Brown study, n, a mood of deep absorption or thoughtfulness; reverie
There are few cultural events with the monumental significance of Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. Vast in its conception, long and challenging in its presentation and expensive to produce, the Ring is the artistic equivalent of the Olympic Games for the singers, conductors and producers who vie for selection whenever it is staged.
The touchstone production is still at Bayreuth, Bavaria, in the theatre that mad King Ludwig built for Wagner, who demanded the newest and best facilities in which to present his revolutionary operas. But since then, cities such as Seattle and Valencia have had their own productions and, because the Ring is such a cultural magnet, have rocketed to artistic and touristic fame. As the whole cycle takes four days to perform, some cities, even London and New York, have a bite at it each year and produce just one of the four separate operas that comprise what Wagner called his ‘stage-festival play’. Now it’s Melbourne’s turn. Opera Australia will produce the entire Ring, all 17 hours of it, in 2013. It will have a stellar cast, including fantastic Australian singers like Stuart Skelton and John Wegner.
But it is not just the location that is significant. More important is the director’s vision of the work, and it is that which causes the split between traditionalists and modernists every time a new Ring is conceived. Some Wagner devotees want to see the Ring as it was first performed, with mountain scenery, swords and spears, while buxom sopranos, giants and heroes act out this Teutonic myth of theft, love, betrayal, death and redemption.
Alberich the dwarf renounces love, steals a hoard of gold from the Rhinemaidens and has his slaves forge
a golden ring invested with the power to rule the universe. A race of gods tricks him out of the ring, with which they pay two giants for building their castle at Valhalla. But there is a curse on the ring, and it claims its first victim when one giant kills the other. Our hero, Siegfried, the product of an incestuous union between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, slays the other giant (who has turned himself into a dragon), seizes the ring and gets the girl, who is also his aunt Brünnhilde, but then falls in with a bad lot who in turn murder him, seize the ring and set about killing each other. As the ring is clearly past its use-by date, Brünnhilde returns it to the Rhine and commits self-immolation.
The saga has been reinterpreted many times. Socialist versions have denounced rampant capitalism, others have condemned property as a bourgeois fetish, some rely on psychoanalysis and still others tell a story of redemption through love or of the simple triumph of good over evil.
Some interpretations have been branded with the locality or the director, so New York and Bayreuth have been the home of the traditional versions, the director Patrice Chereau personifies the revolutionary industrial interpretation, Copenhagen hosted a feminist version revolving around the downfall of the patriarchal state, and the Valencia cycle was a science fiction extravaganza of advanced computer images. When a new version is launched, Wagner’s devoted followers agonise over whether his masterpiece will be faithfully preserved or twisted into some new form of political or social axe-grinding. Will the twilight of the gods become a metaphor for the global financial crisis? Will the dreams and storytelling become instant messaging on Facebook and Twitter or leaks from WikiLeaks?
There is, of course, nothing wrong with reinterpreting the mythology and applying it to modern events; Wagner welcomed it. The danger is if the operas are used to promote short-term fashions and draw corny analogies that ignore the underlying truths in Wagner’s vast perspective of mankind’s frailty and its hope for redemption.
It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that speculation is rife on the Melbourne Ring. Will it be a traditional version and stick to the basics? Or will it be a feminist revival, a blow against neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, or perhaps a homage to refugees?
The early signs are that, indeed, the Melbourne Ring will be one of the modern interpretations. Some of the Greens’ throwaway lines have had an early outing in the advance publicity. The Australian’s magazine Wish was first off the mark with an interview in December with Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, and Neil Armfield, the director. It seems the line will be that Wagner’s view was that ‘the recent revolutions of science and industry had the potential, along with the greed of human beings, to destroy the planet’ and that this leads us to having an ‘environmental’ Ring. There were also some ominous references to rising sea levels and to Wagner himself being an ‘eco-prophet’.
A climate change Ring may work as an Australian cautionary tale. But if this is the theme, it should be complete and honest. I want a carbon tax and its effect on the workers who slave away in the underworld included. I also want it made very plain that our Siegfried, Kevin Rudd, while he was slaying his own dragons and grappling with the greatest moral issue of our times, made a bad mistake. Like Wagner’s Siegfried, he left his back unprotected while he was with his most trusted friends. There must be a moral there.
So, if we want to adapt the Ring to modern times, there could not be a better analogy. It could be called The Julia Ring. Performances start in November 2013 — just in time for the federal election. Enjoy.