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Ring of Truth

The Ring cycle had its world premiere in 1876 and remains one of opera's most popular works. Why does each generation of opera lovers want to make the Ring its own? PHILIP KENNICOTT ponders the enduring modernity and infinite variety of Richard Wagner's masterwork.

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In 1966, Susan Sontag published Against Interpretation, a dazzling series of razor-sharp paragraphs that described an odd and debilitating fact of our aesthetic life: ideas about art had long supplanted the sensual experience of art itself. "Interpretation," she wrote, wasn't "simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius." It had become a wall that separated us from art itself, sometimes an attack on art that made us uncomfortable, often a revision of art that was no longer acceptable to contemporary taste and mores. And the scourge of interpretation was particularly common "in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant garde."

She could have been talking about the state of opera today, and especially the last thirty years of directorial inventions in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. The Ring is almost never about the events of the Ring; it is about what those events mean, what they point to outside of the Ring, the relevance they have in our world. More than any other opera, when we speak of Wagner's tetralogy it is with a shorthand that credits either the director or the director's vision. There is the Chéreau Ring (an allegory of industry and class), the Kupfer Ring (a sci-fi vision) and the Zambello Ring (filled with the iconography of America). 

In the past decade, there have been productions of the Ring in New York, London, Vienna, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Dresden, St. Petersburg — indeed, in too many cities to enumerate. In almost every case, the sheer cost of the cycle and the desperate need for the next new Ring to dazzle in some instantly memorable way have led to an increasingly difficult challenge of interpretation. The Ring itself may be inexhaustible, but the list of trendy subjects for which the Ring can be a metaphor isn't. Feminist Rings, Jungian Rings, Marxist Rings, environmental Rings, all have had success in some form or another. But with the breakdown of coherent political orthodoxies, the disarray of psychoanalysis and the dissolution of old nationalist passions, the grab bag of interpretations grows ever more impoverished. 

But there is far more than mere branding in the need to impose this kind of interpretation on the Ring. There is an ideology behind it as well, a set of beliefs, now deeply entrenched, that promote the "interpreted" Ring as the only legitimate way of presenting Wagner's work. And strangely, this ideology is based both on the perpetuation of Wagner's own ideas and on a deep distrust of them.

Wagner himself was a Wagner purist, and his writing on the staging of his own work stressed the "precise correspondence of the events on stage with the orchestra," a general preference for historical literalism, and fidelity to his detailed stage instructions. But while he would likely have recoiled at many of the productions that now hold the stage around the world, he created the intellectual construct for the ongoing reinterpretation of his work. Die Meistersinger isn't just a comedy; it creates a template for how audiences should relate to Wagner's music. In a conflict between philistinism and innovation, the opera invites us to identify with Walther's brand of artistic progressivism. The conflicts in the Ring between Siegmund and Hunding, and Siegfried and Wotan, echo this basic appeal, enlisting audience sympathies on the side of rebellion and iconoclasm. Wagner, in effect, drafts us into the ongoing drama of his art — the notion that to love Wagner appropriately is to hate artistic complacency, traditionalism and bourgeois ideas about entertainment.

And so the radical reinterpretation of Wagner seems, paradoxically, the only properly Wagnerian thing to do. But directors intent on forging new interpretations are also engaged in an act of purifying Wagner. When Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of Richard and now codirector of the Bayreuth Festival, made her Bayreuth debut with a production of Die Meistersinger in 2007, it was cast as an act of redemption for an opera that had long been considered almost sacrosanct. Katharina, who was making a bid to take over the festival, had "a strong will of interpretation that won't bow even to Meistersinger," a festival spokesman said. And in the program notes to the DVD release of the production, Jochen Kienbaum wrote that before Katharina's modern-dress production (with the requisite nudity and anachronism), "the work had been spared the annealing fire of Bayreuth's workshop approach to productions." It had been resistant to "new perspectives" and the "type of production style that had long been adopted by her eminent colleagues elsewhere." 

The irony, of course, is that Katharina's regie style is now the dominant, entrenched and old-hat style of European opera production. Rather like Wagner's politics, it only appears radical but is in fact entirely retrograde. But the belief in the "annealing" power of regie-style interpretation persists, even as the basic gestures of the style lapse into cliché. While the Bayreuth old guard has largely been resistant to this style, they have played an instrumental role in the larger belief that Wagner requires constant, redemptive interpretation. In her 1998 history of the Wagner family, Katharina's cousin Nike wrote that the Ring cycle has been particularly important to the family "because of the way in which a huge family psychodrama was hidden beneath the cloak of German mythology." Members of the family identified explicitly with characters in the Ring, and even productions of the cycle were seen not only as operas but as open contests between competing factions and heirs to the Wagner legacy.

The metaphor of a "cloak of German mythology" under which another kind of drama plays out is essential to the idea that Wagner must be continually reinterpreted, and ideally in ways that make explicit reference to contemporary society. Rare is the production in which the myth is presented simply as myth. Rare is the production in which the avenue to understanding the work isn't through relevance but through faith in the integrity of Wagner's myth itself. Years after Theodor Adorno wrote his brilliant 1939 book-length essay "In Search of Wagner," which examined the social construction of the man, his work and his music, Adorno returned to the subject in a 1963 Berlin lecture. He didn't disavow his earlier work, but rather surprisingly, he argued for the inherent mythological power of Wagner's epic work. "One can raise all imaginable sorts of objections to Wagnerian mythology, exposing it as cheap and phony, as a romanticism of false beards and bull's eye windows." And yet, Adorno argued, there is a primitivism, a violence in Wagner's mythology, that makes it radically modern.

Adorno was recalibrating his views little more than a decade after Wieland Wagner's seminal "abstract" Ring cycle had its premiere at Bayreuth. Adorno was arguing, in part, that as the decades passed since the premieres of the works and the death of Wagner, the public was in danger of underestimating Wagner's achievement. Wagner, the most "erotically" charged of composers, hadn't been fully digested, even as younger listeners began to cast him aside, enchanted by new discoveries such as Heinrich Schutz, and by the pervasive appeal of pop. Wagner's music created a passionate ambivalence in Adorno, and "one behaves ambivalently toward a thing with which one has not come to terms." What was needed was the chance to "experience the Wagnerian work fully."

The chance to "experience the Wagnerian work fully" isn't dependent on style of production. And Adorno was hardly calling for a slavishly traditionalist approach to Wagner. But one wonders whether we have made much progress in our efforts to experience the work fully; whether we are not as remote from Wagner's ideas now as we were at the middle of the last century, when the Ring became the art work par excellence that required continual reinterpretation. Certainly the absurdities pile up in productions that strive for shock value, unnecessarily alienating large swathes of the audience, and adding little more than another kind of "cloak" over the events of the drama. 

But for frequent Ring-goers, memorable productions tend to be about detail, whether articulated in modern dress or in the style Bayreuth audiences would have found congenial when the work was presented complete for the first time in 1876. Stephen Wadsworth's Seattle Ring of 2001 and the Ring completed last summer in San Francisco by director Francesca Zambello couldn't be more different in their superficial appearance. The former was rigorously traditional, the latter filled with allusions to the modern world. But both worked in their details, the interactions of character, and a profound sensitivity to Wagner's music. And both had a deep sense of the mythological, as if both directors (no matter what reservations they may have had) believed in the emotional reality of the world Wagner created.

There is, of course, no such thing as an uninterpreted Ring. Even Sontag acknowledged that there was no "outside" to the game of criticism. In the modern world, one can't turn off the mind's need to make sense, allegorize and explicate the work of art. Every performance is an interpretation of some sort.

But if you were looking for a gimmick with which you could both promote a new Ring cycle and do something radically different from the now old-hat "interpreted" Ring, you might try this: allow the singers to stage it. They are, after all, closer to the music than anyone else, and smart singers, over time, learn things about the projection of character that directors can only hope to teach. A "singers' Ring"would experiment with abolishing the director, the director's "vision" and the imposition from outside of the kinds of interpretation that Sontag found particularly obnoxious.

It would also be a more profoundly democratic Ring, a Ring developed by consensus. Chamber musicians regularly work this way, and even some orchestras have developed means for "interpreting" through consensus. Singers, of course, don't have time for this kind of work, and the results could easily be a crazy quilt of discordant ideas. But it would be a fascinating exercise — a Ring developed not through the old, autocratic means of the director's oversight (an antiquated model of leadership in almost all walks of life that don't involve art or actual political tyranny) but through new, horizontal and socially networked avenues of decision-making. 

Even more important, however, is the possibility that a singers' Ring would shift attention from what the Ring means to how it works. It would move the opera company away from branding Wagner's work, toward strategies calculated to give each scene its greatest possible power. As Sontag said in 1966, "What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more." A Ring built up from many small, collective decisions, rather than imposed from the top down by one decider, might well get us closer to that ideal. spacer 

PHILIP KENNICOTT is chief art critic of The Washington Post. 

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