I am a musical layman but I wouldn’t miss the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which starts later today with a new production premiere of Siegfried and continues into July with three complete cycles of the four-opera cycle. Wagner is one of the crucial 19th-century theatrical innovators, a composer-poet who set out to understand opera as drama and in turn expanded the frontiers of both art forms. The Ring is a 15 hour masterpiece that people have devoted their lives to interpreting and have flocked to for over 140 years. The story, reduced to its pure essence pits the love of power (here power is gold) against the power of love. In its 88 year history, the San Francisco Opera Company has presented the complete cycle just 5 times–1935, 1972, 1985, 1990, and 1999.
Acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello is directing the new production at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and co-staging it with the Washington National Opera. In an era of ever-inventive Ring interpretations, whose visual imagery may go so far as to override the basic story, Zambello has been rather tight-lipped about the details in store for eager fans. She has promised a creative production that is not tied to the 19th century and will be influenced by American history, environmental issues, and feminism. She has also disclosed that Fafner, the dragon that Siegfried slays, is a large furnace-like device reminiscent of a locomotive engine. One thing is certain, Ring fans are extremely opinionated and a tough skin is a prerequisite for any adventurous director who is trying to balance the desire to innovate with maintaining enough of the traditional elements to satisfy Wagnerian purists.
Maestro Donald Runnicles, former music director and principal conductor of San Francisco Opera from 1992-2009, began his association with the SF Opera by directing two Ring cycles in 1990. He will conduct an orchestra of over 100 in this $24 million production. When a company delivers performances as demanding as the Ring–four operas over the course of a week–it can be grueling for the musicians. Nevertheless. they are not going to be pulling overtime–they are paid an hourly rate as stipulated by their contracts. Overtime kicks in if they exceed 7 hours in a day and/or 24 hours in a week. The Ring cycle schedule does not meet either of these thresholds, so straight time pay is in effect.
The Ring has led to some pit changes in effect with Siegfried: co-principal horn players William Klingelhoffer and Kevin Rivard are splitting up their horn duties: Klingelhoffer is playing Principal Wagner tuba for the whole Ring cycle, while Rivard is playing Principal horn. This is Rivard’s first Ring and he will be playing Siegfried’s rigorous horn call in Act II, a French horn solo which many consider the magical musical highpoint of Siegfried. Rivard will have an assistant in the pit for the whole cycle, who will cover principal horn, when Rivard is out of the pit playing backstage for Siegfried and Gotterdamerung.
The four operas in the Ring unfold chronologically in the following order—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. They may be seen individually, or as the composer originally intended, in a complete cycle over the course of one week.
Siegfried: 4 hours 50 minutes, includes two intermissions, German with English supertitles
Cast Change Lead Role: On April 20, 2011, it was announced that Wagnerian tenor Ian Storey, slated to play the title role of Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, had been ill and that tenor Jay Hunter Morris would replace him in all performances of Siegfried. Morris has played Siegfried lead role before at the Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera. Storey will play Siegfried in Götterdämmerung which premieres next Sunday, June 5, 2011.
History: Premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 16 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of The Ring. This part of the opera is primarily inspired by the story of the legendary hero Sigurd in Norse mythology in the Volsunga Saga.
Siegfried is the third opera in the Ring. Wagner composed the dramatic texts with Götterdämmerung first (in 1848) and then kept embellishing the story, following with Siegfried, Die Walküre, and then Das Reingold. The musical compositions followed much later beginning with Das Reingold in 1854, then Die Walküre, Siegfried and ending with Götterdämmerung in 1874. Wagner worked on the orchestral score for Siegfried off and from October 1856 to February 1871, a total of 15 years.
Important Moments: Act 1: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) has grown up into a young man without fear. Siegfried forges “Nothung,” his sword (“Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!”) from pieces that have been saved by his foster father Mime (David Cangelosi), the Nibelung dwarf, who got the shards from Siegfried’s birthmother, Sieglinde ( (Anja Kampe/Heidi Melton), upon her death in childbirth.
Identity/parentage: Siegfried senses that he is not the son of Mime, and wonders who his mother is.
Riddles: Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan, King of the Gods, in disguise) (David Delavan) ask each other three riddles, wagering their heads on the answers.
Act II: Siegfried plays a melodic horn tune that draws the dragon, Fafner, out from his cave and slays him with a stab to the heart with Nothung, his magic sword. Siegfried tastes the blood of the dragon and is thus empowered with the ability to understand the language of birds.
Forrest bird scene: following the instruction of a woodbird, Siegfried takes the Ring and the Tamhlem from the dragon’s hoard and he learns of a woman sleeping on a rock surrounded by magic fire. Siegfried learns his true parentage, that Mime is not his birthfather.
Act III: Siegfried passes through the magic ring of fire and discovers sleeping Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), the first woman he has ever encountered. He utters his famous line “Das is Kein Mann!” (“That’s no man!”) and then awakens Brünnhilde. Not only a woman, she is the feminine in himself. Brünnhilde embraces her mortal life “Ewig was ich.”
Ring Educational events: An array of cultural and educational institutions have partnered with San Francisco Opera to present lectures, symposia, exhibits, musical performances and film screenings throughout the Bay Area for audiences who want to connect with Wagner and the Ring cycle in new and compelling ways. Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.
Wagner and his music can be explored in from angles as diverse as the intersection of science and the environment in the Ring (California Academy of Sciences); psychological, political and spiritual parallels found in the Ring (New School Commonweal); and Buddhist influences evident in the Ring (Asian Art Museum). Upcoming musical performances range from an orchestral concert of music from the Ring (San Francisco Conservatory) and organ transcriptions of Wagner’s music (St. Mary’s Cathedral) to the lighthearted operetta The Merry Nibelungs by Oscar Straus (Opera Frontier). The San Francisco Opera is also partnering with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum to explore the Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the political impact of his music throughout history.
Half-day Ring Symposiums: San Francisco Opera offers a half-day Ring Symposium on the Tuesday of each Cycle that includes a general introduction to Wagner and the Ring’s story, characters and music, and an exploration of the unique aspects of this new production’s distinctly American setting and its approach to issues relating to feminism and environmentalism. Members of San Francisco Opera’s music staff will discuss Wagner’s music and explore this production. Members of the creative team and production staff will share images of the sets, costumes, video projections and lighting and discuss how they collaborated with director Zambello. June 14, 21 and 28, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Herbst Theatre, Veterans Building. 401 Van Ness Ave.
Ring Preview Lecture: Sonoma Chapter SF Opera Guild: The Sonoma Opera Guild’s Ring Preview Lectures will feature Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, offering an in-depth look into the Ring cycle operas. Thursday, June 9, 2011, 10:30am, Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door. For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.
Details: Single tickets for today’s performance of Siegfried are still available. Siegfried also plays: June 6, June 17, June 24 and July 1, 2011. San Francisco Opera’s May 29 to July 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are priced from $95 to $360. Symposia tickets are $40 (plus a $9 registration fee). All tickets are available online at www.sfopera.com , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.
Schedule: The Ring of the Nibelung
Premiere of new productions for “Siegfried,” May 29, 2011 “Götterdämmerung,” June 5, 2011
Cycle 1: June 14, June 15, June 17, June 19
Cycle 2: June 21, June 22, June 24, June 26
Cycle 3: June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3