My First Ring 

The endurance test that is Wagner's masterpiece.

Der Ring des Nibelungen
Lyric Opera of Chicago, 4/11, 12, 14 & 16

It was just like being at the airport. The air smelled of liquor and stress and anticipation. I was sipping water with a mind toward hydration, at a pace tempered by limited bathroom access, applying lip balm, adjusting my underwear, trying to discreetly stretch my legs. "I can eat here, no problem, right?" said the woman next to me, unwrapping a smelly burrito. Twenty minutes to go. Look at us, lined up, checking our watches, clutching our tickets, I thought. We're getting ready for a long flight, a 16-hour flight during which we won't be able to move or talk. And, just like before any long flight, as a woman of operatic stature all I could really think about was: would my ass fit in the seat?

I was in the lobby of the Civic Opera House for the first night of my first assault on the Everest of opera: Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Four operas, actually--Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung--in four nights, each longer than the last, portraying a cycle of connected stories based on German and Nordic myth. The Ring cycle took Wagner almost 30 years to write, from 1848 to 1874, two years before it premiered at the Festspielhaus built specifically for it in Bayreuth, Germany. Few opera companies routinely perform this singer-exhausting, money-sucking, giant-orchestra-needing behemoth, especially in America. The Lyric Opera's recent run (the whole cycle three times in three weeks, ending April 16) was only its second ever, and it was the same production as the first, a fantastic modern-looking narrative version introduced in the mid-90s.

This production, like all of them, drew spectators from all over the world, members of a subspecies of opera fan that counts its Rings in the dozens. All around you could hear bursts of excited talk in foreign languages, and when we finally filed into the theater, there wasn't an empty seat in the house.

One of the best things about the Ring is that you don't go through it alone--even if you go alone. "Seatmate . . . soulmate! We are all soulmates in this together, yes?" I was seated in a little row of women attending the Ring by themselves, and the woman two chairs over was directing this at me. It wasn't actually until the second opera, Die Walkure, that I started to feel chummy, but once the ice was broken, we all traded painkillers and candy, gossiped when somebody missed an early curtain, commiserated about bolting our dinners, worried aloud about the singers who had announced colds, and talked about how we explained this strange activity to others. "I tell my son it's like a Grateful Dead concert," said one neighbor.

People swarmed the lobby during intermission, passing their friends baggies of cookies, getting water and coffee, talking and unpacking dinners. The soulmate lady had the flu, she finally confided to me during Siegfried--but she'd marched into her doctor's office twice the day of the first opera, demanding drugs to get her through the Ring for the second time in three weeks. (Ringheads dose up with cough medicine beforehand and pack lozenges whose wrappers aren't crinkly, partly out of consideration for their fellow operagoers, partly as insurance that the house remains a silent temple to Wagner.)

The battle of the Ringhead is the battle of ars v. corpus. I'd like to say I was wholly on the side of ars, but I'd be lying. The seat, as it happens, did not fit. I don't mean it was tight and uncomfortable, I mean it did not fit. After the first night I devised back support--a backpack with a pillow crammed inside--but I spent every night perched forward on the seat, back spasming, a heater at my feet where my leg room should have been, swallowing fistfuls of Advil.

For some part of each of the four nights, usually early in the evening, I fought the kind of bodily tiredness so strong it hurts. I kept waking myself up with my signature Wagnerian tuba snort of a snore; once a lovely gentleman from Los Angeles in the row in front of me reached back and prodded me awake.

I engaged in hours of hallucinatory dialogue with the libretti--thank god I didn't do that part aloud. Siegfried would warble in German, and "You pretty bird! I never heard you before: do you live in this forest?" would appear as a supertitle above the stage. Then I think I've heard that bird but Chicago forests . . . no hills either . . . San Francisco Athens Rome roam isn't that ironic . . . would flash across the inside of my eyelids in response, just before I awoke with a jerk of my head. I took pages of completely unintelligible notes. "This Wagner shit . . . serious: wombs, not titties," I scribbled on one page, attempting to describe what M.F.K. Fisher called the "religious lewdness" of the Ring's incest-filled plot. "It was like a Mauricio Kagel experiment!" yelled a music-nerd friend of mine afterward, referring to the Darmstadt composer whose pieces ask for the musicians or audience to participate in various compromised ways. "Even if you were sleeping, your ears were always open."

In that tug-of-war between assly concerns and Gesamtkunstwerk, there was no middle ground. I was either wide-eyed awake or feverish with lack of sleep, can-openered open in ways I couldn't control. That's what the Ring does to you. The last act of Die Walkure--which begins with "Ride of the Valkyries," the kill-the-wabbit Wagner most familiar to popular audiences--got its hooks in me with the final scene, sung by the two main characters in the Ring, chief god Wotan (James Morris), and his daughter Brunnhilde (Jane Eaglen). She defies him by trying to protect his half-god son on the battlefield; he strips her of her godhood and consigns her to sleep; at her plea, he surrounds her with a ring of fire that only the bravest man would be able to breach. The music of love, pain, and sad forgiveness between father and daughter is almost completely overwhelming.

I go to opera for many-layered satisfactions, but what I really tune my strings for, like an aeolian harp, is the monster-truck rally stuff, the breathtaking speeding roller-coaster thrills. The Ring is full of them: the huge orchestration, the blasting, cradling horns, the neon-bathed and bungee-jumping Rhinemaidens and trampoline-launched Valkyries. Some of the notes Eaglen hit you could have built cities on--"the voice loud / as hunger remagnetizes your bones," as Marge Piercy writes in "One Reason I Like Opera"--and Placido Domingo was astonishing as Siegmund. In his curtain call, he kissed the stage and made 3,500 people go nuts. Morris's burled orgasmic baritone, combined with his absolute mastery of the stillness that makes you watch everything he does, had me screaming "Bravo!" at the end of Siegfried like a teenager at a Beatles concert. The climb to Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold, the end of the first act of Siegfried . . . the endings of everything, really. Most acts, even if I'd started out exhausted, I wound up with my mouth open and my eyes full of tears. It was kind of an ugly win, but I won.

It's odd now to have descended, Brunnhilde-like, into everyday life, stripped of my godhood. It's odd to be fighting for seat space on the bus with my usual urban misanthropy when the seat is actually bigger than the tiny bit of real estate where I spent so much time last week. But then again the music isn't nearly so sublime.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Kusel--Lyric Opera of Chiago.

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