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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ten Reasons Why The Metropolitan Opera Needs a New Ring

So I got a message from a reader today:
James Morris as Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo by Johan Elbers © 2005 The Metropolitan Opera
"I want to know why they (meaning the Metropolitan Opera) re-staged the Ring. The Met was the only opera house in the world that had a staging that was as Wagner wrote it. People from all over the world came to see it and it was always sold out!! So, Why? I would really like your opinion."

And that sounds like a great excuse for a post about Wagner.

So here are some reasons why the Metropolitan Opera has decided to mount a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Ten reasons, in fact.

1) The Question of "Authenticity": To start with, the production in question, designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Otto Schenk, was in no way "as Wagner wrote it." It was pretty close, but certain visual elements (and livestock) were eliminated. Herr Schenk created an innovative staging that used available 1980s technology to approximate what Wagner put in his librettos. But it was in no way the same as the first staging of the full Ring in 1876.
Set design for Act III of Die Walküre in the new Met stage.
Design by Carl Fillion, courtesy Metropolitan Opera Technical Department.
©2010 Metropolitan Opera Guild/Metropolitan Opera.
Following Wagner's death in 1883, Cosima Wagner maintained her husband's productions of the Ring and Parsifal until the sets practically fell apart. It wasn't until the 1900s, when her son Siegfried Wagner took over the management of Bayreuth, that new productions were allowed. And those were all based on the old ones. Authentic theatrical innovation did not come to Bayreuth until 1951, following the fall of the Nazis and the re-opening of the Festspielhaus under Wieland Wagner and his brother Wolfgang. And even their ideas ossified and were replaced, leading to the Bayreuth policy of new productions of the Ring every eight years.

2) Shelf Life: The Bayreuth Festival stages a new Ring every eight seasons, running a production for seven years and then taking a year off from the Ring before mounting a new one. Since the Met Ring's lifetime (counting the point from when the staging was first planned in the early '80s), Bayreuth has seen new Rings from Patrice Chereau, Sir Peter Hall, Harry Kupfer, Alfred Kirchner, and others while the Met has been duct-taping their show back together every few years or so.

By way of comparison, the Schenk Ring was on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera house for 22 years. (Die Walküre premiered in 1986, and the final performance of Götterdämmerung was in 2008.)

3) Boredom: Audiences, believe it or not, who live in New York, get tired of seeing the same show over and over. I saw the Schenk Ring in 1993 (in part), 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Every time, the lighting was different. The cast was different. And the show got either better, or worse. The best I saw was that last cycle in May of 2008. While the last Ring I went to in 2008 had great singing, the show itself was getting tired.

4) Administration: The Met has a new general manager in Peter Gelb. He's still the new guy, and putting a new Ring on is part of him doing his job and making sure the Met remains a living, breathing, theatrical institution and not some dusty museum that caters to the tourist trade. And by the way, the Met's biggest money-maker is the Zeffirelli La bohéme, which has been running for 30 years as of this season.

5) Media: The old production has already been recorded and filmed with a cast of singers that are now either retired from the stage (Siegfried Jerusalem) or on the verge of calling it a career (James Morris, Jessye Norman.) It's exciting to have a fresh-voiced cast of new talent on the Met stage. They deserve a new production. And when Ben Heppner sings in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (planned for 2011 and 2012) opposite Deborah Voigt, I think that the results will be worth the wait.
The "Magic Fire" scene from Bayreuth, in the 1988 Harry Kupfer production of Die Walküre.
6) Storage and Wear: Sets have to be repaired. Props and costumes break, get lost, or decay. They have to be stored. Lights and visual effects (gels, gobos, magic fire machines) wear out and have to be replaced. Costume restoration and storage of the massive sets (all those mountains and valleys and castles and stuff, not to mention the two dragons) required expenditure on the Met's already tight budget. A new Ring, with the unit set, makes financial sense even if the Met had to pay to reinforce the left side stage in order to store the heavy set.

7) Money: Opera houses in America are not funded with government handouts, unlike in Europe. They rely on private and corporate donors in order to stay solvent. That is, open. It's more attractive to ask those donors to donate to a new staging (one that they can make their "own") then to ask donors and corporate sponsors to spend on the upkeep of the old one.

8) The Director: Robert LePage has fresh, innovative ideas about the Ring, that are actually conventional at heart and close to Wagner's own. And he's making a new Ring using modern technology to tell the same story Wagner did. He's doing the same thing as Otto Schenk. But using lights and projections instead of papier-mâché and fake rocks.

9) The Composer: Wagner himself would have been excited about the new production. After all, the old Meister once said: "Children! Go do something new!" Not that they listened.

10) Time: It's a new century, a new millennium and New York deserves a new Ring. I can't wait for Walküre.

Hagen's Watch, from the Otto Schenk production of Götterdämmerung.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.