(This is an auto-generated transcript. There may be errors.)
Like many opera fans. I have spent years trying to attend as many live operatic performances as I can. This often requires traveling to different cities or States either by plane or by taking a long road trip. So far, I’ve been able to see several operas by a few respectable companies, including the Houston grand opera in Texas and the Los Angeles opera in California, both of which are generally ranked in the top five opera companies in the nation.
At the top of my list, of course, is the metropolitan opera in New York city. The met is the largest most well-funded and oldest opera company in America. Irrespectable contender. However, all the way on the opposite side of the country is the San Francisco opera. I’ve always wanted to see one of their productions.
And even though San Francisco is far closer to me than New York, I never had the chance to go until this year. In 2016, the San Francisco opera announced on their website that they would be staging the big kahuna of all operas Rihad Wagner’s ring cycle, a collection of four operas all performed in one week in the summer of 2018, two years in the future.
I added myself to their list to be notified as soon as tickets went on sale. And when they finally did in January of 2017, I went to their website to purchase a set. Unlike the rest of the company’s productions, where you can buy single tickets for each performance. Tickets for the ring cycle were not available to the general public.
Anyone wishing to buy ring cycle tickets had to first become a subscriber in order to be eligible like many arts organizations. The San Francisco opera is a nonprofit. And so subscribers are those who give additional tax deductible donations above and beyond the cost of their tickets. Tickets for a complete ring cycle ranged from $190 to $3,420 each not including additional fees and donations.
My slim budget for this performance afforded me the cheapest tickets available at $40 per show. My ticket total was $160. The smallest amount I could afford to donate in order to become a quote unquote subscriber was $30. So after adding that and tacking on a $15 subscription handling fee, whatever that is, I completed the checkout process and downloaded and printed a confirmation.
You, Hey, I was going to San Francisco for just $205. The seat I was assigned was balcony L 25, which according to the seating chart was on the back wall as high up and far back as you could possibly go in the opera house since the performance wasn’t until June of 2018, more than 15 months in the future.
I had a few months to decide whether to try to upgrade my seat or not. One day in may of 2018 in a sort of panic. I regretted having purchased the cheapest seats in the house. So I called the box office to see what my options were. I wasn’t surprised when the attendant told me that most of the seats had already been sold out, but I was astonished to hear that I would have to pay at least $360 more just to upgrade to the next best seating section.
The man I spoke to on the phone asked me why I wanted to change seats in the first place. I told him that I didn’t want to go all the way to San Francisco only to regret sitting in the worst seats. His response surprised me. Actually, there’s not a bad seat in the house. He said, and you’d be surprised.
Some people prefer sitting in your section. They ask for it specifically after considering his comment and the total cost. I decided I could probably live with the seat I had been assigned. When the time came, I flew to San Francisco and rented a room on Airbnb, just a few blocks away from the opera house.
On opening night, I got dressed Don to sweatshirt to keep me warm in the very cold San Francisco summer and walked over. The opera house is located in the war Memorial and performing arts center, which is part of the civic center at the intersection of market street and van ness Avenue in downtown San Francisco.
I was surprised to learn that navigating the civic center is really confusing for two reasons. First the opera house itself is a massive white rectangular building that is so stoic and rectangular and boring that it appears from the outside to just be a city hall or courthouse rather than a performing arts center.
In contrast, for example, the nearby Louise M Davies symphony hall clearly stands out visually as a venue for a musical performances. Second, the opera house is one of a set of twin buildings that look exactly the same and are situated right next to each other. The second building, the identical Herbst theater is easily confused for the opera house, depending on which street you approach the civic center from once you’re finally inside the building.
However, it is quite impressive. After I handed my ticket to the attendant, I walked inside, found the stairs and began climbing. I didn’t know where my seat was. Exactly. But I knew generally where I had to go up the long endlessly winding half staircases, nearly winded me. As I found my way to my seat, I walked up what felt like at least 16 half flights of stairs to finally arrive at my section.
I looked down at the stage and was amazed to see just how far away it was from my seat. As part of staging this massive opera cycle, the company offered several additional events at the opera house and at other nearby locations calling the event, the ring festival, each one of these events cost somewhere between $30 and $65.
A symposium was held on Thursday where an expert would host a panel discussion with a variety of staff and cast. Greer Grimsley who played was a speaker as were an assistant director, assistant conductor, a prop master, a costume supervisor, the lighting director, and other characters from the show a forum was offered at the end of the week, which seemed to have similar content to the symposium, but covered different subject matter and included different speakers.
A series of ring one Oh one workshops was provided, geared towards aspiring Wagnerian, wanting to gain a basic understanding of the opera. In general, a chorus concert was performed at Herb’s theater that showcased some of Wagner’s choruses. This is the one event that I chose to attend during the week.
And the evening included a wine reception afterward with the chorus members. I got to meet several of the chorusters and made a connection with one in particular, Frederick Matthews who had been the focus of a documentary film made in 1991 called in the shadow of the stars. He was a lot of fun to talk to and was very generous with his time and asked me questions about my own operatic journey.
A spread was also created outdoors in the low GEA Brunhilda. Biergarten. Which offered a menu, including German beer brought worst with sauerkraut soft pretzels and homemade mustard. I thought about partaking, but at $8 for a beer and over $10 for a bratwurst, I decided against it. People watching at the ring festival was fascinating.
The audience skewed older as is typical of every opera I’ve ever been to. And the largest demographic were folks over 60. There was a fair share of folks. My age though, the under 40 crowd, the company’s website States in a guide for first time, opera goers, that quote, we don’t have a dress code. Some opera goers prefer suits and gowns.
Others jeans wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. Close quote. I saw older women in bright red dresses, men wearing suits of varying degrees of khaki and Brown Tweed. A few people wearing jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, and at least one man wearing sweat pants and a Fanny pack. A few festive folks wore horned Viking helmets as made famous by the stereotypical Brunhilda costume one, man wore a kilt.
A few men wore later Hosen the traditional men’s pants from Bavaria and there was the occasional man just wearing a dress. It was San Francisco after all. Since I had come early on opening night, I was able to attend a pre-concert talk in the auditorium. It was given by Deseret Mayes, an author lecturer, and former ballerina from the United Kingdom.
She gave some background on the ring cycle, some history on Wagner as a composer and shared some musical examples and motifs from the opera. We’d be seeing this evening. Dusk Hein goat, the Rheingold. Since the seating arrangement for the talk was general seating. I chose to sit in the very front row to get a view of the orchestra pit and the stage, knowing that this was my one chance during the week to sit in those $3,000 seats.
After about 25 minutes, the lecture was over and everyone cleared out of the hall to find their seats for the actual performance. I took one last trip to the restroom, knowing that this evening’s performance would be over two and a half hours long without any breaks, then found my seat. Note. This was very important because it had been made layer that if you leave to go to the bathroom, you will not be able to return until the show is over.
So for the past several hours, I hadn’t drunk any fluids at all, just in case DAS wine goat. The Rheingold is the first opera in the series. And as Mays pointed out in her lecture, it’s the only comedy in the tetralogy. In fact, maze commented that quote, the ring is actually more properly called a trilogy of tragedies with a prologue that has a happy ending close quote.
I sat in my seat a few minutes early reading the program and waiting for the house lights to dim. As the seats around me began to fill a short older woman with white thin wispy hair pulled in a tight bun, began to see herself in the row in front of me, but stopped short and turned around and looked up at me.
Do you own the season for that chair? She asked, pointing to my seat, um, own the season I stuttered in a somewhat bemused response. Is that your chair for the season? She repeated. Are those, both your seats. She asked, pointing to my seat and the MTC in the corner to my left. Uh, no, ma’am I answered, I was trying hard to figure out what on earth she was talking about.
Did you give a big donation? She continued with her interrogation. I’m sure. I just stared at her like a deer caught in the headlights. I had no idea how to answer. Finally. She explained her concern. Normally I sit in that seat, but for this show, they gave me this seat. I called the box office to complain and they told me, well, the person in that seat gave a bigger donation than you.
Can you believe that I’ve been coming to this opera house since 1960? I smiled and apologized still. Totally confused about the whole affair. I couldn’t believe it. When after throwing a temper tantrum, she sat down in the seat. She didn’t want, and promptly fell asleep. The house lights were dimmed and the show began.
I was surprised to see and hear that the orchestra began playing instantly without any of the usual introductory applause and greeting of the conductor. The slow E-flat major thing of the Rhine river began to swell and grow into a beautiful crescendo. The ring cycle had begun.
opera. Number one does fine. Good. The Rheingold. The Rheingold is set in four scenes. So there are three scene changes, but no intermissions. This performance had a total runtime of two hours and 35 minutes inventively during those scene changes, a transparent scrim was lowered and images and video clips were projected onto it.
I thought this was a brilliant way of adding an additional aspect of wordlessly telling the story. And it also gave the set designers time to change the scenes while the orchestra continued playing the production of course was sung in German and English. Supertitles were projected above the stage.
Some opera houses such as the met in New York, have small individual screens embedded on the back of the seats in front of each person. However, the San Francisco opera is use of a screen above the stage is more traditional. It’s also more preferable in my opinion, as I found that I didn’t have to keep switching from looking down at the seat in front of me, then looking up to the stage and back down as I was used to doing at other opera houses.
As I listened to the beautiful music, I thought back to my phone call with the box office attendant. And I was grateful that I had chosen not to change my seat. He was right. I was able to hear the orchestra in its full glory, with all the instruments, small and large ringing out brightly and clearly.
During one movement in particular, I noticed that I could hear a triangle sounding and I tried to estimate just how far away I was from the instrument itself. 100, 200, 300 feet. I couldn’t calculate, but it’s still quite an acoustical Marvel that is far away as I was. I could hear such an insignificantly, small sound from the orchestra pit.
Much could be said about the production itself in terms of the quality, the staging, the prowess of the individual, vocalists, the costuming, the pyrotechnics, the stage craft for the sake of time, I will simply state that my review for the performance of the Wrangell is this everything I saw and heard that night was absolutely exceptional.
It was hard for me to even think about critiquing such a work since unlike many other people in the audience. This was my very first ring cycle. So I had little to compare it to, there were moments toward the middle of scene four, where my face flushed with heat and excitement and my pulse quickened as my ears tried to take in all the sweet, gooey musical goodness that Wagner the craftsman had created.
It was like eating a giant bowl of delicious melodic candy. There are so many motifs embedded in the work, some of which represent characters or topics on the stage at that moment. And others of which harken back to an earlier moment in the opera or foretell of things yet to come, it can almost make your head spin, trying to listen and decipher and uncover all the many hidden gyms in the work.
As the show came to a close, I was impressed with the thought that Wagner was every bit a musical genius as Beethoven was. If I hadn’t been enough of a Wagner fan before this show that was changing tonight, after a long round of applause and a triumphant curtain call, the audience broke. And I found my way down, the myriad staircases, left the building and walked back to my room.
The biggest criticism I had for the evening was one that might seem trivial, but it bothered me more and more as I was walking back to my rental, the focal point of the ring cycle is a ring, obviously. However of all the props used in this production, the ring itself was the least impressive. Now I’m sure that it’s hard to portray a ring, something small enough to fit on a finger in a way that anybody in the audience can actually see.
But the ring used was just strange and awkward rather than looking like a wedding band or any other traditional gold ring. The ring used onstage was flexible and closer to the size of a bracelet. It was awkwardly large for a ring, but it wasn’t big enough to wear around the wrist. So the various characters throughout the production who wore the ring placed it slipshod over two or three fingers, making it look almost like a set of brass knuckles.
I did a little more research after that evening and found that this is kind of a common problem. And other opera companies choose to portray the ring in all sorts of different ways. Opera number two, default cooler the Valkyrie. The second night, it was time for the Valkyrie. Since this was the second show in a series of four, nearly everything was the same as the first.
I walked to the opera house. The same as before. Arrived early for another pre concert talk, sat in the same seat, et cetera. One noticeable difference this evening. However, was the fact that the seat next to me that had been emptied the night before wasn’t empty a slightly heavy bespectacled well-dressed man in a suit showed up right before the doors were closed.
I poked a bit of fun at him saying, Hey, glad you could make it this time. We missed you last night. Where were you on a plane? He responded. Oh, where from? I asked from Milan by way of Munich. Hm. Wow. What were you doing there? I asked Steve, as I learned his name was responded. I was watching a very weird opera at LA Scala.
It’s relatively unknown. It’s in German and it was written by Schubert. I slowly repeated. Schubert opera in German performed in Italy. That’s not very common. Is it? We both chuckled. And over the intermissions, he filled me in on this particular opera and many other productions that he’d seen throughout his 50 years of opera going.
Steve was a fascinating seatmate. As he mentioned, he had just gotten back from Milan Italy, where he had been giving a talk at some sort of conference for people who work in traffic management for municipalities. He explained how he’d spent most of his life, traveling the world and taking in as many operas as possible telling him that this was my first ring cycle.
I asked him how many complete cycles he had seen 20. He answered instantly. I was sure I misheard him. So I asked again, but he confirmed, he had seen 20 complete ring cycles and had a nearly photographic memory of each and every performance right down to exactly which person saying which role, how he had rated each performer, his opinions on the stagecraft, the conductor and the seating in each opera house and more, he rattled off names, dates, and roles from productions at the met in New York.
The Houston grand opera in Texas, the Seattle opera in Washington, LA Scala in Italy, Oprah dish.in cologne, Germany, and many more. It was nice to be sitting by someone with so much history and context for the questions I had from time to time. Unlike how the previous night started, the house lights were dimmed this time, and the audience gave the customary applause.
As the conductor entered, the pit shook the concert master’s hand and took a bow. Launching into the fourth spiel, Wagner his version of an orchestral prelude, or a sort of concert overture. The long winding musical motif began, which sounded like feet walking through the woods or some sort of mountain climbing effort.
As the music played, the screen was covered with a projection of mountains, nature and blowing snowy blizzard.
The performance. So the Valkyrie was just as top-notch as the previous night and anticipation ran high for the exciting ride of the Valkyries, the instantly recognizable and arguably most famous motif of the entire cycle. Director, Francesca Zambello is innovative staging for the movement included the Valkyries being dressed up as paratroopers.
They were lowered from the fly tower above the stage with cables, giving the illusion of falling from the sky with parachutes, which was really impressive. If that part was the highlight though, the most frustrating part of the evening was the almost unbearably long act three dialogue between Brunhilda and photon.
I can’t fault the performers. This is all on the composer. I couldn’t stop squirming in my seat. As I listened to the movement, which is famous for its unnecessary length, it just feels like Wagner tried to draw out a simple conversation between a father and daughter to make it as long as possible, just to torture people in the audience.
Wagner fans often roll their eyes at critics who call Wagner long-winded however they do. So knowing that it’s actually true, the Valkyries runtime of four hours and 35 minutes is split into three acts and has two intermissions. If I were able to give the composer, send advice in this opera, I’d probably give him some advice from the movie.
A river runs through it. In it, a young man presents a school paper. He has written to his father who is also his teacher. The father reads it, sys hands it back to his son and says again, half as long at the end of the show, Steve and I agreed that the soprano playing Brunhilda while competent in that role was not exceptionally spectacular.
I had to agree. Iréne Theorin the sweeter singer did her job admirably don’t get me wrong, but seeing the bit weak in her delivery now in a very, very, very tiny way. I do have a little bit of experience singing on stage in operas. So I’m familiar with just how hard it can be to project your voice on amplified to fill an auditorium with thousands of people.
I’m quite sympathetic. However, in this case, the Soprano’s challenged to be heard was a little bit ironic since Bruin Hilda’s defining characteristic is her strength. It’s hard to appear strong when you come across quietly, upper number three, Zeke freed all the ring cycle performers and audience members had the next evening off.
So I took the time to attend the Wagner chorus concert that I mentioned earlier. The next day, it was time for Zeke freed. The third in the series, Zeke freed has always been my favorite opera in the cycle. So my expectations were high and I was almost disappointed for the entire first act. The tenor singing, the title role, Daniel Brenna was like tearing kind of hard to hear.
I wondered if this would continue for the entire production, but was relieved when he came back for the second act with great strength. I talked to my new friend, Steve, about this who noticed it as well. And he told me, I think maybe he was pacing himself for the first act since he has so much more singing to do.
I thought this was a good assessment. And after the first act, he sang out brilliantly and clearly. This opera was delightful as I was expecting. By the time you get to Zig frayed, it’s a huge relief. The previous two operas are filled with so much dialogue and set up that you finally get to see some action in the third opera.
Zig free contains action in spades sword fighting the kiss that wakes a sleeping princess, fire explosions, stage blood, the slaying of a dragon. With a runtime of four hours and 50 minutes, Zeke freed was presented in three acts with two intermissions. And it was so packed with action that I didn’t feel at all.
Like it was long-winded opera. Number four, good to domino Twilight of the gods after taking one more evening off Saturday, the final opera was performed on a Sunday afternoon. Twilight of the gods is at last, the culmination of everything that has come before all this suspense and drama that’s been building for the previous 10 hours of music comes crashing down spectacularly as the final opera gives us closure.
tragedy unfolds. Hearts are broken. A drink is spiked with a magic potion. There’s family drama at an arranged marriage. Zeke freed is killed Bruin Hill, the sings, her famous Aria during the final immolation scene and throws herself on a blazing Pyre. Vall holla burns. Everything in the universe is reset and the mortals live happily ever after without the interference of the pesky and meddling gods.
One bonus surprise is that in this production, I was happy to see that Melissa, Citro saying the role of , she’s a soprano that I’ve been on stage with in the past. When she sang the role of many in opera Colorado’s production of Luff and Chula Del West in 2016, it was a proud moment when I could quietly say to myself, I have sung with her before the longest opera in this series.
Twilight of the gods last five hours and 10 minutes, and is performed in three acts with two intermissions. By the time the curtains fell, we clapped loud and long partially because the incredible Epic was performed so well. And partially because it’s finally over even the fiercest Wagner fan, isn’t ashamed to admit this the cycle in review.
Aside from a few issues, like not being able to hear some of the principal vocalists, sometimes I couldn’t detect any botched lines, missed entrances, wrong notes, or other major mistakes in the performance. As a top ranked opera company. I think the San Francisco opera delivered an amazing performance of the grandest most expensive show I’ve ever seen.
I was certainly not disappointed. As I stood up to leave when the final applause died out. Steve mentioned to me that for my first ring cycle, I certainly picked an excellent one. I thought so too. And I was glad he said so because he certainly knew better than I did
a few weeks after the production was closed. The company’s press office released a celebratory video with images of the production and some statistics. It claimed that audience members came from 27 countries and 49 us States over 3000 people gave donations and over 35,000 tickets were sold, which constituted 98% capacity.
I was proud to be one of those who could make this grand spectacle. It was everything I hoped it would be. Final note, if you’re not familiar with Wagner’s ring cycle yet, I highly recommend that you Google it or watch a YouTube video or catch a free online streamed performance by the met opera links will be shared in the description of this episode where you can do just that for free.
Thanks for listening.
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