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?
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Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera.

With Wagner, Seattle made it to the world cultural stage. But how does the company build on the legacy?

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.

It’s fascinating to look back over critical reactions to that first “Ring” production. The Bayreuth Festival, founded by the composer in 1876 and the epicenter of Wagner interpretation, had been engaged since the end of the Second World War in a radical makeover. It now embraced modernist production concepts, inspired in part by an effort to wipe away memories associated with the Third Reich and Hitler’s cozy relationship with the festival.

That first Seattle “Ring” was retro in concept, a throwback to 19th-century design (source of all those visual clichés: the horned Valkyrie warrior-maids and the like). Audiences uncomfortable with the spare, abstract look of the “new Bayreuth” craved something more traditional.

And the gamble worked, cementing Seattle Opera’s international standing as a can’t-miss destination for anyone wanting to enjoy this monumental work of art — even if the performance standards lagged. Newsday cheerfully referred to its “swashbuckling frontier brashness,” while The London Evening Standard reported as if wrapping up an anthropological investigation: “They flung carnations onto the stage and stood applauding for 20 minutes on the final night, refusing to go home. This was the kind of mass frenzy which broke out…”

Jenkins started right away to shore up artistic quality and to replace “Ring I,” and he assembled the remarkable team of François Rochaix and Robert Israel. Together they concocted a visually and theatrically daring interpretation informed by the more recent, director-centered approach that had revolutionized Bayreuth (and the opera world) in 1976.

For the centenary of the “Ring” in Bayreuth, the maverick director and filmmaker Patrice Chéreau had been asked to stage the epic. Chéreau chose to set it in Wagner’s own era, using imagery of the Industrial Revolution to underline the socialist, proto-Marxist motifs that were part of the composer’s original inspiration for writing the “Ring” in the first place.

“Ring II,” Seattle Opera’s reboot introduced early on by Jenkins — the one first greeted by all that booing – was anti-naturalistic and Brechtian: Rather than another lame attempt at manufacturing illusion, it turned the spotlight on theatrical illusion and artifice itself. The image of Valkyries wearing Victorian dresses and suspended on carousel horses hovering above the stage became its visual emblem — and the international signature for Seattle Opera not just as a place that did the “Ring” but that offered enthralling, up-to-date operatic theater. In “Time” magazine, critic Michael Walsh remarked: “Long coddled by safe, representational operatic productions, the American public is getting a chance to see what directorial interpretation, so common in Europe, is all about.”

It’s a curious irony that “Ring III” — the production now being performed, and the second of the two “Rings” Jenkins has put together from scratch during his tenure — has been routinely labeled traditional, as if its guiding principle were merely a return to the primitive stagings of yore, on account of its “realistic” look. While it does swerve dramatically from the novel imagery of the Rochaix-Israel concept, the “Ring” directed by Stephen Wadsworth inarguably offers its own director-centered vision. That it manages at the same time to hew closely to Wagner’s “text” (the composite of librettos and musical score) is a key to its credibility.

“Ring III” is seen as “realistic” for two reasons: because of its focus on the elements of nature (a justifiable choice from their prominence in Wagner) and, more subtly, because of the incisive psychological detail signaled through character interactions. With natural scenes as a visual leitmotif, this “Ring” almost seems at times to urge an environmental perspective. The world reborn in the final stage picture is nature reborn. Will it be sustainable this time? Yet while the tag “green Ring” has stuck, it’s really the countless details and inner motivations Wadsworth elicits from his close work with the actors — and these are singing actors — that shape our perception of what’s at stake.

Even in this fourth go-round (after 2001, “Ring III” was presented in 2005 and 2009), Wadsworth refuses to settle for mere run-throughs. The principals still have to commit to Seattle residency from late May through August to take part in Wadsworth’s intensely immersive rehearsal process.

Still, some major crisis inevitably erupts. In the first year, the Siegfried tore his quadriceps and had to sing from the pit while a “Siegfried-double” performed the physical part onstage. And in the first cycle last week, Alwyn Mellor, the highly anticipated new Brünnhilde, was prevented by an ailment from singing in two of her three “Ring” operas. Jenkins wisely (though expensively) insists on all-around covers, and Lori Phillips had rehearsed her staging carefully, but never with the orchestra. What she accomplished by replacing Mellor at the last minute was unforgettable. Yet it’s impossible to recalibrate all that painstakingly worked-out synergy on the spur of the moment, and the “Götterdämmerung” ended up, to my taste, being the weak link in what I otherwise experienced as the most emotionally and musically engaging of the four “Rings” I’ve seen here.

One reason for that is the ear-opening contribution of the conductor Asher Fisch (also new to the production). It’s one thing to have the kind of many-layered, lived-in knowledge of this vast score that Fisch obviously commands. Far harder, though, to have the magnetism or chemistry or whatever it is to motivate an army of first-rate musicians to give it substance and feeling, in real time, while syncing with the drama onstage.

Maintaining that kind of inspiration is one of the questions the company’s incoming new general director, Aidan Lang, will need to keep firmly in focus when he takes the reins next season. Jenkins is widely and justifiably renowned for his uncanny ability to pick singers and identify emerging talents. But the company has lacked a unifying musical personality. Fisch was appointed Principal Guest Conductor several years ago; only in this past year has his schedule permitted a more consistent presence here (two productions last season and the “Ring”). He’s not on duty for any of the four productions to come in the new season. Will Lang be able to exploit this underused potential and foster a more consistent musical identity when the company is performing non-Wagner repertoire? Most of the orchestra players are from the Seattle Symphony, and the commitment heard in their music-making has intensified over the past two seasons thanks to their healthy rapport with that institution’s music director, Ludovic Morlot.

Another big question involves the curse of success. After what Jenkins has achieved with his “Ring,” where does one go? A key part of that success has been to define the company’s core identity through its “Ring” productions — and, to an extent, its productions of all of the other six mature Wagner operas under his tenure. Lang, after all, attracted the Seattle Opera Board’s interest because he is himself arrives with Wagnerian credentials (he even directed a low-budget “Ring” in Brazil), and he’s hardly going to toss away Seattle Opera’s connection to the “Ring.”

Will Lang continue along as is? Venturing a “Ring IV” – and defined by what approach to style? – poses immense challenges as the company copes with  

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