I must admit that years of contemplating Der Ring des Nibelungen on records, grainy VHS tapes, and laser disc did not prepare me for Wagner's mammoth four-opera cycle, which I finally saw at Seattle Opera in 2005.
The secret is to surrender. Let the whole thing sink in. In my brittle-paged copy of Art Life and Theories of Richard Wagner (Henry Holt, 1875), Wagner articulates a vision of the total artwork, the gesamtkunstwerk. By engulfing you in music, drama, poetry, and movement, Wagner builds a world of giants, dwarves, gods, gold, love, lust, and betrayal that not only chronicles a mythic past but also prophesies a vague, idealized socialism.
Most productions of The Ring follow my Third Law of Opera: Thou shalt transpose the plot to another time period. Not Seattle Opera's current Ring production, which was developed in 2001 (this year's run is Aug 9–30, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St, 389-7676, $25–$1,508): It hews to Wagner's preference for a quasi-medieval helmets-and-halberds setting.
Don't worry about keeping the characters straight. As music director of a small theater, Wagner understood the importance of exposition; each opera in the cycle contains a recap in the first act. Read the supertitles, and the plot is easy to follow. The gods scheme, fret, fail, and the world is destroyed and reborn.
Key players in Seattle Opera's 2005 Ring cast return this summer: The stunning Stephanie Blythe and Margaret Jane Wray reprise their respective roles as Fricka and Sieglinde. Let's hope Greer Grimsley, who occasionally sounded underpowered in the 2005 Ring, has aged well and acquired more bottom end to sing Wotan, ruler of the gods. In lieu of Jane Eaglen, I'm betting that Janice Baird, who raged and fulminated as Seattle Opera's Elektra last fall, will be a riveting Brünnhilde. Blessed with a strong, pining heldentenor, Stig Fogh Andersen debuts here as the irrepressible man-child Siegfried.
Music is the command of sound and memory over time. Like other great composers, Wagner's Ring not only commands our ears while we listen, but indelibly influences (and in some cases obliterates) the music we have heard before.
A handful of Ring tickets remain available from Seattle Opera; www.seattleopera.org for the full schedule and availability of regular as well as standing-room tickets. You can also try eBay, Craigslist, and the resellers who hawk tickets in front of the venue before each performance, though caveat emptor. Heed my Fifth Law of Opera: Eat light, dress nice, bring discreet opera glasses (or binoculars), and most importantly, pee before you leave home.
KING 98.1 FM airs performances culled from Seattle Opera's Ring cycle on four consecutive Saturdays at 7:00 p.m.: Das Rheingold (Aug 15), Die Walküre (Aug 22), Siegfried (Aug 29); and Götterdämmerung (Sept 5, 6 pm).