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Serial Monogamy

Wagner’s Ring inspires unique devotion in its fans.
By Charles Shafaieh
Illustrations by Robert Neubecker

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker

THE RING DEMANDS DEVOTION. Sitting through four operas for more than fifteen hours, often in less than comfortable conditions, is only the beginning of Wagner’s endurance test: cycles rarely take place in one’s hometown, and they stretch over six days, if not longer. Dedicating so much time, energy and money to any artistic event might seem ludicrous, if not masochistic, to many, but in an era when binge-watching sixty episodes of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad is acceptable behavior, the zealous dedication of Ring fans seems almost normal. 

THE MOST ARDENT RING-GOERS exceed even Wagner’s designs for transforming audiences with his operas. These obsessives relish seeing the full cycle repeatedly, sometimes dozens of times—a habit far from commonplace among even the most fervent TV binge-watchers. This colossal epic’s sublimity alone cannot explain this behavior, so what is it that provokes so many to enjoy—and endure—the Ring again and again?

It is not coincidental that many “cycles” in pop culture with cult-like followings similar to the Ring’s utilize myth—in some cases the same German and Nordic sources that Wagner refashioned. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings bear the most explicit Wagnerian imprint, though Tolkien never admitted that Wagner was an inspiration; for Star Wars, complete with composer John Williams’s very Wagnerian use of leitmotifs, George Lucas took inspiration from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell. As with the more recent cases of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, each of these phenomena is an archetype-rich story that situates human—often family—dramas within an epic framework, satisfying desires for grand and intimate narratives alike.

Wagner possessed a nuanced understanding of myth. As Alex Ross, classical-music critic for The New Yorker, observes, the composer emphasized the ambiguities of these ancient tales, increasing their psychological depth and thus widening their reach. “Wagner invented very little of the raw material of his stories,” Ross says. “But the modern form he gave these surefire devices—the young man with unknown powers, the man with no name, the maiden with the ring of fire—became hugely influential. It’s a very powerful way of working, and the artists who came after Wagner were impressed by how myths became universal when treated in a certain way.” The fact that these devices in The Ring are accompanied by murder, incest, adultery and other taboos only adds to their attraction. Many psychoanalysts and philosophers argue that these themes, which dominate contemporary television and film, are not abhorrent to audiences because they represent our suppressed desires—and Wagner, like HBO and Netflix, gives us a safe space to watch them enacted.

Our collective acceptance of the Ring characters’ questionable actions is related to the amount of time we spend with them, too. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a celebrated Ring Fricka, says, “People get very invested when they watch huge groups of people for huge chunks of time. By the time the incest happens between Siegmund and Sieglinde, you already love them. The only person who cares is Fricka, and I can’t tell you how many times people have told me how evil she is for that!”

That daunting amount of time itself captivates superfans of this family-centric drama. Wagner acolytes even undergo mental and physical transformations during the operas. Gestalt psychologist Christian von Ehrenfels insisted that specific bars of Wagner’s music induced orgasms. “He’s a supreme seducer—not a charmer or dainty courtier,” says Simon Callow, actor and author of Being Wagner. “He takes you from the very beginning and bends you to his will.” 

“There’s this physical and mental sense of commitment that you make [during the Ring], and at the end, you’re drained,” adds Charles Blum, a New York-based lawyer and twenty-cycle veteran who got hooked on Wagner after first seeing productions at the old Met and reading the composer’s prose works in his teens. Callow’s description of experiencing Wagner is more visceral: “It shakes you to your bowels and unmans you.”

Blythe says, “It’s important to feel that there’s something bigger than us, and The Ring creates a community.” Wagner understood this social aspect of The Ring when he created the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. As Ross says, “Everyone is experiencing the same thing, at the same time, in this odd city which doesn’t have much else going on in the summer.” To a lesser extent, the same pull of community holds true at any house where the Ring is presented. Jane Mathews, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia, who saw her first Ring at Bayreuth, knows this better than most; she has spent roughly a year of her life at sixty-four cycles. “You go to one at the other end of the world, and there are a whole lot of buddies there with whom you have drinks and dinner afterwards,” she says, enthusiastically. 

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker

AS APPEALING AS THE SOCIAL and travel aspects are, a more urgent argument for immersing oneself in this epic is the opportunity to engage repeatedly with the philosophical and moral questions itraises. But the richness of the material notwithstanding, repeated devotion can have a narcotic effect—one that Wagner in some ways desired. Just as the characters in The Ring occupy a mythic place beyond time, Wagner pushes his audience into a similar position outside time and space, literally and metaphysically, during the fifteen hours of his tetralogy. Yuval Sharon, the first American stage director at the Bayreuth Festival, says, “It becomes something that hypnotizes you, and you need to have that high again.” 

The Ring is a story about stories—about their telling and retelling—that creates the expectation that these stories will repeat ad infinitum, which is reinforced when actions are repeated. (Siegfried comes twice to the mountain for Brünnhilde, who is twice surrounded by flames.) Wagner’s compositional style—through-composed, without clean breaks for “numbers”—combines with the Gesamtkunstwerk’s tight fusion of music, text and action to make detachment challenging.

The lack of closure at the end of Götterdämmerung is perhaps the most affecting moment in The Ring. Stephen Wagley, a retired book editor who structures his travel around cycles, confesses, “I can see [Götterdämmerung] in San Francisco, where the gold is put back in the Rhine, and maybe a year later [for me], the gold is in Amsterdam…. It’s not the same production, but there’s this sense of the story being told over and over again.” Wagner does not allow us the comforts of a tidy conclusion. Especially with Alberich still alive at the end of Götterdämmerung, the notion that the traumas of Das Rheingold could occur again remains possible.

For conductors, the cycle’s open-endedness allows for endless interpretive possibilities. American conductor Evan Rogister, who recently began a new Ring at Sweden’s Gothenburg Opera, admits, “There’s a density of information that you’re almost never going to get to the bottom of.” He attributes this in part to Wagner’s remarkable decades-long process of creating The Ring—writing the libretto in reverse order and then composing its music in sequence.Most Ring producers also believe Wagner affords infinite possibilities for staging, in ways that other operas, however great, do not. Speight Jenkins, the retired general director of Seattle Opera, oversaw two Seattle Ring productions for a total of twenty-three cycles. He asks, “Can you put on Rigoletto or La Traviata and feel satisfied? Yes. But if a producer says they really did The Ring, they’re a fool. It’s too complicated. Every time you start, you’re going to make it better.” Jenkins wishes he could have produced a third new production of the cycle in Seattle.  

Roger Scruton, author of The Ring of Truth, attributes the attraction of the cyclical as a manifestation of how we experience time itself. “This process of constantly returning is a metaphor for saying that it isn’t actually a sequence at all but something that’s permanently present in the depths of our feelings,” he says. “We feel that everything comes back, that there is an eternal return. We sense our own mortality, and that through death we hand on the business of living. The whole structure of The Ring underlines that movement: it seems to start in the infinite depths and go back to those infinite depths, but in a transformed condition. You now understand them, but you also feel that it’s going to start again.”

At the beginning of Das Rheingold, Wotan declares to Fricka, “Wandel und Wechsel liebt, wer lebt; das Spiel drum kann ich nicht sparen!” (All who live love roaming; I cannot relinquish this sport!) In this, Wotan and Ring fanatics share traits Freud observed in obsessives. Freud wrote, “The creation of uncertainty is one of the methods employed by the [obsessional] neurosis for drawing a patient away from reality and isolating him from the world,” which includes “a dislike of clocks and watches (for these at least make the time of day certain).” Roaming creates that floating sense of isolation; so does the suspension of time engendered by the music and the sheer length of time it demands. 

THE RING HAS BEEN READ CONVINCINGLY as a quasi-religious ritual complete with temple pilgrimages, but Wagner’s tetralogy takes on a peculiar character when emphasizing roaming rather than any final destination or ending. As with binge watchers who often talk with more joy about the act of binge watching than about the show itself, many Ring-goers seem less inspired by the Ring they are attending than by the thought of their next Ring—the interpretation still unheard. They want the Ring at which they will meet friends they made at a previous cycle, the cycle that will bring back that high from their first time, the impossibly ideal production—in a new city, at another time. Like the Wanderer himself, Ring fanatics roam, and in doing so, they ignore Erda’s advice in Das Rheingold to the greedy Wotan, “Alles was ist, endet!” (All that is shall come to an end.) 

Wagner’s own actions may have primed an inability to close The Ring fully: his early intentions for Siegfried Tod (the first version of what would become Götterdämmerung) were to create a temporary theater and, after a series of performances, burn it along with the score. That never happened; instead, the great conflagration only occurs onstage, at the cycle’s end, letting The Ring remain a monument that invites new generations of devotion.

But, ever contradictory, Wagner retains a strong gesture toward another way of being. In a letter to August Röckel, he argued, “We must learn to die…. Fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” As Scruton writes, in The Ring “the fear of death, the desire to hold on at all costs to our worldly schemes for power and status … has created a world in which we abandon what we love, in which we treat as a means what exists in reality only as an end.” In its final moments, he continues, Brünnhilde, no longer afraid of death, sacrifices herself through forgiveness and acceptance. In doing so, she gives us a glimpse at another possible world—one not lived outside time and atomized, but lived together in love. Thus the most valuable lesson taught by The Ring paradoxically requires separating from it: that only in accepting death can life be lived at all. spacer 

Charles Shafaieh  is an arts journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times and other international publications. 

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