Leading a 2007 concert performance of this towering masterpiece, conductor Donald Runnicles proved he is “clearly among the most insightful, potent Wagnerians of his day” (Sunday Times of London). “His account was of spectacular brilliance and high, churning intensity.” London's The Independent called Runnicles “a seasoned Wagnerite” whose “sense of pace, paragraphing and climax was nigh on perfect.” English tenor Ian Storey, who triumphed as Tristan in Tristan and Isolde at La Scala, makes his Company debut and role debut as Siegfried. When Storey "opens his mouth, you remember what makes opera tick" (Times, London).

The Story:

Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring as a token of their union and sets off for new adventures. He meets the self-serving siblings Gunther and Gutrune and their half-brother Hagen, the son of Alberich. Seeking the ring, Hagen uses a potion to trick Siegfried into abandoning Brünnhilde, who joins him in plotting revenge. Hagen murders Siegfried, and Brünnhilde, understanding too late the deception, orders a funeral pyre built for Siegfried. As she strides into the fire, the flames rise to destroy Valhalla, the Rhine overflows its banks and the ring is returned to its rightful owners, the Rhinemaidens. The era of the gods is now over.

Sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 5 hours, 15 minutes including two intermissions

San Francisco Opera production

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.


Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Siegfried Ian Storey
Gunther Gerd Grochowski
Hagen Andrea Silvestrelli
Waltraute & Second Norn Daveda Karanas
Gutrune Melissa Citro
Alberich Gordon Hawkins
First Norn Ronnita Miller
Third Norn Heidi Melton
Woglinde Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde Renée Tatum

Production Credits

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

* San Francisco Opera Debut


The three Norns, daughters of the earth goddess Erda, are busy spinning the rope of fate. Begotten before the earth was created, they recall Wotan’s days of power and predict Valhalla’s immi­nent fall. The second Norn then notices that the rope of destiny is starting to fray and unravel. As the sisters try to make it taut, it snaps. Crying that their eternal wisdom and power of prophesy is at an end, they descend in terror to Erda and vanish.
     At dawn, Siegfried and Brünnhilde awaken after their bridal night. Though fearful that she may lose him, Brünnhilde encourages Siegfried to travel in search of heroic deeds. To remind her of his love, he gives her the Ring and, taking her horse Grane in exchange, joins her in a joyous farewell.
In their castle on the Rhine, Gunther, king of the Gibichungs, and his sister Gutrune, both unwed, ask counsel from their half-­brother Hagen. Plotting to secure the Ring, Hagen advises Gunther to consolidate his power by marrying Brünnhilde. By means of a magic potion, Siegfried could be induced to forget his bride and win her for Gunther in return for Gutrune’s hand. At that moment, Siegfried's horn call announces his approach. Gunther welcomes him, and Gutrune seals his fate by offering him the potion. Hailing Brünnhilde, he drinks and instantly forgets all about her. Quickly succumbing to Gutrune's beauty, Siegfried agrees to bring Brünnhilde to Gunther. After sealing their agreement with an oath to blood-brotherhood, the two men depart. Hagen, keeping watch for their return, gloats over the success of his scheme.
     On Brünnhilde’s rock, Waltraute visits her sister, telling her that Wotan has warned the gods that their doom is sealed unless Brünnhilde yields the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. When she refuses, Waltraute departs in despair. Dusk falls as Siegfried appears, disguised as Gunther by means of the magic Tarnhelm. He wrests the Ring from the terrified Brünnhilde and claims her as Gunther’s bride.
At night, outside the Gibichung hall, Alberich forces his sleeping son Hagen to swear that he will regain the Ring. As dawn breaks, Siegfried returns with cheerful news for Hagen and Gutrune: he has won Brünnhilde for Gunther, who follows shortly. Hagen summons the vassals to welcome the returning king and his bride. When Gunther leads in Brünnhilde, she sees Siegfried and recoils. Noticing her Ring on Gunther’s finger, she deplores the trickery through which she was won and proclaims Siegfried to be her true husband. The hero, still under the potion's spell, vows upon Hagen’s spear that he has never wronged the woman. Taking the spear point from him, Brünnhilde angrily swears that he is lying. Siegfried dismisses her charge and then leaves with Gutrune to prepare for their marriage. The dazed Brünnhilde, bent on revenge, reveals to Hagen the hero’s one vulnerable spot: a blade in his back will kill him. Taunted by Brünnhilde and lured by Hagen’s descrip­tion of the Ring’s power, Gunther joins in the murder plot.
Near a rocky slope on the banks of the Rhine, the three Rhine­maidens bewail their lost treasure. Soon Siegfried approaches, having wandered away from his hunting party. The maidens plead for the Ring, but he ignores their entreaties and warnings. When the hunting party arrives, Siegfried, at Hagen's urging, describes his boyhood with Mime, the killing of Fafner, and finally—after Hagen gives him a potion to restore his memory—his wooing of Brünnhilde. Pretending indignation, Hagen plunges a spear into Siegfried's back and stalks off. Hailing Brünnhilde with his last breath, the hero dies. The vassals bear him away.
     At the Gibichung hall, Gutrune nervously awaits her bride­groom's return. Hagen, the first to arrive, tells her that Siegfried has been slain by a wild boar. When his body is carried in, however, the woman accuses Gunther of murder. Hagen admits the crime. Quarreling over possession of the Ring, Gunther is killed by Hagen, who falls back in fear from the prize when the dead hero raises his arm. Brünnhilde appears and orders a funeral pyre built for Siegfried. Musing on the gods' responsi­bility for his death, she takes the Ring and promises it to the Rhinemaidens. Placing it on her own finger, she throws a torch onto the pyre and walks into the flames. As the hall is consumed by fire, the river Rhine over­flows its banks and the Rhinemaidens, dragging Hagen to a watery grave, regain their treasure. The flames that engulf Valhalla free the Ring of its curse.

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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The Ring of the Nibelung: Götterdämmerung

Thomas May

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

Lauritz Melchior (Siegfried) and the Rhinemaidens in 1935's Götterdämmerung
A Wagnerian Palimpsest
Götterdämmerung resembles a creative archeological dig, its layers exposing everything Wagner invested in the Ring over more than a quarter century. Dramatically, the ideas that inspired the entire cycle in the first place coexist with the pessimistic determinism that characterized the composer’s later world view. The downfall of the gods had implied a liberating breakthrough from the perspective of Wagner’s commitment to a socialist utopia during his participation in the Dresden Revolution (the period when he first conceived of the Ring). But he had long since abandoned those views as a naïve detour. The intuition he had unknowingly embodied at the heart of his Ring, Wagner wrote to a close confidant, was “that instead of a single phase in the world’s evolution, what I had glimpsed was the essence of the world itself in all its conceivable phases, and that I had thereby recognized its nothingness.” Rather than the fall of the Bastille, the gods’ demise came to signify the futility of all utopias. Musically, as well, Götterdämmerung is a palimpsest containing stylistic layers from Wagner’s early Romantic mode to his late-period afterthoughts on “the music of the future.” The elaborate system of motifs already in place is thus filtered through a complex prism.
And what a rich subtext Wagner’s music provides to the Norns’ opening scene as he mimics the allusive and recombinant character of the dream world. The familiar leitmotifs seem more than ever to be part of the fateful, doomed pattern that is pressing on toward the conclusion. Yet what immediately follows is the grandest staging yet of the cycle’s recurrent gestures of awakening, as dawn rises to reveal Brünnhilde and Siegfried in the throes of their newfound love. The juxtaposition of fate and hope, endings versus beginnings, epitomizes the rich ambiguity of this conclusion to the cycle.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
In Siegfried’s final love scene, it seemed as if the world was finally on the right course. Though the dramatic scene is essentially the same here, Wagner somehow writes an entirely new duet that again conveys the resounding joy of the lovers, both envisioning a beautiful, optimistic—utopian?—future. Love was supposed to open up the possibility for a new world. Instead, its very intensity inspires hatred. In response to Siegfried’s betrayal (the only way she can understand what’s happening to her), Brünnhilde converts her love into an equally ardent desire for revenge and in turn betrays Siegfried. The later, post-Tristan Wagner’s pessimistic preoccupation with the futility of desire leaves its stamp on his musical characterization. He invests these passions at both ends of the spectrum with electrifyingly vivid expression. In one of the Ring’s most potent ironies, Brünnhilde pledges herself on Hagen’s spear to Siegfried’s destruction.
Götterdämmerung’s series of “blood brotherhood” oaths—chilling reminders of the fateful consequences of Wotan’s oaths and treaty-carved spear— ensure the hero’s inevitable death.While Siegfried had focused on the development of its title hero from rebellious lad to lover, he seems to regress in Götterdämmerung until it’s too late. The opera’s focus instead shifts to the education of Brünnhilde—which continues the journey we have already seen in progress in Die Walküre. Wagner shows her transformation through painful experience from the new woman who has discovered love to the victim of a vicious betrayal who turns to vengeance (recalling the aggressive, “masculine” energy of her Valkyrie past); by the end she has become the enlightened visionary who sees beyond dualisms.
Her scene with Waltraute in Act One develops the “womanly” figure seen in the Prologue. Brünnhilde—who once observed the love between Siegfried’s parents and learned from it—is now herself an eloquent advocate of that love. Waltraute’s monologue serves the very important function of making Wotan present in Götterdämmerung. And she introduces a note of false hope (another temptation to a new beginning), which is, after all, the reason behind her mission. Waltraute meets her sister not for a sentimental catch-up visit but as an emissary from the cycle’s epic past—and the only representative of the gods we see in Götterdämmerung. She represents the old order that Brünnhilde now declares meaningless compared to what she has experienced through love. Waltraute is the Old World to Brünnhilde’s New World of love discovered.
Significantly, the visual correlative of this scene is the Ring. Throughout the cycle, its presence has been negative. Brünnhilde ascribes to it a positive value as a symbol not of power but of love. Yet she is not immune to its curse. This ambiguity about love—the source of Götterdämmerung’s tragedy—reveals Brünnhilde’s own reevaluation of the Ring to be an illusion.
In the end, it is left to Brünnhilde to come to terms with the consequences. Her final monologue incorporates significant moments from Waltraute’s music, as if to face up to what she had left unresolved in that encounter. But the trauma she must first undergo involves some of the most violent passions to be acted out in the entire cycle. At the end of Act One, when Siegfried-in-disguise overpowers her, Brünnhilde is all too ready to revert to the old way of thinking, the fear and terror represented by Waltraute (and Wotan’s own burning anxiety from Die Walküre). Her instinctive interpretation that this is the real punishment Wotan had intended to mete out to her is one of the darkest moments in the Ring, where the possibility of redemption seems more remote than ever.
New Characters
The immense first act of Götterdämmerung introduces not only three new key characters but an entire civilization—a later phase of the corrupt, power-enforced world glimpsed from Hunding’s hut. And with them Wagner introduces a new plot centered on the machinations of Hagen at the same time as he tightens the knots of the stories already underway. A paradoxical feature of Götterdämmerung is that, while this is the longest Ring opera and has the inevitable heaviness of carrying the cycle’s accumulated memories, in performance it seems to rush forward with surprising momentum.
Wagner’s characterization is marvelously efficient and to the point. This is particularly true of Hagen, whose malevolence Wagner conveys with sonorities of profoundly disturbing magnificence: He seems to eclipse even the menace posed by his father Alberich. The result is one of opera’s most frightening portrayals of evil and the source of the Ring’s darkest music. Wagner resorts to extensive musical parody and satire to depict Mime and even Alberich, but Hagen is absolutely humorless—unless you count the black humor of his sounding the call to arms in Act Two to signal the arrival of Gunther’s new bride (the startled vassals refer to the unusual sight of “grim Hagen” being in a relatively upbeat mood).
The musical alchemy of late-period Wagner allows him to twist, stretch, and transform material that is by now rich in familiar associations. Thus even though the half-human Hagen is a new character, the music around him is supercharged with references to what has gone before. For example, his fake battle cry (wonderfully accompanied by a tremolo wash of low strings and Wagner’s panoply of brass and even offstage stierhorn) reminds us of Hunding’s cruelty, while Hagen’s blaring alphorn—a demonic counterpart to Siegfried’s horn call—is related to the clan calls leading to the duel with Siegmund. Wagner’s system of leitmotifs allows all of these planes to coexist and converge in one terrifying figure.
Similarly, Wagner characterizes Gutrune in a few effective strokes so that she becomes more than Hagen’s pawn. Her intimate solo scene following Siegfried’s murder—as she anxiously awaits his return from the “hunt”—gives an agonized twist to the cliché of dream narratives from Romantic opera and anticipates the psychological realism of later composers. A nervous nightmare laced with hallucinatory distortions of the music for both Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Gutrune’s anxiety even seems to update the Italian operatic model of the melancholy mad scene.
The depiction of Gutrune’s tormented agony reminds us of Wagner’s outstanding skills—aside from all the Ring’s other aspects—first and foremost as a musical dramatist. With a few swift strokes we get a much richer picture of this character and what is at stake for her. In contrast, Wagner doesn’t allow Gunther much characterization—perhaps to reinforce the cipher that he is. Instead, we always see Gunther responding to the words and actions of other characters, and he is manipulated from beginning to end by Hagen, who finally slays him.
Jane Eaglen performs Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene in 1999's Götterdämmerung 
Photo by Larry Merkle 
Siegfried’s Death and the World’s End/Beginning
After all the set-up for his emergence as a hero, Siegfried likewise ends up being a puppet who is easily manipulated. His act of capturing Brünnhilde—even though he’s lost his memory of their relationship—is nothing short of rape by proxy. Later, he engages in deception about the Ring. The whole dramatic stratagem of the potion makes for a fascinating musico-dramatic counterpart to the scene in Act Two of Siegfried that played on the dichotomy between appearance and reality (when the hero was able to “read” Mime’s threats).
But Siegfried gets one last moment to shine brilliantly. Wagner accomplishes this in the framework of that most-hackneyed of gestures, the tenor’s death aria. As its logical sequence, the hero’s epic recapitulation has set us up to expect continuation with the music of Brünnhilde’s awakening to a higher consciousness—the music, we recall, with which the opera itself began. Siegfried now takes it up, but the restored clarity of his memory—and of love’s renewing possibility—comes just as his life is violently snuffed out. The effect is tremendously poignant. It epitomizes the kind of rebooting of the system that seemed to be the answer at critical moments in the Ring: We feel we are about to begin again, to face the hope that the two lovers shared in the Götterdämmerung Prologue. But Siegfried’s phrases fade into silence against the inescapable music of Fate. The Funeral March epitomizes the shift that happens in later Wagner toward music to carry the burden of meaning, a purely orchestral equivalent to the epic monologues that mark other pivotal moments in the Ring.
Both systems—the sung epic narrative and the orchestral summing up—converge in the wonderful synthesis of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. It also synthesizes the epic and dramatic modes of storytelling. Wagner weaves the cycle’s key leitmotifs into yet another recapitulation—but one that, significantly, is now viewed from the perspective of completion. The perspective is furthermore narrowed to Brünnhilde, who has experienced the key events of the Ring, and her summation of its themes brings our understanding of them to a new level.
The “afterlife” of the Ring—the accumulated wisdom of wildly varying productions over the years, and of generations of interpretation and commentary—has reinforced the vastness of Wagner’s vision. This isn’t just a question of the massive scale of the cycle in terms of performance time, the resources and budget needed to produce it, the incredible combination of musical, theatrical, design, and entrepreneurial expertise it requires. Those make for impressive, Olympic-sounding statistics, to be sure. But what the ambition of the Ring really comes down to is an enormous claim for the scope of art itself—what it can reveal, and what it can tell us about ourselves and the world we live in.

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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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  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Lord of the 'Rings'...a production that crackles with theatrical flair and inventiveness!"

“In the final opera of Wagner's epic tetralogy, director Francesca Zambello brought her vision of gradual ecological ruin to a persuasive conclusion.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Donald Runnicles led a performance of majestic power and sweep, eliciting thrillingly great playing from the tireless Opera Orchestra."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde “a Triumph!”

Stemme's Brünnhilde was "nothing less than a triumph here…singing with a combination of tonal heft and laser-like precision."

"The Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum) made a winsome trio, and the Norns were superbly sung by Ronnita Miller, Daveda Karanas (who returned as Waltraute) and especially Heidi Melton."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“The ending left patrons motivated to start the whole ‘Ring’ cycle again…beginning June 14!”

  –San Francisco Examiner
"Stemme’s role debut was an event to remember!”

Nina Stemme “sailed through the difficult part with ease, her voice covering every bit of the range gorgeously."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"An ever-enthralling epic that held the audience spellbound!"

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"A Complete Work of Art!"

"The musical strength was that complete, given the singing and the magnificent orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles, in a glorious performance."

"Thanks to the musicians, instrumental as well as vocal, the experience was of a complete work of art."

"A magnificent portrayal" of Brünnhilde! Nina Stemme "poured forth sounds that were full, round, seamless...gorgeous from top to bottom."

Ian Storey "was a Siegfried who could keep up with his Brünnhilde, which is no mean feat."

"Andrea Silvestrelli, singing Hagen, reaffirmed his status as a vocal giant."

"Sharing the spotlight with the singers were the final installment of director Francesca Zambello's and set designer Michael Yeargan's vision of the 'Ring,' and the glorious sounds of the S.F. Opera Orchestra."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
“A Brünnhilde for our time in Nina Stemme!”

Ian Storey’s voice has a ringing, penetrating quality…and sings a strong line, with conviction.”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice


  • Sun 06/5/11 1:00pm *

  • Sun 06/19/11 1:00pm *

  • Sun 06/26/11 1:00pm *

  • Sun 07/3/11 1:00pm *

*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.