I understand the ravens.

This year I attended the third cycle of Seattle Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” with my friend, coworker, and opera nerd, Brad. Yes, that’s four nights and about 15 hours of music in total. I don’t consider myself a musician in any sense of the word, and sadly lack any real formal education in literary analysis, so what follows are the general thoughts of a reasonably well educated non-expert. And it’s really in no sort of meaningful order, so bear with my train of consciousness. I have a bit of Ring cycle hangover.

For those not familiar with Wagner’s Ring cycle (or Looney Tunes “What’s Opera, Doc?” for that matter), it is an adaptation of various Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied and things like the Prose Edda, elements of which also fed the more familiar Lord of the Rings books by Tolkien (and in fact Christopher Tolkien recently released Tolkien’s own take on the same material in “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun”). So of course with all of this we get into “hero’s journeys” sorts of themes, along with the eternal struggle between god and man, etc. etc. etc.

In the end though, as a modern viewer, Siegfried (our hero) is dumber than a box of rocks and has a completely obnoxious personality–in the end I found myself rooting for him to fail, thankfully Wagner (and Nordic mythology) is on my side. But seriously Brünnhilde could have done much better, and thus I forgive some of her naughty mind-games. Overall, we have a cautionary tale about the danger of magic rings, dwarves, and philandering deities.

The current Seattle Opera production (apparently like most American productions) is pretty traditional, we have Valkyries in breastplates and winged helmets, sets depicting pretty realistic Scandinavian forests, and Valhalla going up in literal flames at the end. Seattle is one of the few companies in the United States to stage regular productions–for the last few decades they’ve staged a production, done it two more times with the same sets and general stage direction at four year intervals, and then restaged it in a slightly different way the next time.

In my research before going it was interesting to see how various companies elsewhere stage the production, which makes me curious to try seeing pieces of the series elsewhere–though I doubt I’ll ever become a “ringnut”, which is apparently the affectionate nickname for Wagner fans who are willing to fly all over to see a production. An older woman who sat next to me the entire time fit into that category. If nothing else I’d like to see a show using a different translation on the supertitles, since there are points in skimming the libretto where I can see the supertitle translation skewed the underlying meaning in a different direction than I might have gone (not that I speak German, just to judge from a common English libretto).

I think my largest criticisms of the production itself would probably be the orchestra itself, which occasionally overpowered the vocalists. The casting of Siegfried, the performer had an excellent voice and a stage presence that was a bit of a disconnect with the role. Some of the staging and lighting felt very… literal? I don’t know how else to describe it. Relying on the Valkyrie to create the illusion of horses in certain scenes, with such literal staging elsewhere you felt the lack.

On a completely unrelated note to the performance itself, the food options at intermission were unremarkable–with a captive audience as it were, the prices paid to turn out mediocre food were a bit silly. The first night we both had a lamb that was simply overcooked–in retrospect, lamb at an event that’s essentially being served banquet style is problematic. But considering that everyone has to eat dinner in under 20 minutes, I would have expected more creative options. Perhaps due to the overall age range of your average Ring attendee, creativity isn’t the best of ideas though.

Which brings us to a question for another day on the role of opera in a city’s overall arts scene, I felt a real disconnect between the people and staging of this production with my daily life experience in the current economy. And with the average age at opera usually being closer to my parents age than mine, how do we make opera, symphony or ballet relevant for a generation of people who regard such things as stuffy or elitist?

Overall though, it was fantastic, and I would definitely go again as soon as my ass is recovered from sitting in those seats at McCaw Hall for 15+ hours over the last week.