The Ring, The Taxidermist and Richard Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 21 November 2013 | 4:49:00 am

Reviewing the Melbourne Ring we could not help but notice the amount of "stuffed animals" that littered Valhalla. This brought to mind two thoughts: their meaning withing the production and whether they were real" - the subject of the taxidermist "art". The latter was as much concern as the first as it seemed - given Wagner's thoughts on vivisection and animal cruelty - he might not have approved if they were "real".  But the internet being what it is, a quick tweet by someone that we follow on twitter and an equally fast reply was received. We supply that below - for anyone curious - but first a few thoughts from Wagner.

"Recently, while I was in the street, my eye was caught by a poulterer's shop; I stared unthinkingly at his piled-up wares, neatly and appetizingly laid out, when I became aware of a man at the side busily plucking a hen, while another man was just putting his hand in a cage, where he seized a live hen and tore its head off. The hideous scream of the animal, and the pitiful, weaker sounds of complaint that it made while being overpowered transfixed my soul with horror. Ever since then I have been unable to rid myself of this impression, although I had experienced it often before. It is dreadful to see how our lives—which, on the whole, remain addicted to pleasure—rest upon such a bottomless pit of the cruellest misery! This has been so self-evident to me from the very beginning, and has become even more central to my thinking as my sensibility has increased ... I have observed the way in which I am drawn in the [direction of empathy for misery] with a force that inspires me with sympathy, and that everything touches me deeply only insofar as it arouses fellow-feeling in me, i.e. fellow-suffering. I see in this fellow-suffering the most salient feature of my moral being, and presumably it is this that is the well-spring of my art"RW: Human Beasts of Prey and Fellow-Suffering - Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. translated by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington

"To these wise men the mystery of the world unveiled itself as a restless tearing into pieces, to be restored to restful unity by nothing save compassion. His pity for each breathing creature, determining his every action, redeemed the sage from all the ceaseless change of suffering existences, which he himself must pass until his last emancipation. Thus the pitiless was mourned by him for reason of his suffering, but most of all the beast, whose pain he saw without knowing it capable of redemption through pity. This wise man could but recognise that the reasonable being gains its highest happiness through free-willed suffering, which he therefore seeks with eagerness, and ardently embraces; whereas the beast but looks on pain, so absolute and useless to it, with dread and agonised rebellion. But still more to be deplored that wise man deemed the human being who consciously could torture animals and turn a deaf ear to their pain, for he knew that such a one was infinitely farther from redemption than the wild beast itself, which should rank in comparison as sinless as a saint." RW: Against Vivisection

Up to here, but alas! no further, can we trace the religious basis of our human forbears' sympathy with animals, and it seems that the march of civilization, by making him indifferent to "the God," turned man himself into a raging beast of prey. . . . [Now] our creed is: "Animals are useful; particularly if, trusting in our sanctuary, they yield themselves into our hands. Come let us therefore make of them what we deem good for human use; we have the right to martyr a thousand faithful dogs the whole day long, if we can thereby help one human creature to the cannibal well-being of five hundred swine." RW: Against Vivisection

"[To] the beasts, who have been our schoolmasters in all the arts by which we trapped and made them subject to us, man was superior in nothing save deceit and cunning, by no means in courage or bravery; for the animal will fight to its last breath, indifferent to wounds and death: "It knows nor plea nor prayer for mercy, no avowal of defeat." To base man's dignity upon his pride, compared with that of animals, would be mistaken; and our victory over them, their subjugation, we can only attribute to our greater art of dissembling. That art we highly boast of; we call it "reason" and proudly think it marks us from the animals: for look you! it can make us like to God himself—as to which, however, Mephistopheles has his private opinion, concluding that the only use man made of reason was "to be more bestial than any beast.RW: Human Beasts of Prey and Fellow-Suffering - Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. translated by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington


Ring Cycle: Taxidermy artists help create larger-than-life set design
By Jennifer Williams, September 3, 2013

"We’re trying to create the illusion of taxidermy with fake animals that look real.”

Every director that takes on the Ring cycle has to be aware of the fact that Wagner’s epic has been interpreted and reinterpreted across the ages. From tattoos and fellatio in Bayreuth this year to the undulating “Wagner machine” from the Met’s 2010 production, Wagner’s four-opera epic has inspired hundreds of interpretations, each one bigger and better and more out there than the last.

For the Melbourne Ring Cycle, director Neil Armfield wasdetermined to take the opposite route. His Ring cycle harks back to the era of the natural scientist: at a time when fossils and insects captivated the public consciousness, and every man, woman and child spent their weekends fossicking for rocks and capturing butterflies.

“If you want genuine taxidermy, you find a dead animal, and you taxidermy it. What we’re doing here is more unusual,” Edmonds explains. “We’re trying to create the illusion of taxidermy with fake animals that look real.”

And the King of the Gods? A taxidermy enthusiast, naturally. In Opera Australia’s first Ring cycle, the powerful Wotan has a taxidermy collection that would put the Australian Museum to shame.

Beasts of land and air converge in his kingdom, frozen in time, impossibly lifelike in death.

The “taxidermy” project began nearly 12 months ago. Designer Robert Cousins worked together with the Opera Australia workshop on a painstaking research and development process, designing and sourcing animal forms. Some were sculpted from scratch by workshop artists, others were ordered directly from specialists in the United States. In Das Rheingold, the animals must fly – so the workshop staff had to take the lightweight forms and add counterweights and reinforcements.

The sheer scale of the Ring cycle has stretched the resources of the workshop department, so the team called in the help of prop-builders and costumiers Marea Fowler and Brian Edmonds in creating a series of mammals. Fowler is a costumier with a very specialist talent: creating anatomically accurate life-size animal forms.

It’s a less gruesome talent than actual taxidermy, as Edmonds explains. “If you want genuine taxidermy, you find a dead animal, and you taxidermy it. What we’re doing here is more unusual,” Edmonds explains. “We’re trying to create the illusion of taxidermy with fake animals that look real.