Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild readies for the Ring…Cori Ellison speaks Thursday at Kenwood Depot
This Thursday, June 9, 2011, the Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild will host Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, who will offer an in-depth look at Wagner’s Ring cycle operas. Ms. Ellison will speak at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot in Kenwood, CA. San Francisco Opera Guild preview lectures bring renowned musicologists to the greater Bay Area for an in-depth look at the season’s operas. Cori Ellison was a consultant to Francesca Zambello in the new production of the San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle which is beginning next Tuesday, June 14 and running through July 3, 2011. Ellison is also speaking this week at the Marin, San Jose, Peninsula, San Francisco, and East Bay Chapters of the San Francisco Opera Guild. She will also talk about female protagonists in the Ring in an all day Ring Symposium (“Wagner’s Ring: The Love of Power, the Power of Love—Cycle 1 Symposium.”) sponsored by the Wagner Society of Northern California on Saturday, June 18, 2011.
Ellison’s talk in Kenwood will establish why Wagner’s Ring is so popular and important. She will situate the 4 operas contextually in Wagner’s career, in European history, and in philosophical thought, also discussing his source materials. She will introduce Wagner’s idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art” that aims to make use of all or many forms of art. She will also give signposts that the audience can grab onto throughout the production to help them get the most out of their experience, with emphasis on leitmotifs. She will also share special details about the production based on her experience as part of Francesca Zambello’s core creative team.
“One of the wonderful things about Wagner and the Ring is that it really sparks deep thought and conversation in a way that other operas don’t,” said Ellison. “One of the biggest challenges in talking about Wagner, which I’ve done all over the country for a number of years, is that you are pretty much in a little red school house situation where some of the people are themselves experts and the others are novices. Bridging this divide is tricky—I’ll try to find thoughts that will be of help to both groups.”
“What interests me most about Francesca’s production in San Francisco is that she has so wisely revealed the threads that speak to the American experience in particular. Of course, every character speaks to forces within each of us, but she’s managed to make us see America too. That’s why she’s a visionary–no one sees the big picture the way she does.”
“And without Wagner’s even realizing it, this is so much a story about women and the way they are treated by society and how what’s unique in the feminine can save the world,” added Ellison. ”This is not superimposed by Francesca–it’s organic in the work, but it took Francesca to see that and tease it out in this remarkable way. It’s like looking at a vast tapestry where there are millions of details and she finds one of those details that she feels is a basic. She shines a light on it and, of course, that leads to what she’s know for–some very psychologically probing interpretations.”
The Sonoma guild has roughly 1,500 members, 250 of whom are active participants. ”We’ll have a turn-out for this lecture because of the group’s interest in Wagner,” said Neva Turer, who’s been running the group for several years now. The guild’s educational component is one of its most important functions. “We host 6 annual music education lectures for our members and the community with experts selected by the San Francisco Opera,” said Turer. “Even if people don’t make it in to the operas themselves, they will get a lot out of these wonderful talks. We also do education programs in about 25 local schools to provide the important foundation that they can’t anymore with all the cuts they’ve had.”
It was Turer who worked with Ky Boyd to bring the very popular Met Opera: Live in HD opera broadcasts to the (former) Rialto Lakeside Cinemas. The series, now in its 5th season, is currently held at the Jackson Theatre at Sonoma Country Day School and is a program of the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas. “I had to plead with Ky to get them to bring this here and I promised that we’d fill the seats,” explained Turer. “Now, it’s become a phenomenon with a life of its own.” Attendees have had their Wagner appetites whetted this season with two ambitious Robert Lepage productions in the Met’s new Ring Cycle. Das Rheingold, which opened the 2010-11 Met Opera: Live in HD season and Die Walküre, which it closed with in May.
“We have members in our group who live for Wagner and some new ones who are excited to get into it,” explained Turer. “We are all looking forward to this SF Opera production. Several saw Zambello’s 2008 production of Das Rheingold in San Francisco and we’re waiting to see how it all comes off.
David Marsten of Calistoga is one member of Sonoma group who has seen the Ring over 20 times and has a passion and breadth of knowledge that is inspirational. When I called him, he was just running off to St. Helena with books and recordings to share with a member who was new to the cycle. Marsten tries to catch all the major performances and has found camaraderie in the group. In 2009, when his granddaughter was being born, he suddenly found himself with a spare ticket to a Ring cycle in Seattle, so he persuaded another member, who he didn’t know at the time, to spontaneously travel with him to see the performance. He also went to the Los Angeles Opera’s cycle in 2010.
“When you’ve done this for awhile, and needless to say, you have recordings of all the major performances—you find that there’s an enormous breadth of interpretation, different versions of the same opera, and that’s exciting. It’s amazing that Götterdämmerung, for example, can be as short as 5 ½ hours and as long as 6 ½ hours and that’s without intermission, just straight musically. You come to the realization that this breadth can encompass very slow conducting to more rapid versions—and generally it’s all valid. And what makes it work is that concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—a unity of the arts–when it all comes together poetically.”
“Wagner was one of the few operatic conductors who really did it all,” said Marsten. ”He wrote the story and then he put the text into a very curious verse form of the archaic German ‘stabreim’ (alliteration) which had the effect of liberating him from normal rhyme patterns. Then, he wrote the music and created all sorts of incredible effects with a huge orchestra that he could only imagine. In fact, in the case of the brass section, he invented three completely new instruments that didn’t exist previously—the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and bass trombone. The most amazing thing about this was that he imagined the sound he needed to complete the tonal range and it was written on paper and lived inside of his head for 25 years until he actually heard it in the rehearsals in 1876. He was just a remarkable visionary…. It’s not so easy, but step by step, you enter and you begin to see that beyond the genius of the music itself, it’s all a gigantic metaphor, like a Tibetan sand mandala, that operates on many levels that you can work your way around and into.”
Marsten’s recommendation: buy and read William Cord’s An Introduction to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Cord is a former music professor at Sonoma State University and has written extensively and insightfully on Wagner and the Ring.
Enjoying Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung with Speight Jenkins is a 2 CD set, one per opera, of the 1954 Bayreuth performance, with each playing about an hour that presents some of the major themes and leitmotifs in the Ring.
M. Owen Lee’s (University of Toronto) Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, an excellent introduction to the Ring cycle.
Details: Cori Ellison will speak Thursday, June 9, 2011, at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.
Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.