For the 15th time in my life I’m about to attend a performance of the complete Ring Cycle. Since first seeing the complete Ring at the English National Opera in 1975, I’ve attended full productions in New York, Bayreuth, Berlin, Boston, and San Francisco. Every time has been a thrill and a privilege. Each production has prompted reservations and musings; each (except for the Otto Schenk production at the Metropolitan Opera) has contributed to my growing understanding of this great work’s many, many meanings. Any time I have suspended my life’s affairs (for that’s what it takes) in order to attend the Ring Cycle I have felt like a lucky, lucky guy to have had the opportunity to do so.
So I ask: Why are people badmouthing the Met Ring?
Who learns more by boo-ing Robert Lepage and the choices that his team has made after years of work? Why, when a new Ring is drawing curious people to New York from all over the world, does Alex Ross of the New Yorker — before any complete performance of the work has been staged — opine that the Met’s Ring “is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history”? (March 12, 2012)
If this sounds like the plaint of a naif, then accept it as such. I have never understood why audiences in Bayreuth, for example, having obtained a ticket to a performance at the Festival at great cost and after much waiting, and then having left their work and children to travel miles to attend, shilling out hundreds more for hotel and food, boo the artists.
Indeed, I don’t understand anyone boo-ing an artist, irrespective of the cost of the ticket or the inconvenience of the attendance. It is the art, not the artist, that is why we are there. Loving the art as I do, why would I want to boo those who perform it? Who benefits from knowing that the performance failed to move me as I’d hoped? And why, as an art lover, would I boo the person who brought it to me?
It’s not as if we’re dealing with amateurs here. The creators and performers of the Met Ring are unquestionably of the international first water. Robert Lepage and his design crew are responsible for some of the most exciting theatre events being created today (although, among Lepage’s six operas, seven films, and scores of theatre projects the only work of this great artist that the New York Times has seen fit to cite is a Las Vegas revue, KA). The Met has lent the artists incredible support, at a cost that it describes as “on the high end of” the average cost of new productions — which seems entirely appropriate for a 17-hour work that starts with the beginning of time and ends with the apocalypse. Not being willing to commit “on the high end of” the average new production would suggest that a producing company shouldn’t be mounting this work. So the right ingredients are there and there’s no evidence “wasteful” spending or other artistic mismanagement — unlike some other great opera producing companies.
What is not onstage at the Met is all the more impressive. The words of the author relate to the action of the play, and are not ignored or misshapen in favor of a regiekonzept. The costumes and projected sets are appropriate to the mythology of the narrative and never introduce actions or interpretations at odds with the content of the music and the clarity of the narrative. The scenery is not an effort to replicate past, conventional, familiar settings of yester-year’s tired opera productions. No-one wears t-shirts, no-one masturbates, no-one washes dishes, no-one lies on rubber floats in swimming-pools, no-one refers to a typewriter as a shoe. The writer of the story and the composer of the music is provided a platform on which his story may be told unimpeded by updates or deconstructive interpretations. And what we see at the Met is often something I (at least) have never seen on a stage before. The scenic/cinematic treatment of “Winterstürme” in Act I of Walküre is theatrical magic, as is the flowing water in Act I of Siegfried.
The attitude of an audience member should be, “Thrill me — please!” By contrast, the criticism with which the separate works of the Met Ring have been greeted is enough to drive a true artist ’round the twist. Who would want to work in a town where half the folks say you are too adventurous and the other that you’re not inventive enough? Who would regard as an encouraging environment one where the paid critics are given to hyperbole like Mr. Ross (“the catastrophically vapid spectacle”) and the ageing audince to constant skepticism and comparison to the familiar (“I so wish they hadn’t retired the old Ring — it was so beautiful!”)? While we’re at it, Mr. Ross, when did “modern operatic history” begin, and were you there for all of it?
Dear reader, we in New York are about to see a new Ring Cycle. We have the opportunity to experience that work only a finite number of times before we die, and new productions even fewer! To sit in the dark and anticipate that E-flat in silence is surely one of the great experiences in life for those of us who love music and are drawn to theatre that is bigger than ourselves. Can we not respect the artists who have devoted however-many years of their lives to create this production, at least enough to reserve for our dinner tables our trenchant concerns about the choices they have made? Can we not learn or see something new, and welcome it for its newness rather than condemn it because it doen’t conform to what we anticipated? Can we not hope for the many aesthetic insights rather than condemn the occasional lapse of taste? (Who is to say that the dissonant “Barabas” chord in the St. Matthew Passion is not a lapse of taste, by the way?)
Audiences who are prepared to condemn cannot, I suggest, be fully open to being thrilled by the unexpected. If that’s so, I don’t want one of them sitting next to me. We are all mortal; who knows whether you or I will see another performance of this work? I look forward to the one that starts Thursday night. Surely that’s all that matters.