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The 'Ring' is the thing: Seattle Opera and the future of an arts institution

With Wagner, Seattle made it to the world cultural stage. But how does the company build on the legacy?
Wagner’s Die Walküre, Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde), Greer Grimsley (Wotan).

Wagner’s Die Walküre, Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde), Greer Grimsley (Wotan). © Elise Bakketun photo

Wagner’s Die Walküre, Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Margaret Jane Wray (Sieglinde).

Wagner’s Die Walküre, Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Margaret Jane Wray (Sieglinde). Photo: Elise Bakketun

Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera.

Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera. Seattle Opera

Speight Jenkins remembers a lot of violent, hostile booing. What made it all the more shocking is that Seattle audiences and booing don’t exactly a typical match make – as everyone knows in this city of the polite Obligatory Standing Ovation immediately followed by the Hasty Exit.

But whenever he refers to that night in hindsight, Jenkins explains why it ranks among the most treasured memories of his career as head honcho at Seattle Opera: “That night – July 28, 1985 – made this company. The controversy it excited was absolutely vital to Seattle Opera.”

Thus Jenkins recalled in a recent “Speight’s Retrospective” talk reflecting on a life in opera and on the company’s history with the “Ring” – one of the many extracurricular events Seattle Opera is offering this month as part of its “Ring Festival” centered around three complete performances of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

That July night in 1985 — just two seasons into Jenkins’s tenure — marked the unveiling of a new production of “Die Walküre,” which has always been the best-loved of the four operas that make up the “Ring.” So, it was also a sneak peek into the concept behind an entirely new “Ring” interpretation to be introduced the following summer. The reverberations of the passion it aroused can be seen in Seattle Opera’s status today as a Mecca for Wagnerians from around the world.

This month opera lovers from all 50 states and 22 other countries have been making their way to Seattle to get their fix with Wagner’s epic of a world ruined by corrupt powerbrokers driven to their own destruction – who says opera is irrelevant? William B. Beyers, an emeritus professor at the University of Washington, recently released a forecast estimating the total economic impact of Seattle Opera’s “Ring” will come in around $39 million, supporting 755 jobs and labor income of $17.5 million.

And ever since it premiered in 2001, the current “Ring” production, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and designed by Thomas Lynch, the late Martin Pakledinaz and Peter Kaczorowski, has been the jewel in the crown for Seattle Opera’s international artistic reputation. The uneven artistic results of some of the company’s productions of other operas over the past decade — particularly in the seasons since the Great Recession began to take its toll — tend to get eclipsed by the excitement and respect its renditions of the “Ring” have reliably generated.

Writing in his blog, San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman expresses reservations about some of the cast and the conducting but admires the Wotan and Fricka in this “Walküre,” for example, for performing “with the skill of practiced masters…It was breathtaking stuff.”  “Opera News”  even ventures that “this year it was better than ever.”(You can read my own critique of this latest version of Seattle Opera’s production here.) The performers who are newcomers to this summer’s round have been stirring up a good deal of interest for their contributions, while an element of poignancy comes this being Jenkins’s valedictory “Ring” as general director.

The connection between Seattle Opera and the “Ring” of course predates the Jenkins era. It was established by his predecessor, Glynn Ross (1914-2005), a former boxer and irrepressible showman, who became founding general director in 1963. A decade later, he hit on a way to brand the fledgling company with a unique identity by setting out on what at the time seemed an absurdly hubristic adventure.

The Metropolitan Opera’s recently retired general director, the titanic Rudolf Bing, had been cool to Wagner, and no other American company was planning a “Ring” production. With only two other Wagner operas to its credit during the 1960s, Seattle Opera announced it would stage a “Ring” cycle. Three separate “Ring” operas were rolled out, one each summer, starting in 1973. In 1975 came the inaugural cycle, and every summer through 1984 (the first one helmed by Jenkins), the company presented the “Ring”: once in German, once in the English translation by Andrew Porter – well before the benefit of the insightful surtitles by Jonathan Dean now used.


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