell me about another character. How about Siegfried?

A He's the grandson of Wotan, and he's supposed to be the only Free Hero who's been born to help get Wotan what he wants -- the gold. But when Siegfried gets it, the curse on it destroys him as well. And when Siegfried meets his grandfather, Wotan, Siegfried doesn't know him and destroys his spirit and soul by breaking his spear. Wotan becomes like a homeless man; he goes from being a god to being like someone in the Tenderloin. And we live in a time like that, where that sort of thing happens.

Q What do you mean? What's an example?

A Everybody who's been hurt by a Ponzi scheme. I mean, the level of corruption in the world of finance certainly has parallels in the "Ring" cycle.

Q You make it all sound so simple.

A It shouldn't be obscured. It should be revealed. Audiences should be drawn into this story.

What keeps us engaged in the drama? This is 17 hours long, these four operas. This is an emotional time investment. So I think my job, simply put, is to be a storyteller. That's how I view directing.

And it is such an incredible story to be allowed to tell. It's not like you're trying to fill holes. There are many operas where you have to fill in the blanks. Not here.

This is one of the great epic stories of all time; people are fascinated by history, and there's a historical aspect to this. And there's also a mythic/pop-culture aspect to it, so people really can relate to it in the way they relate to something like "Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars" or Harry Potter. The list is long.

If you go to our blog (; click on "Ring Blog"), just the other day I posted a list of movies I've given members of the cast -- things they should watch to help them understand their characters.

The "Ring" seeps into a lot of popular culture, through these archetypal characters. So for our cast members in the roles of Hunding and Hagen, I suggested watching "In Cold Blood" -- just to get that sense of human destruction. For our Wotan, I said to watch "Citizen Kane" and "Fountainhead," which are about sheer power and the way it gets abused.

Q Those are pretty famous movies. Don't you think they've already watched them?

A No. Opera singers -- they don't use Netflix as much as we do!

Q Let's hear more about the "Ring's" pop-culture tie-ins.

A There are kids in "Das Rheingold," 30 or 40 kids in the cast playing the Nibelungs, the slaves of Alberich, lord of the underworld. And explaining the story to them is almost easier than explaining it to adults....

And so they have no problem with hearing that at one moment Alberich might be turned into a frog, and in another moment he might be their master. It's not far-fetched to them. I say to them, "Wotan is like Darth Vader," and they say, "Oh!"

The kids understand and are gripped by the stories

More At: The Mercury News