Das Rheingold

The epic story begins on the banks of the Rhine, where three maidens guard the sacred river's magical gold. The cunning dwarf Alberich, angered by the Rhinemaidens’ scorn, steals the precious metal and forges a ring that gives its bearer unimaginable power. The struggle for its possession drives this fantastic drama, in which the stakes—control of the entire world—could not be higher.

Francesca Zambello's production colorfully evokes the California Gold Rush era, drawing provocative parallels between Wagner's mythical kingdom of gods and goddesses and the Industrial Revolution's entrepreneurs and tycoons. Conducted by Donald Runnicles, the world-class cast is headed by internationally acclaimed baritone Mark Delavan, praised by London’s Financial Times for his "extraordinary power, clarity and intelligence" and, after his June 2010 performance in Die Walküre, hailed by the San Francisco Examiner as "both majestic and heartbreakingly human. A great new Wotan has arrived."

The Story:

The dwarf Alberich futilely attempts to seduce the maidens who guard the Rhine River’s gold. If forged into a ring, it would give its wearer universal power, as long as he renounces love. Alberich steals the gold and fashions the ring. Meanwhile, Wotan, king of the gods, must find a way to pay the giants Fasolt and Fafner for the construction of Valhalla, the immortals’ opulent new home. Using trickery, he steals Alberich’s ring to settle his debt. The bitter dwarf places a curse on the ring and anyone who possesses it.

Sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with no intermission

Co-production with Washington National Opera

Audio credit: San Francisco Opera Guild Insight Panel Discussion on The Ring with Mark Delavan (Wotan), Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka), Heidi Melton (Sieglinde), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried in Siegfried) and Brandon Jovanovich (Froh and Siegmund), moderated by Kip Cranna. Recorded live at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco on June 13, 2011. Approximate running time: one hour.

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Production Sponsors:
The Ring of the Nibelung is made possible, in part, by Jane Bernstein & Bob Ellis, the Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation, Roberta and David Elliott, Kristina Flanagan, Mary and Nicholas Graves, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Hiro & Betty Ogawa, The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund, Betty and Jack Schafer and several anonymous sponsors. Additional support provided by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. United Airlines is the official airline of the Ring Festival.


Production Credits

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Director Francesca Zambello
Set designer Michael Yeargan
Costume designer Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer Mark McCullough
Projection designer Jan Hartley
Senior Associate Director Christian Räth
Choreographer Lawrence Pech
Associate Director Jose Maria Condemi
Associate Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker

* San Francisco Opera Debut



The three Rhinemaidens, guardians of the river’s golden trea­sure, laugh and play, scarcely noticing the Nibelung Alberich. The lustful Alberich tries with no avail to catch the Rhinemaid­ens as they dart through the waters, taunting him. Suddenly sun­light illuminates the river’s treasure—the Rhinegold. The Rhinemaidens explain that this gold is all-powerful: if fashioned into a Ring, its wearer would rule the world. But they insist that the gold is safe, since whoever would steal the treasure must renounce love. Hearing this secret, Alberich renounces love and escapes with the Rhinegold. The waters are plunged into dark­ness as the Rhinemaidens lament their loss.


As the sun rises, Fricka and Wotan are asleep on a mountaintop while their new home, the fortress Valhalla, gleams in the dis­tance. When they awaken, Wotan hails Valhalla as the fulfillment of his dreams. Fricka reproaches her husband for having promised her sister Freia to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as pay­ment for constructing the fortress. Wotan replies that he never meant to keep his word and tells her that Loge will help the gods solve their dilemma. When Fafner and Fasolt arrive to claim Freia, Wotan protests that he made the pact in jest, informing them that they must settle for another fee. But Fasolt, smitten with Freia, balks. Fafner, aware that the gods would lose their eternal youth and power without Freia’s golden apples, decides to abduct her. As the giants drag Freia away, her brothers Froh and Donner attempt to thwart them. Wotan intervenes, reminding them that all treaties are guaranteed by the writings on his spear. Denied Freia’s golden apples, the gods begin to weaken and age.

Loge, who helped Wotan draw up the contract with the Fafner and Fasolt, arrives and suggests that the giants might find the Rhinegold an acceptable substitute for Freia. He then relates how Alberich stole the gold, forging it into a Ring in order to gain world dominance. Wotan is enthralled by the absolute power the Ring imparts: Fricka is intrigued by its power to keep a philandering husband faithful, so she urges Wotan to obtain it. Loge suggests that Wotan steal the gold, as Alberich did, and restore it to the Rhinemaidens. Fafner, desiring the gold, advises Wotan to use his wits to gain the treasure. The giants leave, tak­ing Freia hostage until evening, when they will return to claim the Nibelung’s gold as ransom. Wotan asks Loge to accompany him to the netherworld to seek Alberich’s treasure.


In the dark underground caverns of Nibelheim, Alberich’s slaves clang their anvils as they work on his gold. Wearing the all-pow­erful Ring, Alberich torments his brother Mime. Alberich tries on the Tarnhelm—the magical helmet Mime has forged—which transforms the wearer into any size or shape. Alberich uses the Tarnhelm to make himself invisible, thrashes Mime, and then vanishes to torment his slaves.

     Wotan and Loge arrive and encounter Mime, who confesses that he had hoped to regain the Ring he forged by using the Tarnhelm. Wotan and Loge offer to help the Nibelungs free themselves from Alberich’s tyranny. Alberich returns, driving slaves bearing mounds of gold. He suspiciously questions Wotan and Loge, warning of his plan to overthrow the gods and rule the world. When Loge asks Alberich what would happen if someone stole the Ring while he slept, the Nibelung extols the powers of the Tarnhelm. Loge asks for a demonstration, and Alberich transforms himself into a large serpent, then back again. Loge asks whether the Tarnhelm could also transform him into some­thing small—a toad, for instance. When Alberich demonstrates this, Wotan traps him and Loge seizes the Tarnhelm. Wotan and Loge bind Alberich and drag him to the surface of the earth.


Back on the mountaintop, Loge and Wotan tell Alberich that they will free him only if he yields his gold. Alberich feels sure that the Ring will replenish his fortune, so he orders his slaves to surrender the gold to Wotan. Alberich asks for the return of the Tarnhelm, but Loge says the gods will keep it. Wotan also demands the Ring as part of the booty, reminding Alberich that it was not rightfully his. Although Alberich replies that Wotan is as much a thief as he, Wotan tears the Ring from Alberich’s finger. As Loge frees Alberich, the Nibelung places a curse upon the Ring: until it returns to him, trouble, envy, and death will befall all who possess it.

     Alberich leaves as the other gods approach, followed by the giants with their hostage Freia. Saddened at losing Freia, Fasolt agrees to accept the Nibelung gold only if it will hide Freia from his view. When all the gold is piled in front of Freia, Fafner com­plains that he can still see her hair, and demands that the Tarn-helm be added to the pile. Fasolt then complains that he can see the gleam of Freia’s eye, so Fafner demands the Ring, now on Wotan’s finger. When Wotan refuses, the giants begin to seize Freia. Erda, the earth goddess, suddenly appears and warns Wotan to yield the Ring, which spells doom for the gods. Wotan then surrenders the Ring, and Freia is released. Fafner and Fasolt quarrel over their booty and Fafner kills Fasolt, claiming the Ring, the Tarnhelm, and the hoard for himself. Alberich’s curse has taken effect.

     Fricka urges Wotan to turn his thoughts to their new home. Donner summons lightning and thunder to form a rainbow bridge to the fortress. Noting how the setting sun gilds it, Wotan tells Fricka their abode is called Valhalla. Wotan leads the other gods—all except Loge, who claims that they are doomed—across the rainbow bridge. The Rhinemaidens, in the valley below, lament their lost treasure.

Director's Note

Francesca Zambello

Francesca Zambello discusses her inspirations for our new Ring cycle

In the summer of 1981 I climbed to the top of Red Rocks, a vast outdoor arena for rock concerts at the foot of the Rockies near Denver, where gods and goddesses seem just out of sight. Space seems immeasurable in a place like that and time appears to slow down, as if awaiting an appearance from the earth goddess Erda. I have often thought of this view in our planning of Wagner’s Ring cycle now unfolding in San Francisco. It was very evocative of how I thought the Ring could start, and I began to see an American parallel to the story.
Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado
Photo: Denver Public Library 
As a director of something as immense as the Ring cycle, ideas and inspirations come from different points of your life in addition to drawing from research and references. But you always have to start with something personal. Often for me it is images, which then lead to the characters who can live inside those images.
The greatness of Wagner’s vast world is that it encompasses the past, present, and future. The timeless themes of the Ring—the destruction of nature, the quest for power, corruption, the plight of the powerless—are not bound to the nineteenth century’s Industrial Age, nor to Europe or some leafy Nordic realm of long ago. So much of America’s stories, myths, visions, and iconographic images are in many ways analogous to the Ring. All of the great paintings of the idealized American West fit in with Wagner’s idea of what you see for such a short time in the beginning of Das Rheingold. Our Valhalla is something like one of those nascent, technically ingenious 1930s skyscrapers that speak to the American dream as well as the mess left in the wake of their construction. The battlements in the Presidio and the Marin Headlands were immediately suggestive of the war zone that is the realm of the gods. These American images all filtered into our palette as we constructed our stage world.
And while the setting of our Ring is certainly grounded in American iconography, it isn’t limited to that. Many of our “locations” could be anywhere today. The setting ultimately feels like a world we know, which allows the characters to shine through. And the characters are at the heart of the Ring.
While Wagner’s themes are epic and grand, the scenes he creates to tell the story are very small and intimate. It was crucial for us to place the intimate inside the epic in this piece, to balance the larger than life with the personal. Gods, goddesses, creatures, heroes, and mere humans are all equally at home in Wagner’s world. Many set out on journeys that will take them through terrifying landscapes demanding courage, heart, understanding, and sacrifice. As they are transformed, so are we who watch but sense their stories are also ours.
Set Designer Michael Yeargan (left) and Zambello at
a technical rehearsal for Götterdämmerung in 2010
Photo: Kevin Berne
The parallels of our own contemporary story and those of the Ring came into focus for me in 2001. I was working with David Gockley at Houston Grand Opera when ENRON imploded. We looked on in shock as the city collapsed, taking down the local men of myth and an economy built on avarice and math magic: bad deals, bad faith, bad banking, greed, and ambition on a colossal scale. We dwell in what sometimes seem like corresponding worlds in which Wotan gives up an eye to build a mansion he can’t afford, and a young goddess provides eternal youth through negotiable apples of eternity—worlds in which man is out of balance with nature.
When we began production in 2005 in Washington, D.C., the seat of political power, we focused on the misuse of it. In San Francisco, where Californians have a keen consciousness of nature and the environment, we placed more emphasis on despoliation. Is there a major river in the U.S. that hasn’t been raped like the Rhine as the brooding E-flat chords begin Das Rheingold? From the clouds of Los Alamos to Three Mile Island and the BP oil spill, the natural resources that built this country have been on an inevitable path to destruction. How do we rebuild them?
It’s fitting that California is where our complete cycle takes place. The western shore is our last chance for reinvention. It’s the part of our geography where we can no longer cast off old environments and ignore the havoc we’ve caused, forever changing ourselves with no consequences. Manifest Destiny ends here; we can’t keep moving forward. California is also the part of this country where nature is most unrestrained and uncontrollable—flash floods, mud slides, forest fires, earthquakes.
As the curtain rises on our Ring, you will see the pristine world of an idealized natural landscape. As the cycle proceeds, the glistening world sickens, changes, trembles, darkens, and decays. And when the curtain falls, the world seems bereft of anything alive as we know it, now destroyed by our own making. The Norns live inside a computer, attached to the motherboard by bundles of cables; the only visible sign of nature in Götterdämmerung is a slowly dying tree in the Gibichungs’ hall. In Siegfried, Fafner is a scrap metal compactor who bleeds oil when Siegfried slays him. The fire that surrounds Brünnhilde has a greenish tinge suggesting chemical combustion. We are left hoping that the despoiled world might be reborn through her redemptive suicide.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the Ring is Wotan’s failure to realize the perfect hero he so desires was actually his daughter Brünnhilde. I call her the hero rather than the heroine because she achieves in a sense what no man can achieve: returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens and restoring a natural order. By her self-sacrifice, we come to a new world. For me, it’s a world where mankind is not conflated to godliness, where there is a society with morals. It’s allowing us to start over, and that’s what she enables all who stayed behind to do.
Zambello with Andrea Silvestrelli (left) and Gerd Grochowski (right)
at a Götterdämmerung rehearsal
Photo: Kristen Loken
In the Ring, I have seized on the Christian motifs of redemption and reinvention—even the act of another’s sacrifice to redeem us so that we don’t have to face the full consequences. I am an optimistic believer in personal transformation. This impulse is of course hugely American, not only in its New Testament feel but also the “right” to reinvent ourselves in a single lifetime, a single generation. Creating a better life not just for our kids, but for ourselves—it’s the essence of the American experience and what makes us different from wherever we fled.
The winners in American life are those who drive for redemptive transformation now; the losers wait patiently for another life. This lack of impulse control, the push against predestination, the drive to not let the gods tell us what are place is, the belief that we have a right to have it all in our own lifetimes are not only particularly American but also post-Christian, as Christianity originally looked towards a better life after death.
I am indebted to the artists with whom I have collaborated on the evolution of this production. We were all on a collective, unified vision through constant communication and diligence—like the ropes of destiny. We knew where we were going from the beginning, and we knew what the end was going to be. My gratitude also goes out to the many people who have brought this Ring to life, and to our audiences on the voyage with us. Thank you.

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Das Rheingold: Where to Begin?

Thomas May

A look at the prologue of Wagner's epic Ring cycle and the emotional truths at the heart of its mythological narrative

The house lights dim as before any other opera. But the familiar ritual always seems to be charged with an added jolt of anticipation as the silence deepens at the start of Das Rheingold. When the double basses begin to intone their sustained low E-flat, the music sounds inevitable, like it has always been there—the sonogram of an entire universe about to be born.
            Yet Wagner spent years thinking about the cycle this moment sets into motion, sketching ideas, synthesizing a Babel of sources from myth and folklore, and spinning out theoretical arguments about the way to reform opera. At this turbulent midpoint of the nineteenth century, in his most revolutionary phase, Wagner was determined more than ever to create a new operatic form that would resist being consumed as another source of entertainment but instead become an agent of social change. (While this attitude is often assumed to stem from the composer’s notorious megalo­mania, Wagner also echoes a more widespread aesthetic idealism expressed, for example, in Shelley’s proclamation from decades before that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Ironically, the principle of politically engaged art would become a central tenet for such anti-Wagnerian detractors as Bertolt Brecht in the twentieth century.)
            The years spent pondering were fallow ones, musically speak­ing. From the moment he had completed the score of Lohengrin in April 1848, Wagner had been unable to compose anything of sub­stance. A weakness in musical inspiration was in fact precisely what helped prompt the train of creative logic that led to the very idea of the Ring as a sequence of four operas. In an earlier phase of its con­ception, when the project still involved a single grand operatic tragedy titled Siegfried’s Death (what we now know as Götterdämmerung or “Twilight of the Gods”), Wagner’s musical impulses had run aground as he attempted to sketch out the Norns’ scene. He sensed that the drama and the music could produce the weighty impact he intended only if both were given the larger dimensions necessary to pave the way for the climax. To do this Wagner would need more than “exposition”: He would need to show the story unfold­ing in each of its crucial stages.
            Comparisons have been made between the Ring cycle’s expan­sion into four separate but interconnected operas and a series of Hollywood prequels. These are not only facile, they’re misleading—though there are certainly a number of legitimately intriguing parallels between the Ring and various epic film cycles. Wagner was not adding more characters and episodes merely for the fun of it, as arbitrary extensions. He lucidly describes the intuition that led him to enlarge the scope of his project: “A work of art—and hence the basic drama—can only make its proper impression if the poetic intent is fully represented to the senses in every one of its important moments.”
            It is useful, incidentally, to remember that Wagner himself always thought of the Ring as a trilogy—Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—preceded by Das Rheingold as a “prelude.” In addi­tion to the issues inherent to the Ring that made him decide to unfold it over successive evenings, Wagner consciously modeled the cycle after the pattern of ancient Greek tragedy, with its festival-set­ting performances of interlocking trilogies such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia. (At one point, he even contemplated presenting a festival on the banks of the Mississippi for a performance that would unleash, Woodstock-style, a blissful spirit of change among its par­ticipants.) One of the many aspects that makes the Ring so extraor­dinary is that it encompasses a self-reinforcing, organic unity over its enormous span (some fifteen to sixteen hours of music, not counting intermissions), while at the same time the four operas inhabit separate worlds of their own, each possessing what Verdi might call a distinctive tinta or musico-poetic coloration.
Entrée into an Epic World
We can certainly recognize this facet in Das Rheingold, the only opera in the Ring in which both humans and a passionate love story are entirely absent. This is also the part of the Ring that comes closest to the self-imposed restrictions of Wagner’s newly evolving theory of the music drama (which essentially involved his interpre­tation of the age-old dilemma of the proper relation between words and music). The result at times has a certain austere character, above all in the predominance of recitative-like settings of the text, intended to imitate natural speech patterns. It also means no old-fashioned arias (there are moments that are, however, facsimiles), no glorious ensembles such as trios or quartets—not even the sort of “cheating” or bending of the rules that happens as the Ring pro­gresses, until they’re basically relaxed in Götterdämmerung.
            But this opening night offers more than enough to compensate. Das Rheingold unforgettably introduces us to the epic range that is the world of the Ring, from the low rumble at the beginning of time and the peaceful, primordial waters where life originates to the lofty—and, as will become clear over the cycle’s span, illusory— heights of the gods’ splendid new castle-fortress Valhalla. We also journey to the depths of the mines where the Nibelungs are forced into slave labor by one of their own. Wagner lays out a geography that is cosmic, elemental, and protean—embracing the four ele­ments. But it is also a space in which powerful psychological forces hold sway, where we see the gamut of motivations that will play out over the entire Ring cycle—from absolute greed and nihilistic despair to creative hopefulness—begin to take shape.
Moreover, Wagner makes it clear from the opening measures of his prelude that the orchestra itself will be a central character in his epic. As the music buds and germinates, the orchestra seems to voice a deep, primordial unconscious; later it will sound out the fuller psy­ches of the Ring characters, to which their verbal utterances are often but tips of the iceberg. At the same time Wagner will use his orches­tra as an omniscient master-narrator, weaving together the multi­hued strands of his epic story to reinforce a coherent network.
Surging Vitality
The years of incubation in Wagner’s own subconscious are perhaps what give the music of Das Rheingold its surging sense of vitality and prowess. Consider how daunting the prospect of tackling the score must have seemed to the composer, who had just turned forty and published all four librettos of the Ring in a bound edition. The pro­ject had grown in proportions far beyond his original expectations (although at the time Wagner still predicted he would be able to finish the entire Ring within a few years, little suspecting almost a quarter-century would pass before his dream was finally realized in performance).
But he also had not been able to compose seriously for over five years. It all sounds like the perfect recipe for a deadly case of writer’s block, doesn’t it? Yet a breakthrough finally came in late 1853. Wagner penned a famous description of the moment as inspired by a dream of himself nearly drowning (scholars, however, treat this report with skepticism as a typical instance of Wagnerian self-mythologizing). It hardly seems fanciful, at any rate, to hear in the joyously rushing flood of music that ensued the musical equivalent of waters bursting a dam and spilling over in a torrent. Wagner sketched out the entire first draft of Das Rheingold in less than three months (orchestrating it for his unusually expansive forces was another matter and required several more months of diligent effort).
What is striking about Das Rheingold’s score is not just its vigor­ous, harnessed energy but the novelty and staggering confidence it exudes. This music marks a leap forward in style that has always reminded me of the stride made by Beethoven (one of Wagner’s musical models, particularly in the Ring) between his Second and Third Symphonies. It is as if Wagner had grasped in one sweeping intuition what was needed to establish a whole new world in sound. And indeed, the opera sets in place the basic motifs that will help sustain the enormous structural network of the cycle (which is not to downplay the fact that the musical style of the rest of the Ring varies considerably as it continues to evolve—particularly in the break between the second and third acts of Siegfried and in the dark ripeness of Götterdämmerung).
            Take just the prelude for a moment. That famous long E-flat seems to sound without pulse, with the bassoons eventually adding on a B-flat, like a supporting pillar. This lays out the foundation from which eight horns, subtly interlaced in a round-like chain of repetitions, sound out the Ring cycle’s very first leitmotif. It is a pri­mal theme that will be associated variously with innocent nature, water, even evolution itself. Wagner allows us to hear this theme evolving through a kind of time-lapse as it speeds up—but all within the home key of E-flat for an unprecedented 136 measures with no modulation. This is the very antithesis of musical evolution in the classical Western sense. Wagner’s genius is to set off a subtle tension between restful stasis and the process of change—a micro­cosm for the tension at the heart of the Ring as a whole.
Original Sins
Wagner invested a huge amount of energy researching and theo­rizing about his mythological sources, particularly what he per­ceived as the “intuitive truths” they encoded—what the psychological twentieth century would come to see as projections of essential human desire or a structure for the collective uncon­scious. Yet for the core motivating actions that set Das Rheingold (and the entire Ring) in motion, Wagner ended up devising his own myth, revolving around an idiosyncratic version of original sin. Alberich is goaded on to his fateful decision to curse love and make the ring that will avenge his rejection by the Rhinemaidens’ behav­ior. “Love” is of course one of the two pivotal ideas on which the entire cycle turns—the other, “Power,” is always intimately bound up with it, as in the opening scene, as the contrasting antipode— but continually changes its connotations as the Ring progresses, reflecting its creator’s own shifting world views.
But here, in this beginning scene, Wagner takes care to show that the Ring’s original sin and loss of innocence is triggered not by sexual love, but by its denial. Emphasizing this point in a letter, he writes that “it is wrong to regard this love [i.e., sexual love between a man and a woman] as only one manifestation of love in general, and to assume that other and higher forms must therefore exist alongside it.” Sexual love is the real thing. Notice how Wagner musically illustrates this in the Rhinemaidens’ three successive rejections of the dwarf. Flosshilde’s is the most elaborate and musi­cally appealing—so much so that it actually transforms Alberich for a brief moment in which he shares the beauty of her musical line. Flosshilde even sings a fragmented cadential figure where I some­times hear the opening shape of the “redemption” motif that ends the entire cycle. The Rhinemaidens take a cruel pleasure in mock­ing and thwarting this natural desire.
            Alberich’s choice to forswear love in favor of the gold’s power, moreover, has its counterpart in the parallel plane of the gods. There are many profound moments of symmetry in the Ring, and they usually have to do with more than structure, foregrounding important symbolic elements as well. The dramatic shift from Das Rheingold’s opening opacity to the bright light of the shimmering gold is immediately repeated as the waters dissolve into a haze of clouds and then day breaks splendidly to illuminate the freshly built Valhalla. Musically, the leitmotif signifying the ring morphs before our ears into the solidly harmonized brass motif for Valhalla.
The rest of Das Rheingold—from the giants’ demand for just pay­ment to the tricking of Alberich and his curse on the ring—explores and questions this disturbing, implied alliance between Wotan’s great project and Alberich’s new power. Wotan has of course been far luckier in love than his arch-rival, but he has not found fulfill­ment: “Whoever lives loves change and variety” is how he rational­izes his philandering to Fricka. However enlightened a ruler Wotan genuinely intends to be, his own power is flawed at its core. The god himself experiences a combination of humiliation over his miscalculation with Freia and a resulting lust for power to restore an illusion of order.     More importantly, it sets up a pattern of fear and consequent disappointment that resounds through the entirety of the Ring. He and Alberich are shadow images of each other (an idea Wotan directly invokes later in the Ring when he refers to himself as Licht-Alberich— “Light-Alberich”—in contrast to Schwarz-Alberich—“Dark-Alberich,” or the dwarf in all his power).
A New Wring on the Ring
What makes the Ring so endlessly fascinating? Part of the answer has to do with how Wagner managed to synthesize an extraordi­nary miscellany of sources—along with his private pantheon of favorite literary artists and composers—into a language and vision completely his own. He developed these into an idiosyncratic vehi­cle that could somehow contain not only his own ceaselessly changing preoccupations—the Ring, he told Liszt, was “the poem of my life and of all that I am and feel”—but those of later genera­tions. For the Ring seems to compel us to make sense of it from our own point of view.
            It hardly seems a coincidence that at roughly the same time as Wagner was embarking on the Ring, an American novelist was sim­ilarly expanding what had originally been intended as a riveting yarn about the hunt for an aggressive whale into a grandiose meta­physical rhapsody. In The Perfect Wagnerite, his path-breaking inter­pretation of the Ring as a socialist allegory (with Das Rheingold as the cornerstone), George Bernard Shaw drew attention to the simul­taneity of the California Gold Rush in Wagner’s conception. This hunger for experience and the understanding of it is at the root of the Ring as an artistic enterprise.
            How does all this affect the opening installment in the new San Francisco Opera Ring, directed by Francesca Zambello (and the first Ring of General Director David Gockley’s career)? The core impulse of this Ring is to scope out the striking parallels between Wagner’s mythic universe—which can seem distant and contrived to contemporary audiences—and, as dramaturg Cori Ellison explains, “the trajectory of American history and mythol­ogy. We share a history of idealistic leaders but also a blemish at the beginning—both in the exploitation of African- and Native-Americans and in the ravaging of the land. It is not meant to be a trendy ‘updating’ but to achieve a visceral, personalized connection to myth that would be equivalent to what Wagner was seeking for his audience. We’re trying to evoke what would have a similar emotional memory and weight for Americans.”
            A parallel, complementary aspect to this idea is a kind of feminist awareness. “Francesca sees this as a story in which the plight of women is prominent,” says Ellison. “Women are represented as vic­tims until Brünnhilde breaks out of that pattern and makes the sacri­fice that will allow the slate to be wiped clean. In Das Rheingold, we see how Fricka has her power not outright, but from Wotan: She has to retain him to retain power. In the Ring, the more independent women are in terms of self-determination, the more power they have.”
            Long before J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas, or the Wachowski Brothers (inventors of The Matrix)—not to mention Freud, Jung, or Joseph Campbell—Wagner grasped the enormous potential of evok­ing the emotional truths underlying fantastic mythological narratives. This ability to tune in to the universal while addressing issues raised by his specific historical context is part of what gives the Ring its tremendous range and flexibility. Every generation—indeed each individual audience member—comes to grapple with the Ring on their own terms. Fascinatingly, these do not cancel each other out but coexist, revealing multiple levels of a truly fathomless art work.

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Variations on America

Cori Ellison

A review of the source imagery for Das Rheingold with members of the creative team

Wagner’s heritage must not be mummified and reduced to an exhibit in a museum, through misconceived loyalty,” wrote director Wieland Wagner. “His timeless vitality must be realized afresh at every new staging.”
            Indeed, it was Wieland himself who more or less single-hand­edly revolutionized the staging traditions of his grandfather’s music dramas by breaking the stifling stranglehold that had been imposed by his grandmother Cosima. (As Cosima commented to her son Siegfried, “Was this not how Papa did it in 1876?”)
            When Wieland and his brother Wolfgang reopened the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, after the Second World War, it was under the bold banner of the “New Bayreuth” style. This rein­vention was viewed by many as the Wagner brothers’ attempt to scrub Bayreuth clean of the Nazi taint of their mother Winifred Wagner, a strong supporter and close personal friend of Adolf Hitler who had famously delighted in using Wagner’s works as Nazi propaganda tools.
            Though there’s more than a grain of truth to that theory, the “New Bayreuth” style was also a crucial, influential, and enduring artistic manifesto. Influenced by the pioneering Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia, Wieland Wagner stripped his grandfa­ther’s stage works of their chauvinistic and historic elements, replacing slavishly “naturalistic” stagings with his minimalist mod­ern productions. On his self-styled “invisible stage,” Wieland felt that music, words, and ideas could emerge in more vivid relief, allowing the audience to experience the full impact of the drama.
An undated portrait of a prospector crouched in water panning for gold in California, possibly in the Colorado River. (Corbis)
           With these interpretive floodgates open, a work as rich as the Ring cycle went on to inspire as many looks and concepts as there were designers and directors to take it on. Perhaps the best-known and most influential has been the “Post–New Bayreuth” Ring staged in Bayreuth in 1976 by Patrice Chereau. Often labeled Marxist or Shavian (for its indebtedness to George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite) it was a striking allegory of the Industrial Revolution and an indictment of capitalism, fusing nineteenth-century visual symbols with contemporary and mythological images. Since Chereau’s Ring, we have witnessed stagings Brechtian (the bleak post-apocalyptic Harry Kupfer Ring, Bayreuth, 1988–92), naturalistic (Stephen Wadsworth, Seattle 2001; Otto Schenk, Metropolitan Opera, 1990s), abstract (the post-Wieland minimalism of Pierre Strosser, Paris, 1994), avant­garde (Richard Jones, Covent Garden, 1994–96), driven by sci­ence fiction (Götz Friedrich, Berlin 1987; Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Munich, 1987), and “new romanticism” (Peter Hall, Bayreuth, 1983–86, based on Wagner’s own stage directions), to name but a few. All can point to one justifying passage or another from Wag­ner’s extensive prose writings, which can prove either reductive or revelatory, depending on its application.
            In our new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, director Francesca Zambello and her creative team have decided to filter the mighty tale through a uniquely American lens, mining our own American “mythology” for an organic visual language that both suits the Ring and its symbols and enables American audi­ences to feel the same visceral immediacy that Wagner and the Greek dramatists he emulated sought to provide.
            Certainly, ours won’t be the first Ring to reference capitalism, industrialization, and the resulting plunder of nature. But it may well be the first to probe the extent to which America’s unique history and destiny have sprung from its lush natural resources, the fine moral line between their use and their exploitation, and the consequences of their abuse. This firm American framework will allow, we hope, the Ring’s apparently limitless and universal themes—love, nature, politics, psychology, race, class, feminism, etc.—to blossom with particular immediacy.
            “It’s an overview of America, beginning with its heady youth in the mid-nineteenth century, continuing with the twentieth cen­tury, and pointing toward the future,” said Zambello. “It’s a cau­tionary tale, showing where we started, and where we’re headed if we continue on a reckless road.”
Capitalists viewed workers as part of a great cog wheel of industry. Woodcut ca. 1870 (Corbis)
            “And it’s not a monolithic America we’re depicting, it’s a diverse America,” she continued. “It has room for each individual and each audience to be personally struck by different elements and images. In Washington, D.C., I felt they related most strongly to the power aspect. Here in San Francisco, David Gockley and I think the ‘green’ aspect may be most deeply felt. The land of the Gold Rush, where our Ring begins, is in our own backyard. The pristine landscape ripe with natural beauty, the treasure from the earth itself, it’s all right here.”
            In gathering our visual imagery, we focused on the contrast between the purity of that nature and the destructiveness of human constructs. We were inspired by the contrast between breathtakingly Romantic vistas of America’s wilderness with unvarnished images like news photos of prospectors, underage miners, capitalists, and wage slaves, and scathing cartoon depictions of robber barons.
            This imagery is invoked in Michael Yeargan’s sets, expertly lit by Mark McCullough, which conjures familiar landscapes that pull us closer to the story and its characters. “We recognize Valhalla as something like one of those embryonic, technically ingenious 1930s skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, as well as the mess left in the wake of its construction,” observed Zambello.
            “Nibelheim looks like a coal or gold mine, staffed by members of a lower, exploited class,” she continued. “Valhalla is shining above, while Nibelheim underneath is dark, like a sewer in a big city. And, later in the cycle, the nouveau-riche Gibichungs live in a sort of ‘McMansion.’”
Caricature of industrialist Edward H. Harriman, with the railroads of America all heading toward his mouth. (Corbis)
            We’re also right at home with Catherine Zuber’s vividly cos­tumed characters. “We first meet the Wotan family in 1920s cocktail attire, as if they’re on their way to Newport. They’re a big expansionist American family—Give them any dynasty name you want,” commented Zambello. “Wotan is a building tycoon, an optimistic, opportunistic shyster who thinks that his wealth makes him a god, and that gods are above the rules.”
            In this Ring, Zambello’s vision and the designs of Yeargan, Zuber, and McCullough are tied together by the powerful and relatively new theatrical art of video projections. Harnessing the resources of ever-evolving, ever-improving technology, our projec­tion designer Jan Hartley achieves effects of which Wagner could scarcely have dreamed but that he would surely have heartily embraced.
            Employing an arsenal driven by a state-of-the-art media server loaded with software that allows her to project images on 3-D objects, Hartley controls the design, the image production, and the technical realization of a volume equal to that of a feature-length film.
Hartley’s job may seem purely technical, but her process begins and intersects with the artistic discussions among the rest of the creative team: director, designers, choreographer, and dramaturg (who helps to research, shape, focus, unite, and edit the work of the whole team). In lengthy meetings, “the director will have ideas as to what kinds of images should accompany a moment,” said Hartley. “From there, I’ll do my research, and I’ll come up with my own ideas, too, looking through my huge $100,000 library of ‘copyright-free’ images I’ve licensed over the years.”
            “And I do a lot of my own photography, too,” said Hartley. “In this Ring, you’ll see majestic redwoods from North­ern California and freeways in L.A., Portland, and New York, all original images I photographed. I’m always look­ing. My camera’s with me and ready at all times.”
Grimy young men and boys pause in their work at the Pennsylvania Coal Company’s mine in South Pittston. Many of these boys were no more than ten years old, and some are even younger. (Corbis)
             Hartley then creates a visual storyboard, seeking to transform the group’s artistic vision into a well-organized projec­tion script which normally continues to evolve until opening night. During “tech week,” she and the entire creative team spend countless hours in the theater, tweaking, editing, fine-tun­ing, and adjusting their work to the musical timing.
            “Moving images help magnify the intense emotion that music creates,” Hartley asserted. “My work in this Ring is really of two types: There’s the scenic imagery that sets the backdrop for the narrative storytelling, and there’s the abstract imagery that com­plements and helps visualize the orchestral interludes—both spe­cific tone-painting like the music of Siegmund being chased through the forest in the prelude to Die Walküre, and fantasy sce­narios like the creation of the universe heard in the prelude to Das Rheingold.
            The Ring cycle’s long and distinguished tradition of allegorical interpretation begins with Wagner himself: While drafting the Ring music dramas during the late 1840s, he drew analogies between Frederick I (Barbarossa), the twelfth-century Hohen­staufen emperor of Germany, and the Nibelung horde in an essay, Die Wibelungen: Weltgeschichte aus der Sage. Our hope is that somewhere in our new Ring, you may recognize yourself, discern what unique role you personally play in the ongoing saga of America, and make some important decisions based on that.

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The Ring of the Nibelung: Das Rheingold

Thomas May

Part I of Thomas May's program note for this summer's Ring cycle

James Morris as Wotan in 1990's Das Rheingold
Photo by Marty Sohl
A World Set in Motion
The first music we hear in the Ring is a low E-flat sustained by the double-basses: It emerges from the silent darkness, as if it has always been there and is just now entering the field of our perception. From stasis, mesmerizing in its very monotony, Wagner’s musical genesis mimics the process of gestation from a simple seed. The Ring’s first leitmotif evolves and proliferates through a kind of time-lapse, accelerating and gathering energy in a gradual and prolonged crescendo across the orchestra. But for all the illustrative powers of Wagner’s music—the cycle is chock-full of impressive imitations of nature—what is far more significant here is the self-contained nature of this cosmos. These primal musical cells beget others in a teeming system of cross-references. Wagner’s leitmotif system is as fluid as the surging waters that launch the Ring. As the drama unfolds, this first motif will gain associations of innocent nature, of water (specifically, the primordial Rhine River where the gold is embedded as an unused resource), even of evolution itself. And, with Erda’s unexpected appearance during the crisis of Das Rheingold’s final scene, its ascending shape (now in the minor) is reversed to foretell the final twilight that the gods cannot escape: Beginning and End are mirror images.
With this tension between the restful stasis of its opening and an evolving process that brings change, the Prelude neatly stages one of the Ring’s major ideas in microcosm. “Whoever lives loves change,” as Wotan will declare. In the orchestral transition between the first two scenes of Das Rheingold, Wagner further underscores the protean character of his musical material as it ascends from the watery depths into the lofty heights where the gods dwell. The obsessively circular shape of the Ring motif—descending, then ascending, ambiguous in its harmonic and rhythmic contours alike—is gradually transformed by the horns into a new leitmotif, the resounding brass signifying Valhalla. All of the Ring’s associations with illicit and corrupting power are already embedded in the hymn to Wotan’s new order. The implication, of course, is that these distant spheres are linked together as part of a unified world. Valhalla’s proud harmonic stability is an illusion: The Ring cycle will follow Wotan’s efforts to maintain that stability, which leave him as frustrated as Alberich desperately trying to grasp for the slippery Rhinemaidens.
Unstable Fortress
For Alberich’s choice to forswear love for the gold’s power—one of many idiosyncratic interpolations Wagner made to his mythic sources—isn’t the only “original sin” in the Ring. The network of interlinked motifs, references, and family kinships on the musical plane shapes our understanding of the moral plane and intensifies our understanding of what is at stake in the drama. Both Alberich and Wotan pursue rash actions whose consequences are then spelled out with increasingly horrifying clarity. Indeed, from the moment we meet Wotan, the rest of Das Rheingold explores and reflects on the dubious nature of his project. We see this in the urgency to meet the Giants’ demand for payment, in the tricking of Alberich, and in the curse on the Ring this precipitates. Though Wagner chose not to illustrate the god’s own “back story,” we learn more about this in each of the following three Ring dramas. And what we learn is that, well before Alberich’s theft of the gold, Wotan himself turned the resources of nature to his advantage when he cut a branch from the Tree of Life to fashion his spear—causing the Tree to wither.
Valhalla is meant to shore up and extend that power. It is founded on a flaw that Wagner does illustrate, which is the willingness to turn love into a commodity to be bartered (the use of Freia, goddess of youth and love, as a “fee” for the giants). This was a terrible miscalculation that humiliates Wotan and the other gods. It also sets up a relentless pattern that plays out through the rest of the cycle. Wotan’s lust for power leads to deeper entanglements: The more he tries to restore an illusion of order, the more enmeshed he becomes in them, destroying everything he cherishes in the process. By the end of Das Rheingold, Valhalla has become a mere refuge from Wotan’s own “fear and dread” and is already doomed. Loge’s sardonic aside suggests as much, his flickering music (a dazzle of unstable chromaticism) licking away at its stolid harmonic pillars.
Friedrich Schorr as Wotan and Hans Clemens as Loge in 1935's Das Rheingold
Ugly Underworld and Malignant Power
As soon as Loge broaches the topic of the Ring, the two stories that have been developed to that point—Alberich’s theft of the gold and Wotan’s bartering of Freia for Valhalla—reach their fateful intersection. Wagner shapes Das Rheingold with a neat symmetry to emphasize this turning point. Like the first scene, the third descends to the depths—this time to the hellish realm of Nibelheim. Both scenes are relatively compact and simple and pivot around a central act of theft. By contrast, Scenes Two and Four are lengthy and cover multiple plot points.
Whereas the Rhinemaidens toy with Alberich and are then horrified to become his victims, Wotan and Loge flirt with the dwarf’s egotism in order to bring his guard down. This time, Alberich becomes the victim and Wotan emerges the victorious thief. Even the potential element of humor in Alberich’s duping is reminiscent of the Rhinemaidens’ teasing in the first part of Scene One. But Wagner also allows us (and Wotan) to see (and hear) the results of the Ring’s unsealed power for the first time.

One striking aspect of Das Rheingold is that it is the only opera in the Ring in which both humans and a passionate love story—exactly what we take for granted in an opera—are entirely absent. Love, ironically, is present only by way of its negation: Love is what gets rejected, renounced, or bartered away, like Freia. For Alberich, only power can replace love, and when his power is taken, he pronounces his second curse. But the dwarf’s curse on the Ring is just the outward manifestation—you might even think of it as a ritual declaration—of the reality that’s already there. Wagner’s crowding of events into the final scene of Das Rheingold confirms the malignant power that continues to operate in the absence of love. Wotan is thus startled when he sees the curse in operation even after he’s followed Erda’s advice to yield and give up the Ring. He thinks he’s freed himself from his entanglements—but in reality he’s only become more deeply trapped. Like a theme and variations, the curse will continue to reverberate throughout the Ring. As Wotan and the gods finally enter Valhalla, Wagner’s ironically pompous music underscores the hollowness of what has been gained.

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Notes on Wagner's Ring Cycle

Greg Waxberg

An overview of Richard Wagner's masterwork

Considered by many the consummate operatic experience, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) occupied Wagner as composer and librettist for more than twenty-five years, partly because he did not, at the outset, realize the complexity of this undertaking.
            Inspired by Norse and Teutonic mythology, Wagner originally intended to write Siegfrieds Tod (“The Death of Siegfried”), but discovered that such vast background information was required for this one opera that he needed to write Der junge Siegfried (“Young Siegfried”). But the same problem arose twice more, resulting in Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”) and Das Rheingold (“The Rhinegold”).
            Thus, with Siegfrieds Tod renamed Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”) and Der junge Siegfried renamed Siegfried, Wagner composed the four operas of the Ring cycle in reverse, with Das Rheingold serving as a prologue. In fact, the Ring is even more of a cohesive miracle when one learns that twelve years separated the second and third acts of Siegfried because Wagner was convinced the cycle would never be performed.
            “Cohesion” in the Ring refers largely to leitmotifs—melodies that refer to specific people, objects, ideas and places. The number of leitmotifs (and variations of these leitmotifs) is so large that, while the listener can identify all of them, it becomes overwhelming to try. Thankfully, the emotional impact of the music ensures that complete identification is not essential to the listener’s enjoyment and understanding of the story.
            Wagner once told Liszt that the Ring is about the beginning and end of the world, but how does one musically describe the beginning of the world? To understand Wagner’s solution, one should think of the opening of the prelude to Das Rheingold as the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the beginning—the first notes of the prelude of the first scene of the cycle’s prologue. Wagner utilizes the sound of silence to represent the world—and, by extension, the flowing Rhine River—taking shape from the void.
            Out of darkness, the string basses and woodwinds sound nearly imperceptible in their lowest registers, and they slowly segue to the strings depicting the motion of the river in all of its glory (this motif returns in Götterdämmerung during Siegfried’s Rhine Journey). Roughly mid-way through the first scene with the Rhinemaidens teasing the Nibelung dwarf Alberich (the Nibelung of the cycle’s title), we hear the first of many examples of the Ring’s exhilarating music: the Rhinemaidens’ excitement about the gold, depicted with triangles and cymbals. Not only is the music uplifting, but it also conveys the importance of the gold in all of the action to follow.
            Once Alberich renounces love and steals the gold—the first of his two curses in Das Rheingold—the orchestra transitions from the Ring motif to the majestic Valhalla motif (a portion of which foreshadows the opera’s finale, the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla). This magnificent brass theme befits the mountaintop castle that the giants Fasolt and Fafner have just built for Wotan, for which he promises to give them Freia as payment. We soon grasp the idea that, despite being ruler of the Gods (a descending brass motif signifies Wotan and/or his spear), Wotan is not the most honorable of men because he does not intend to keep his promise.
            Of course, nobody can understand why Wotan made this promise and nobody wants to see Freia sold to the giants, but a promise is a promise, and the giants deserve payment for their labor. The giants’ motif—a slow, intense, weighty combination of drums, brass and strings, emphasis on the drums—instantly memorable, like that of Valhalla, grabs our attention, and this theme also plays an important role in Siegfried.
            Another fantastic orchestral interlude accompanies the scene change to Nibelheim. Wagner’s music takes on urgency in context and content: Wotan needs to get his hands on Alberich’s ring and the rest of the gold to save Freia and the other gods, and the interlude contains the frantic hammering of anvils signifying the toil of Nibelungs, whom Alberich has made his slaves, as well as the leitmotif for anvils, both of which will also return in Siegfried.
            In Nibelheim, aside from Wotan achieving his goal of seizing Alberich and the gold, Wagner introduces a vital tool in the Ring’s plot—the Tarnhelm created by Alberich’s brother Mime. This helmet that allows its wearer to change into any shape will prove crucial after the conclusion of Das Rheingold and during Götterdämmerung. We again hear the anvils and their musical equivalent in the strings during the transition back to the mountaintop along with, among other themes, fragments of the giants’ motif.
            Das Rheingold’s action-packed final scene sets the stage for the remainder of the cycle, especially in the music. The brass and drum theme associated with the Nibelungs ascending from Nibelheim with the gold—the music’s climax coincides with the gold reaching the surface—will, like two other motifs previously mentioned, return for Siegfried. Now we arrive at Alberich’s second curse, when his anger at having the ring stolen from him erupts into a curse on the ring and everyone who owns it. The blaring brass motif for this curse will dominate the remainder of the cycle and linger in the air every time we hear it.
            Without a doubt, the most arresting aspect of Alberich’s curse is how quickly it comes to fruition—no sooner does Wotan listen to Erda’s wisdom and give the giants the ring along with the Tarnhelm and the rest of the gold (to motifs that include forging), Fafner murders Fasolt and we hear the curse motif, the first of numerous repetitions during the rest of the Ring. The cycle’s prologue concludes with storm music that clears the air for a rainbow bridge and the famous, noble Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, another showcase for the drums and brass.
            One over-arching idea propels the action in Die Walküre: how Wotan can regain the ring, which is now being guarded in a forest by Fafner, who has used the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a dragon. The amount of subject matter that Wagner covers in this opera is substantial, and the range of emotions is equally weighty—ecstatic love, desperation, glee, heartbreak, despondency, and exhilaration, to name just a few. By the time the final curtain falls, the characters and the audience have experienced an emotional upheaval, set to some of Wagner’s most compelling music.
            The stormy prelude of the first act, most of the material of which is repeated from the storm at the end of Das Rheingold, includes Wotan’s theme, and the sequence of events reveals that Wotan has created this storm to force his son Siegmund to find shelter in the home of his twin sister Sieglinde (they are the Walsung twins) and her husband Hunding, who proves to be Siegmund’s enemy. Siegmund and Sieglinde gradually realize their affection for one another, accompanied at first by the tender music of the lower strings and then by the rapturous love music of the full orchestra—astonishingly, both in this act and as the opera progresses, Wagner’s mastery ensures that our sympathies remain with Siegmund and Sieglinde (and, by extension, Wotan) because of their love for each other. Even when Fricka points out Wotan’s errors to him, we still feel his anguish.
            Which errors? The first is encouraging Siegmund and Sieglinde to violate the laws of marriage. The second is giving Siegmund a magic sword that, theoretically, keeps him independent of the gods in the quest for the ring but that, in reality, means he is still indebted to Wotan because of the sword’s magic (even so, what thrilling high notes the tenor is challenged to sing in the first act, when claiming the sword!). Wotan’s promise to Fricka to take away Siegmund’s sword leaves him devastated, as his plan is now worthless.
            This brings us to the conflict that is at the heart of Die Walküre, which is why the second act is among the most pivotal sequence of scenes in the entire cycle. Wotan intends for Siegmund to win the fight against Hunding, so, therefore, he happily instructs his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde (the Valkyrie of the title) to defend him. Upon consenting to Fricka’s demands, he instructs Brünnhilde not to defend Siegmund, but, when Siegmund refuses to leave Sieglinde, his devotion changes Brünnhilde’s mind, and she decides to disobey Wotan. That decision will change the course of both of their lives.
            To say that the results of the fight are disastrous would be an understatement: not only is Wotan forced to allow his son to be killed, not only is Brünnhilde immediately the focus of his wrath, and not only does Sieglinde lose her husband, but the fight also results in the sword shattering and losing its owner. Wagner’s two-note motif for Wotan’s anger, which brings down the curtain, is another potent combination of drums and brass, while the raging swirl of the strings is no less terrifying.
            Following the deservedly famous, stirring “Ride of the Valkyries,” Wagner plunges us into the turmoil between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Yes, he said to defend Hunding, and, yes, she disobeyed his command and must be punished, but he also knew that he had wanted Siegmund to win and she knew what was really in his heart: how much he loved Siegmund. With that all-important word that encompasses Die Walküre, “love,” Wagner introduces a new motif that conveys indescribably profound emotion, especially between father and daughter. This theme is at the core of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde—with the word “God” (in the phrase “For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God”), this melody is gradually played by more and more instruments until Wagner expands it to the full orchestra in a tear-jerking climax. With the lovely and tranquil sounds of the Magic Fire Music, and the brass proclamation of Siegfried’s theme, the most popular opera in the Ring concludes as Wotan disappears from Brünnhilde’s rock.
            One character from whom we heard very little during Das Rheingold was Mime, Alberich’s brother. Mime’s place in Siegfried is more significant, not only because he (like everyone else) will do anything to get his hands on the ring, but also because he is the new-found owner of the fragments of Siegmund’s sword and because he had to raise Siegfried following Sieglinde’s death from childbirth. Wagner’s prelude to the first act tells us what is going through Mime’s scheming mind: we hear motifs signifying Fafner the dragon (a lethargic crawl in the brass), forging (the strings’ equivalent of the anvils, first heard in Das Rheingold), the gold (the melody from Das Rheingold when the gold was delivered from Nibelheim), the ring, the sword, and a repeat of forging. The question of how to re-forge the sword is gnawing at Mime, and he is also trying to calculate how to defeat Fafner to win the gold and ring. Enter Siegfried.
            Much of the first half of this act is given over to Siegfried’s anger at Mime’s smithing incompetence (Wagner even creates a motif for Siegfried’s anger), Siegfried’s determination to learn his parents’ identity, and a game of wits between Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan), a scene that reprises information and motifs of many of the characters we have met so far, including the Nibelungs, giants, Gods, and Walsung twins. However, the true dilemma is not that Mime tries to outwit the Wanderer—Mime fails to use the opportunity to solve the enigma of the sword. Aside from a blunder that costs Mime his head, this mistake is also a valuable commentary for society: when you are given the chance to acquire valuable information, ask important questions.
            Another outcome of the Wanderer’s victory is that Mime realizes Siegfried has never learned fear, which essentially means he is invincible at this point because he is not afraid of anything or anyone. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Siegfried re-forges the sword—Nothung—to a new sequence of vigorous motifs, and these orchestral melodies will be repeated in the next act, along with the melodies to which Siegfried sings while he is forging. Amazingly, Nothung is able to split Mime’s anvil!
            While the first act prelude was devoted to Mime, the second act prelude conjures images of Fafner with slow variations of the giants’ motif and the dragon motif, and it recalls Alberich’s curse. Once the other characters withdraw (Alberich, the Wanderer and Mime), Siegfried, in a touching scene with tender music, wonders about his mother, a curiosity that prompts him to use a pipe to imitate a bird and then his horn to try to attract companionship. What he gets is Fafner, and the crucial battle in which Siegfried mortally stabs the dragon results not only in his acquisition of the ring and Tarnhelm, but also the now intelligible, lovely song of the Forest Bird, who leads him to Brünnhilde.
            Listening to the stormy prelude to the final act, it is difficult to believe that a dozen years had passed since Wagner last worked on the Ring, but, here we are, back on a mountaintop, not far from the sleeping Valkyrie daughter. Siegfried, still unafraid of anything, is eager to pass the Wanderer, and, for unknown reasons (except, perhaps, that Nothung is now a symbolic extension of Siegfried’s fearlessness), his sword is able to shatter the Wanderer’s spear—a reversal of past events, when the spear shattered the sword. The Wanderer has lost his power and disappears from the scene, from the opera and from the Ring.
            As Siegfried advances to the mountaintop, Wagner provides an exciting orchestral interlude that blends Siegfried’s horn call with variations on the Magic Fire Music. It is only when he observes Brünnhilde that Siegfried finally learns fear—he is afraid of this person, the first woman he has ever seen. The orchestra, specifically the woodwinds then strings, responds to his kiss with a glowing depiction of Brünnhilde awakening and hailing the sun; this motif will be heard again in the cycle’s final opera, including, ironically, at a moment of tragedy. Siegfried’s and Brünnhilde’s concluding love duet is the opera’s crowning achievement.
            Lightness and darkness are at odds with each other in Götterdämmerung, with the plot of this concluding opera heavily clouded by villainy. In the prelude, Wagner combines Brünnhilde’s awakening motif (light) with a foreboding brass theme (dark, and reminiscent of Siegmund’s death). With the entrance of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the orchestra tells us that Siegfried has matured, as his heroic theme has evolved into a bold, triumphant statement for the full orchestra. Shortly thereafter, when Siegfried leaves, eager for new feats of glory, the Rhine Journey (light) depicts the river even more vigorously than the prelude to Das Rheingold, and the music recalls the Rhinemaidens’ excitement about the gold.
            Immediately after the Rhine Journey concludes, Wagner introduces a new motif (dark) for Hagen, Alberich’s son who dominates this opera. Hagen’s schemes are so villainous that the very approach by Siegfried to the Hall of the Gibichungs, in response to Hagen’s entreaty, is accompanied by the orchestra’s thunderous rendition of the curse motif—by entering the hall, Siegfried is doomed. From this point forward, events proceed from disturbing to bad to worse, all of which is reflected in the music, including a sinister duet for Siegfried and Gunther, as they swear blood brotherhood, and Hagen’s brooding soliloquy.
            Tragedy in this opera comprises two forms—the tragedy of Siegfried being tricked into forgetting Brünnhilde and winning her as a bride for Gunther, and the eventual tragedy of death. In the second act, following a stirring chorus of Hagen’s vassals (the only chorus in the Ring), everyone realizes that something is amiss when Brünnhilde and Siegfried accuse each other of lying about why he is wearing the ring that used to be on her hand. Hagen, not wasting a moment to advance his own interests and knowing he can use Siegfried’s words against him, allows each of them to swear an oath on his spear and later convinces Gunther and Brünnhilde that Siegfried must die to atone for his betrayal. Wagner again contrasts light and dark to conclude the act—a wedding procession (light, although ironic under the circumstances) and a repeat of Hagen’s theme, reminding us of his constant plotting.
            The prelude to the final act bounces back and forth between Siegfried’s horn call and Hagen’s theme before transitioning to motifs that recall the very beginning of the prelude to Das Rheingold, followed by a lighthearted motif for the playful Rhinemaidens who try unsuccessfully to regain the ring from Siegfried. Continuing the storytelling pattern of the cycle, Hagen persuades Siegfried to tell the story of his upbringing and the other events that have brought him to this point, and this is another opportunity for Wagner to recall motifs for each person or event. Conveniently, of course, Hagen restores Siegfried’s memory of Brünnhilde just in time to murder him.
            Siegfried’s murder and farewell to Brünnhilde are accompanied by harsh death chords and reprises of Brünnhilde’s awakening music and the Walsung motif, representing Siegfried’s heritage. Siegfried’s Funeral Music is an orchestral showpiece, particularly for the percussion. The sword motif leads to an overwhelming orchestral crescendo, striking death chords punctuated by crashing cymbals. These death chords blend with both of Siegfried’s themes as the funeral march continues.
             Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, its aftermath—the Rhinemaidens regain the ring and Valhalla is engulfed by flames—and the orchestral summary of motifs propel the Ring to its final moments. In these last minutes of the cycle, following hours of richly-orchestrated leitmotifs, Wagner leaves us with the themes for the Rhinemaidens, Valhalla, Siegfried and redemption. When the final curtain falls, there is no doubt that we have witnessed the consequences of greed, envy and hatred, leaving us to ponder the better world that could result from kindness and compassion.

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A History of the Ring in San Francisco

David Littlejohn

Journalist David Littlejohn survey's San Francisco's 110-year history as a Ring town

Opera came early to San Francisco. An adventurous Italian troupe put on productions of Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma as well as Verdi’s Ernani in this roisterous boomtown in 1851. By 1860, hundreds of performances had been mounted, almost all of them Italian. The nearest early San Francisco came to German opera were twenty performances (in Italian, of course) of two operas by an Austrian: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.
The first of Wagner’s Ring operas to be performed in San Francisco was Die Walküre, in 1891 by Emma Juch’s touring opera company. (Miss Juch sang Sieglinde.) It was led by Adolf Neuendorff, a former conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The Chronicle critic was dismayed by the cheesy effects, which he blamed partly on Wagner’s impossible stage directions. About the music, he had mixed feelings. “This is not the most enjoyable form of musical or dramatic art on the stage, but it is great art.” The audience completely filled Morosco’s Grand Opera House on Mission Street near Third, which held 4,000 customers, including standees.
Program cover from the Metropolitan Opera's touring company productions in 1900, which included San Francisco's first Ring cycle.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
In 1900—after trying for five years to pull it off—William Grau, the impresario who produced all operas for the Metropolitan in New York and on tour, managed to bring a complete, all-star Ring to the same venue as the climax of a three-week visit. This involved moving nine train-carloads of scenery and 206 people 3,000 miles to perform twenty operas at $2 to $7 a seat. Conductor Walter Damrosch, who (with his father Leopold) had introduced Wagner to New York, came out early to give a series of recital-demonstrations of the great composer’s operas.
Nellie Melba, the biggest name on the tour, was back for a second year, but not for Wagner. For San Francisco’s first Ring, Grau brought out as Brünnhilde Lilian Nordica (née Norton; the first great American Wagner singer), Johanna Gadski (Sieglinde), Ernestine Schumann-Heink (Fricka, Waltraute, Erda), Ernest Van Dyck (Siegmund, Loge), Andreas Dippel (Siegfried), David Bispham (Alberich, Wotan), and Edouard de Reszke (the Wanderer, Hagen)—the cream of the Met’s German lineup during its first “Golden Age.”
The local critics had grown more sophisticated since 1891. “This is the greatest musical and artistic opportunity ever given in the history of the city,” wrote one. The sets were called “a marvel of mechanical perfection…a masterpiece of scenic art.” “The art of opera has found its highest expression,” wrote a critic for the Call; “fuller, purer, nobler music than we have yet heard even from Wagner himself.” One cranky reviewer found Siegfried to be “puerile, tedious, and exasperatingly dull,” with its “dancing bears and pasteboard dragons.” But his voice was drowned out by the hymns of praise.
San Francisco was very pleased with its own good taste. “After last night [Die Walküre] we need fear no comparison with any American cities outside of New York, not even excepting Boston and the boastful Chicago.” This time around, the newspapers went gaga over the glamour of the boxholders and orchestra-seat swells—”perhaps the most fashionable audience ever drawn to an auditorium in this city.” The Call described the gowns and jewels of 182 society ladies present. A company of policemen held back the commoners who lined Mission Street to stare, and they kept the fine folks’ carriages rolling efficiently in and out.
Satisfied by the ticket sales, Grau brought back a similar company for three weeks the next year. This time he did not repeat the Ring. Instead, he gave the Wagner-infatuated city its first Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, as well as Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and eleven other operas. Once again, the daily reviews were almost all raves. “It is something worth being able to say we are ‘in it,’ with London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and New York. Already, we can look down on Chicago.”
By 1904, Heinrich Conried had taken over as the Met’s impresario and brought San Francisco its first Parsifal, defying Wagner’s edict that this “stage-consecrating festival drama” be performed only at Bayreuth. It sold out three houses, with Nordica alternating as Kundry with Olive Fremstad, and Alois Burgstaller (who had sung the role at Bayreuth) in the lead. In 1905, the new attraction of the Met tour was Enrico Caruso, “the new bright light of the singing world,” who sold out whatever he sang. Once again San Francisco filled up three Parsifals.
Conreid’s 1906 season in San Francisco promised to be equally exciting: sixteen performances of thirteen operas, with Caruso in Carmen and La Bohème, and Fremstad and Louise Homer in both Die Walküre and Siegfried—as “a forerunner of the Wagner revival [of the Ring?] next year,” predicted the Chronicle.
The season opened April 16. On April 17, Caruso sang Don José. At 5:12 the next morning, a large part of San Francisco collapsed. In the three-day fire that followed, the Grand Opera House was one of almost 30,000 buildings destroyed.
San Francisco was not to see another complete Ring until 1935. But the rapidly rebuilt city was not totally Wagner-starved. After a few single Ring operas, San Francisco got three-quarters of a Ring (minus Das Rheingold) in January 1931, when the German Grand Opera Company—apparently subsidized by the German government—made its second visit to the city’s 5,000-seat Civic Auditorium, which it came nowhere near to filling. The star of the 1931 tour was the same Johanna Gadski, who had been the darling of New York, London, and San Francisco in and around 1900, but was now well past her prime. (She died a year later, at 59.) Her voice, wrote the Chronicle’s critic, was “still heroic, though she, no more than others, can utterly resist the flight of the years.” The two Siegfrieds were also over the hill. Perhaps only thirty-two-year-old Margarethe Bäumer (who shared Brünnhilde with Gadski) met the demands of her role.
Once a permanent resident opera company was created in San Francisco in 1922, it maintained for many years the Gold Rush-era tradition: “opera” meant Italian opera. It was what sold best and was the home of the heart of founding director Gaetano Merola. Between 1923 and 1934, 109 performances of thirty-four operas were sung in Italian. Thirty performances of nine operas were done in French. Six German operas (Hänsel und Gretel, Salome, and four non-Ring Wagner operas) were sung a total of seventeen times. The Wagner operas on offer introduced San Francisco audiences to the great bass Friedrich Schorr, twice as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and once as Telramund in Tannhäuser (with Lauritz Melchior in the lead role). They brought to the city Maria Jeritza and Elisabeth Rethberg—two leading divas of the day—as Elisabeth in the latter.
Kirsten Flagstad, San Francisco Opera's first Brünnhilde, and Artur Bodansky, conductor of the Company's first Ring cycle, in 1935.
By all accounts, the first home-grown Ring was worth the long wait. For 1935, Merola had engaged the leading Wagner singers in the world—Kirsten Flagstad (a year after her Met debut, singing her first Siegfried Brünnhilde as well as her first Ring), Melchior, Rethberg, and Schorr, and conductor Artur Bodanzky, who had led the Met’s German wing since 1915. All tickets were sold a month before the opening. Reviewers had nothing but praise for the celebrated leads and tolerated the “safely traditional” costumes, sets, and special effects, which hadn’t changed much since 1876. The Rhinemaidens were doubled by ballet girls, who “floated” from the top of the stage to the floor. This time around, half a page of the Examiner was devoted to a list of society women’s gowns and their designers—Molyneux, Chanel, Patou, Lanvin—and the pre-performance parties in the boxes.
The following year, three of the four operas were repeated, out of order (they skipped Siegfried so as not to exhaust Flagstad). Lotte Lehmann—”unquestionably the greatest Sieglinde of all time” (Arthur Bloomfield)—took over that role in Die Walküre. Fritz Reiner, it was felt, drew more depth and emotional conviction out of the orchestra. In 1939, Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence traded off the top soprano roles in two performances of Die Walküre. Ten years later, political pressures over Flagstad’s return to Nazi-occupied Norway during the war nearly led to the cancellation of her Brünnhildes and Isoldes—and possibly the whole season—until calmer heads prevailed.
It was to be another thirty-seven years before San Francisco Opera—now led by Kurt Herbert Adler—was to offer another complete Ring, this one repeated three times. A new generation of international stars assumed the leading roles in 1972: Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde (trading off with Berit Lindholm, who also sang Sieglinde), Jess Thomas as Siegmund and Siegfried, and Thomas Stewart as Wotan and Gunther. Margarita Lilova sang Fricka, Waltraute, and Erda.
Jess Thomas as Siegfried in 1972. He also appeared as Siegmund (Die Walküre) in that Ring cycle.
Except for Lindholm, who had only sung Brünnhilde in the 1970 Siegfrieds, all of these singers were well-known to San Francisco opera-goers by 1972. Jess Thomas had made his professional debut here in 1957 and sung eight leading Wagner roles (including Loge, Siegmund, and both Siegfrieds) since 1965. Adler had given Birgit Nilsson her U.S. debut in 1956, as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.
This was the first Wagner opera I saw, at nineteen. At the first intermission, I gave up my $3.60 Dress Circle seat for a standee’s place, to keep from dozing off. “He makes all the Italians seem insignificant,” I wrote in my journal—a thought I often have (temporarily) after a good Ring. At the time, I preferred the lyrical Sieglinde of Leonie Rysanek (also making her American debut) and the godlike Wotan of Hans Hotter to Nilsson’s Brünnhilde.
Thomas Stewart had been a Company stalwart since 1962, singing nineteen bass-baritone roles. There was some carping about Jess Thomas’s powers of endurance in the most demanding tenor role in opera, but none about his appearance or stage presence. He may have been the most physically convincing Siegfried ever seen onstage. Otmar Suitner from Berlin conducted a committed, occasionally deeply moving orchestra.
The real innovations in 1972 were in staging (by Paul Hager) and design (by Wolfram Skalicki). Viewed in an international perspective, they were scarcely innovations. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s grandsons, had been mounting powerfully abstract, symbolic productions of the Ring at Bayreuth since 1951. So when Hager and Skalicki introduced San Francisco audiences to a Ring made more of light and shadow than of pasteboard rocks, painted drops, and detailed buildings, timelessly simple costumes rather than horned helmets, bearskins, and breast- plates—one dependent more on scrims, spotlights, misty illusions of fire and water, and lighting that washed the scene in tune with the music and the singers’ emotions—they weren’t breaking new ground.
In fact, Adler had originally hoped for a Wieland Wagner production, to begin with a Rheingold in 1967. But when Wieland died in October 1966, Adler fell back on his home team. Hager and Skalicki adopted Wieland’s use of light and color, but never went as far as he did in the direction of minimalist abstraction. In any case, after 1970 the Wagner brothers’ timeless, light-created productions were already being replaced by post-modern interpretations that portrayed the gods as greedy capitalists, the Nibelungs as wage slaves, the Gibichungs as Nazis, and the final scene as a nuclear holocaust. The Hager-Skalicki Walküre was repeated in 1976 and 1981 (the second time with Nilsson, Thomas and Rysanek again), and their Rheingold in 1977 for Hanna Schwarz’s U.S. debut.
Before he was hired as Adler’s successor in 1982, Terrence McEwen had spent two years imagining a dazzling new Ring that would be naturalistic, romantic, and beautiful, as opposed to the stripped abstractions of New Bayreuth and the defiantly ugly military-industrial statements being made all over Europe. In 1985, after two years of lead-in productions, he managed to whip a great many music lovers (including Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who declared June 1985 “Ring Month” in San Francisco) into a Wagnerian frenzy the city hadn’t seen for half a century.
He engaged German director Nicolas Lehnhoff (Wieland Wagner’s former assistant) and designer John Conklin, a Company regular. They came up with a series of handsome stage images, many of them inspired by early nineteenth-century German art and architecture. The gods (except for Loge, who wore a Victorian morning suit) looked more Greco-Roman than Teutonic as they lolled about columned neoclassical terraces that could have been designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1810s. As their power decayed, the terraces crumbled. At the end of Das Rheingold, they climbed towards a towering neoclassical Valhalla (which was a faithful reproduction of Dresden’s Semper Oper House), a distant image of which went up in flames as the cycle closed. The Valkyries’ rock was a steep Yosemite-like island cliff that recalled Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead. Barren landscapes looked like Caspar-David Friedrich paintings. All four operas were enclosed in neoclassical side pavilions.
To conduct, McEwen tried first for Georg Solti, but the conductor opted to go to Bayreuth instead. His next choice, departing San Francisco Symphony conductor Edo de Waart, led (in his first Ring) an orchestra I found precise and powerful, but passionate only by turns, and never as sublime as the Ring deserves. Lehnhoff’s directing brought out the human weaknesses of everyone onstage.
James Morris, vocally and visibly heroic, was to become the leading Wotan of the next twenty years; he sang the role first in this production. A handsome blond German named Peter Hofmann sang Siegmund and the young Siegfried, René Kollo the older Siegfried. Gwyneth Jones and Eva Marton were our Brünnhildes. Hanna Schwarz and Helga Dernesch (still my favorite Fricka) took on the heavier female roles. Walter Berry and Helmut Pampuch were brilliantly nasty as the squabbling Nibelung brothers.
In February 1988 an ailing McEwen announced his resignation (only to be upstaged by Adler, who died the next day), and was succeeded by Lotfi Mansouri as general director. Mansouri decided to revive McEwen’s production for June 1990, this time offering four sold-out cycles in an opera house that had been shaken and scarred by an earthquake the year before. (A giant hairnet hung under the starburst chandelier.) Mansouri offered much the same visual production of the Ring as the 1985 version, even though director Lehnoff had left. Two of the cycles were conducted by Donald Runnicles, interpreting his first-ever Rings, two by Peter Schneider. Back to sing were Morris, Jones, Kollo, and Dernesch. Janis Martin and Hildegard Behrens offered alternate Brünnhildes.
Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde) in our 1990 Ring cycle
In 1995, another Runnicles Die Walküre was performed, which marked the Company debut of the huge, Flagstad-voiced Jane Eaglen as a subsitute Brünnhilde. In 1996, the opera house shut down for seismic rebuilding while the Company camped out in its original home, the vast, inelegant Civic Auditorium of 1915—now renamed for rock producer Bill Graham.
Back in his handsomely refurbished opera house in 1999, Mansouri decided to offer another four-cycle run of the 1985 Ring, this time with a new director (Andrei Serban) and designer (Robert Perdziola), who made a few flashy changes (Erda, Nibelheim, the giants, the costumes), but otherwise left intact the Lehnhoff-Conklin original.
James Morris, strong as ever, sang all the Wotans in the three Runnicles-conducted Rings in June 1999. Having impressed Mansouri by her drop-in role in 1995, Eaglen was chosen as Brünnhilde in the same three cycles, which she sang with Golden Age splendor. Deborah Voigt was a moving Sieglinde. In the three Rings he conducted, Donald Runnicles, now San Francisco Opera’s music director, led the Opera orchestra in one of the most knowing and sympathetic renderings of Wagner’s seventeen-hour score I have heard.
When David Gockley came to San Francisco in 2006, he had been thinking about a new Ring for some time, along with director Francesca Zambello (a collaborator of his since 1984, now his artistic adviser) for Houston Grand Opera. In fact, a Houston newspaper suggested that one of his reasons for taking the San Francisco post was the opportunity it offered to do their new Ring here, after his Texas board decided it was too great a risk. Gockley and Zambello set out at once, along with Wagner master-conductor Runnicles and designer Michael Yeargan, to give us the Ring we are seeing this summer.
San Francisco audiences have been experiencing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often in productions of major distinction, for more than a century. Younger companies in the West—notably Seattle Opera, which has made regular performances of the Ring its trademark since 1975—have taken up the challenge: Chicago in 1996 and 2005, Los Angeles for the first time last year. But outside of New York, since 1900 opera lovers in this country have had better chances of hearing a memorable Ring in San Francisco than anywhere else.

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“Imaginative…Inventive and Involving!”

  –New York Times
“Zesty, Imaginative…Evocative!”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Donald Runnicles drew robust and nuanced playing from the Opera Orchestra.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Mark Delavan gave “an authoritative performance.”

"As Wotan, Mark Delavan caught the god’s youthful vigor, as well as the submerged dark side of his lust for power and wealth."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Stefan Margita as the wily Loge brought both vocal allure and nimble theatrical inventiveness to the role.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle

  –San Jose Mercury News
Gordon Hawkin's “expression of desperation and loss was rich. This was awesome!”

  –San Jose Mercury News


  • Tue 06/14/11 8:00pm *

  • Tue 06/21/11 8:00pm *

  • Tue 06/28/11 8:00pm *

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.

Cast, program and prices subject to change.