As the curtain closes later today on San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it will mark Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle and I could not pass up the opportunity to talk with her about what makes a Ring memorable. Parino, now a spry 94, first heard Wagner on the radio when she was about 16 and was mesmerized but it wasn’t until 1971, when she was 54, that she actually saw her first Ring cycle.
She made up quickly for lost time. In the past 40 years, she has travelled to 18 countries and seen 61 cycles in places as far flung as Shanghai and Adelaide, and has befriended Ring “trekkies” all over the world. Not only did she embrace the Ring, she embraced opera as well and for years headed the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s Preview Program, retiring just last year. I caught up with her in mid-June at Das Rheingold of Cycle 1, which marked Ring No. 59 for her, and again a week later at a Wagner Society of Northern California Ring symposium and she was full of exuberance for Wagner’s musical epic.
You’ve see so many Rings now, what type of production do you prefer and what makes it exciting for you?
The first thing to determine is if goes along with Wagner. Something that is not Wagner, like last year’s Los Angeles Opera production, I didn’t like at all and I complained bitterly about that. You can be innovative and modernize the setting but make it apply to what Wagner was writing about.
And if you don’t react to the staging, it’s not a good production. For me, if I don’t cry when Wotan has to punish his child, then it’s not a good production because as a parent it’s very painful to punish your child and you do cry. When Speight Jenkins staged his first Ring at the Seattle Opera, I didn’t cry at that father having to punish his child and I didn’t think the production was very good. With his later productions, I did cry and it all came together.
It’s Wagner’s music that tells you what’s going on, not always the words. Here, at this Ring, I am trying something that is quite different for me—I am trying to find an ending in the music. Wagner spent a lifetime searching for the answers to civilization’s problems. He used the universal language of myth to portray man’s foibles and composed some of the most glorious music ever to represent the deepest emotional reactions of love and parental discipline. But, after sixteen hours of the most monumental work of art ever envisioned, Wagner was still searching for an ending of how to govern the world. Several solutions were dismissed and he finally gave us the answer through his music. It’s the churning music, representing the convoluted story of mankind, that brings about a positive conclusion with a rebirth, a renewal, as indicated in the source materials of the Norse Poetic Edda. The music itself is so exciting—it tells you that life is really hard and the answers are difficult to come by but that’s why I keep coming back time and time again trying to find the answer.
Who are the heroes for you?
Many people say that all the women represent the truth and that ‘love conquers all’ and that it’s Brünnhilde and that it’s the men who let the world down with their greed and negative attributes. Brünnhilde wasn’t true to herself. She goes after revenge and that’s not the answer. Of course, Brünnhilde grew–she understands what has happened but she’s betrayed herself. She finds out too late what the truth is and by then it’s all set in motion. Wotan, well, he just accepts that he’s done it all wrong and that he can’t fix it any more.
It’s interesting to analyze the characters because with each director, in each new production and portrayal, you might see something that has been added that makes sense to you. I attended a talk last night and was struck with a realization about Alberich. He was evil, and greedy, and power-driven but he admitted it and he was therefore true to himself, honest about his nature. It is Wotan who pretends that he is righteous when he’s not–he is really driven by greed and takes advantage of other people and ultimately pays the price. Siegmund is the only true hero, the only one who remains true to himself and to his love Sieglinde. That was new to me that Siegmund was the true hero.
And then, of course, you have to bring your own thoughts in too and ask yourself what you see in it all. It depends on where you come from and we all have different backgrounds. I’m Swedish and I married an Italian and I love German and I’ve had many adventures around the world. Wherever we come from, we bring all that with us when we sit down and watch what’s on stage. I just can’t wait to see it all unfold again.
What’s your overall impression of Francesca Zambello’s production, now that you’ve seen all three cycles?
Upon reflection today, thinking about the reasons this San Francisco Ring is such a positive success, and why people leave the Opera House smiling and saying it was great, most important is the fact that it is true to Wagner. It was not some director’s concept of what he thought Wagner might have said. It was not a ‘glitsey’ controversial, sensationalized staging for the sake of controversy or publicity. Although Wagner used giants, dwarfs, gods, and dragons, they are symbols or archetypes of the people we know around about our worlds–our neighbors, even ourselves. We identify with them. We read about them in today’s news.
The direction was humanized. Wotan was bored with his wife Fricka’s complaints so he picked up the newspaper and read. Then Fricka, bored with Wotan’s explanation of the extended view of world leadership, also picked up the newspaper and read. Francesca Zambello welcomed suggestions from the cast so that performers were part of a team, acting in ways that seemed normal. It seemed as though there was a communal joy and presenting this Ring.
Wagner appreciated the natural world as illustrated many times in this epic story. The destruction of our environment—water, air, earth—has formed the basis for the sets of many productions (Cologne + Rhein River pollution, Berlin + junk yards, Arizona + Colorado River diversion, Oslo and Warsaw + barren trees). In San Francisco’s Gotterdammerung there were piles of junked plastic bags that the Rheinmaidens picked up.
New questions to ponder: Was Siegmund really a hero if he was willing to slay his bride and unborn child because they could not go with him to Valhalla? Was Brünnhilde really a heroine, and really true to her inner self, if she was willing to conspire with Hagen for her husband’s death? Is a yellow ‘sail’ that balloons into the air and finally dissolves into the river, a likely gold that can be stolen? If Gutrune is so willing to jump into the king-size bed with Hagen, while waiting for Siegfried to return to marry her, should she participate so prominently in the finale supporting Brunnhilde’s memorial dedication?
And, this being a music-drama, the music itself was simply outstanding. Leading the outstanding cast was Nina Stemme, today’s world-famous Brünnhilde. Returning to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was Donald Runnicles, internationally acclaimed for his work with Wagner. The music of the finale is positive, so that using again a child planting a small tree representing a new beginning, is logical. Wagner’s early revolutionary ideas took many philosophical turns. How should the world’s ending be portrayed? ‘Tis a puzzlement’ that Wagnerians will continue to ponder.
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.