I have often returned to this image throughout our planning of the Ring, now returning to San Francisco Opera. That view called to mind the untouched world at the beginning of Richard Wagner’s cycle, and I began to see in that landscape an American parallel to Wagner’s story. The timeless themes of the Ring—the destruction of nature, the quest for power, the cutthroat corruption, the plight of the powerless—are not bound to some leafy, mythical Nordic realm. When you look at the great 19th-century landscapes of the American West, they depict the same feelings of majesty and abundance evoked at the beginning of Das Rheingold with its world not yet adulterated by man. But when Alberich raids the Rhine for the golden Ring, the contract with nature is broken and the scales become unbalanced.
Wotan, too, severs his relationship with nature and sacrifices his integrity to build Valhalla, a mansion he can’t afford, thereby mortgaging nature to realize his ambitions. Valhalla rises like the technically ingenious skyscrapers of the 1930s, while Alberich’s theft mirrors the corruption in 20th-century business and politics. Concern for the environment is replaced by concern for the bottom-line.
When we first began production on the Ring in Washington, D.C. in 2005, the focus was on the misuse of power. Then we brought it to San Francisco for the first complete cycle in 2011. Californians have a keen awareness of nature and the environment, so we began to shift the emphasis toward the despoliation of our natural resources. What major river in the United States has not been exploited like the Rhine? Think of the Wagnerian catastrophes of Los Alamos, Three Mile Island, the BP oil spill, and Flint, Michigan. Now a long-term trend of increasing temperatures threatens to permanently transform the Earth’s climate. How do we rebuild our environment with no Brünnhilde to rescue us?
It is fitting that California plays a strong role in where our cycle starts. The western shore is our last chance for reinvention, where we can no longer ignore the havoc left in our wake. As the curtain rises, you see an untouched landscape. Then the glistening world sickens, darkens, and decays. When the curtain falls, the world is devoid of any living natural resource, 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 is a slowly dying tree in Gibichung Hall. At the end, the fire surrounding Brünnhilde has a greenish tinge suggesting chemical combustion. We are left hoping that the world might be reborn through her suicide.
Brünnhilde is the transformative, life-affirming hero of the Ring. She achieves what no man can: she restores the world order and rebalances the scales. Brünnhilde gives rise to a new world from the ashes of her self-sacrifice. She rights the wrongs of Alberich and Wotan, clearing the path for regeneration. When she returns the Ring to the Rhinemaidens, it is a healing gesture that also symbolizes her forgiveness of Gutrune. The gods are gone, but the mortals, especially the women, who are left represent the beginning of a new order. Is it a feminist approach? No, but it suggests the power of female leaders to heal the scars of destruction.
I am indebted to the artists with whom I have collaborated on this production over the years. We shared a collective, unified vision through constant communication and diligence. 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 generous people who have brought this Ring to life, and to our audiences who are on the voyage with us.