I know the look, because I've seen it so often. In college, a professor once veered from a dull lecture on international politics and launched into an extended monologue on Richard Wagner, his expression transforming into one of awe, or perhaps ecstatic reverence. Wagner, the professor said, would make us understand. What exactly we were to understand I don't recall, but I still remember that look. I saw it again several months ago, on the face of a smarty-pants acquaintance when he learned I was going to see Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Seattle Opera. The acquaintance was desperate for one of my tickets to what is considered Wagner's masterwork, an opera so long and involved that it takes four days to perform. He looked possessed.
People from all over the world are flocking to McCaw Hall this month, and I'm starting to understand Wagner's magnetic pull. Seeing the Ring cycle—not to mention hearing it—is a profound, even transformative experience. The sets are tremendous, giving believable life to Wagner's fantastical imagination: an underworld of mangy miners and midgets, a mountaintop ringed with fire, an underwater cavern where women with luminescent fins and split tails tumble and swim and giggle. The otherworldly story, like the powerful trinket of its title, is addictive, making four-and-a-half-hour operas pass as if in dream speed. And the music hypnotizes, floating the audience into Wagner's universe on a raft of his famous leitmotifs. I saw women in evening gowns wiping tears at the intermissions, and observed a pair of aging men in matching seersucker suits declaring that the opera was the most complete performance they had ever seen.
Opera writers from around the world come, too, because a Ring performance is such an event. The writers gossip over wine and crème brûlée about the divas (my favorite debate concerned the weight of a very fulsome Jane Eaglen), and they condescend to commoners, such as me. A handsome opera writer from Berlin, dressed in Prada, asked whether I was ready for Wagner's Ring cycle, having seen only one other opera. I didn't challenge him, partly because he was so handsome, and partly because I was actually starting to enjoy this condescension from the opera intelligentsia; it all seemed lighthearted, a result of how seriously they take the form.
When I wasn't at the opera hall, I would try to explain to friends what the Ring cycle was about. Opera's grand spectacle is not for the light of wallet, which is one reason people my age don't see much of it. The press tickets I was given for the cycle were worth more than $1,150 per seat (the cheapest seats cost a cool $240), and I was trying to share the wealth.
But when I tried to speak about the experience I would find myself caught in extended rants about mythology, power lust, the fading strength of fathers, love, everything, everything! Wagner's work—which he called a Gesamptkunstwerk, or "total art work"—is basically a Joseph Campbell wet dream. Its themes are so elemental and its references to essential stories in the Western canon so frequent that describing the depth of the opera's penetration into one's consciousness, while also attempting to wrap words around the experience itself, feels like trying to turn oneself inside out.
At a family reunion over the weekend—a reunion that was, in large part, about the Wagnerian fading of a powerful father—I nevertheless talked and talked and talked to my cousins about this and other themes in Wagner's opera. I suggested that the Ring cycle was an entire separate universe that contained, in condensed form, everything of importance in our own universe. I said everyone who has the opportunity should see it. They looked at me like I was possessed.
There are a few cheap seats at the opera. Well, not exactly seats: Standing room space is $20 per opera—on Tues Aug 23, get in line before the box office opens at 9 am at either McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St) or the Seattle Opera Ticket Office (1020 John St) for your chance to score a spot. Willing to shell out for seats at the sold-out opera? Call the box office (389-7676) around noon the day of the show to see if anyone has returned tickets.