Of machines and music and realistic rainbow bridges

Early in my relationship with my husband, I learned that he was a big opera fan, one of those people who will quickly call to mind that the word fan is short for fanatic. This, I thought, was just a bit weird. I had been to an opera once, when I was 19, but it was not something that I was familiar with, nor that I thought I would ever like. But, when we finally did go to an opera together, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I was, unexpectedly, blown away. The beauty of the music, the full sound of an orchestra, the magical sounds of a trained operatic voice, the color, the sets, the costumes: it is visual and aural treat. I was hooked.

But, there was one thing about opera that I swore that I would never do: attend a Ring Cycle. 4 operas? One of them nearly six hours long? Usually done over the course of a week? Are you kidding? I was adamant that I would never agree to do that. I should have known: never say never.

We’ve been attending, whenever possible, the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series since it started a few years ago. I love have access to world-class opera at our local movie theater. And you get popcorn: beats having to wait until you have the resources and opportunities to go to NYC.

In 2010, the Met began a new Ring Cycle, directed by Robert LePage. As soon as my husband found out it was on the HD schedule, he began talking about it. My heels were still dug in deeply. Finally, I relented and agreed to attend Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas. If I don’t like it, I said repeatedly, I will go sit in a coffee shop until it’s over. But, since the first one is “normal” length, I will give it a try. If I don’t like it, I won’t go to the others.

My verdict, given as the house lights were rising: there was too much time (several months) until the second installment was going to be aired!

Today, we attended Gotterdammerung, the last opera in The Ring Cycle. It was beautiful. I’m not one to cry at the opera, and I didn’t during this one, but I was still amazed at how mesmerizingly beautiful the opera was. I understand how those who are weepers can do so at this opera. Those five hours and 50 minutes flew by. My only complaint was that the theater was a bit too cold. We have tickets in May to see the four Ring operas at the Met over a five-day period. Because of a conflict that will prevent us from being in NYC on the 12th, we’ll have to sell tickets to Gotterdammerung. (If you’re interested in them — or better yet, if you have tickets to the May 3rd performance and want to trade for the May 12th performance — send me a message and let’s make a deal.) I am looking forward to seeing what I can of the cycle again in just a few months.

This production at the Met utilizes not only a new set, but new technology that brings that set to life. Weighing over 45 tons (the stage had to be reinforced), it is a series of planks that move and rotate to create different shapes. The singers perform on and in front of these planks, nicknamed “The Machine”. Images are projected on to the Machine as well. In Das Rheingold, The Machine is the Rhine, where the Rheinmaidens live. Interactive technology was used to create air bubbles in the water, based on how loud the singer sang. The louder the voice, the more bubbles were displayed. At the end of the opera, it is the rainbow bridge that leads to Valhalla, the home of the gods. In Die Walkure, The Machine becomes the rock surrounding by fire where Wotan imprisons Brunhilde. At the end of Gotterdammerung, it once again is the Rhine where the Rheinmaidens sing and swim. In each of the operas, the set is integral to creating the world of the operas even though it changes throughout. Although some were critical of the new set (including some very vocal opera fans at the theaters I saw the performances), I thought that the set was an incredible way to use technology to help portray the story. It isn’t used to add technology into opera for technology’s sake; it is technology used as a mechanism of stage craft.

Some may think that the technology used in this Ring Cycle is just a new-fangled way to change a production and may be more comfortable with the traditional sets used in the past. But, if you claim that the music is timeless, you need to be open to the idea of the sets and costumes, as well as the stylistic considerations of the director, conductor and singers, being changeable. Art is meant to be interpreted and in opera, it is both the producer (the artists) and the receiver (the audience) that are involved in interpreting the work. It doesn’t make sense to use the same sets every time a work is done any more than it makes sense to think that you will get the same thing out of a work of art — or an opera — every time that you see it.

If you want to read more about the stage sets, play the videos at this part of the Met’s Ring microsite (warning: the first one doesn’t appear to work) and read about LePage’s ideas and see pictures of the production at his website.

As we were leaving the theatre after seeing Das Rheingold, I overheard a patron say: I loved the singing, but I don’t know about that set. The Rainbow Bridge wasn’t very realistic. My husband and I have laughed about that when we’ve seen the other three Ring operas. The set isn’t realistic, but then, neither is the plot. In fact, that could be said about nearly every opera. But the point of opera is not meant to be a realistic representation. It’s theater. It’s art. It’s about beauty and emotion and human interactions, which means it is about life.

For those of you who are not opera fans, I’d recommend that you shed any preconceived notions about opera and attend one of the Met’s Live in HD performances in the future. The Ring may not be the best introduction, but there are plenty of other operas that are easy to follow and to understand.


4 responses to “Of machines and music and realistic rainbow bridges

  1. Jealous! I’ve been reading the original sagas recently and would be fascinated to see what Wagner made of them.

    • I was told that this version of the Ring cycle is going to be available on DVD soon. My guess is that, like most things at the Met, not be inexpensive, but will still be worthwhile!

      I told my son that we were seeing operatic version of The Lord of the Rings, without elves and orcs and MiddleEarth. I don’t think that he believed me that Tolkein wasn’t completely original 🙂

  2. I have a cousin who sings soprano in this country and Canada, and a sister-in-law who’s made her living in Europe as a soprano, so I also, reluctantly, and then enthusiastically, have learned to enjoy and anticipate opera productions. I agree that the Met’s Ring Cycle has been wonderful, and have loved the sets, too!

    • I think it is a common experience to be a reluctant opera attendee at first. I’m not sure that there is any middle ground on the like/dislike scale of opera. While my husband is certainly more knowledgable about music and could attend many operas days in a row, I am not quite that fanatical about it. Still, I am an enthusiastic audience.