David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, must feel like a marathon runner who has just entered the stadium for a final lap before crossing the finish line.
For more than a decade, he and director Francesca Zambello have been working to bring Richard Wagner’s mammoth “Ring of the Nibelung” to the stage. Now they’re in final rehearsals before the four-part tale of stolen gold, scheming gods, envious trolls and sword-wielding heroes is presented in three complete cycles starting on June 14.
The germ of this production goes back to the turn of the century, when Gockley was running the Houston Grand Opera. He and Zambello were discussing how they might stage the “Ring,” taking its Germanic mythological characters such as Wotan, the king of the gods, and Brunnhilde, his rebellious daughter, and giving them a modern twist.
“Then Enron happened and the city went kaput, and it just wasn’t possible,” Zambello, dressed in black coat and pants, recalled last week during a break in rehearsals. “Our ideas were very much about Wotan as an oilman. I mean, gold and oil are not that far apart, and the pursuit of one or the other is very much the same. Gold represents power.” (In the San Francisco production Wotan’s wealth seems to come from the California gold rush.)
Soon after Gockley moved to his current position in San Francisco in 2006, the “Ring” was back on his wish list. By 2007, the project was scheduled as a co-production with the Washington National Opera. “Das Rheingold,” the first part of the cycle, opened in San Francisco in 2008, and “Die Walkure,” the second part, was staged last year, both to rave reviews.
No Turning Back
Yet Gockley’s challenges were far from over. The Washington company dropped out as co-producer after staging three parts, in response to the financial crisis of 2008-09 when contributions plunged. (The company, which last week named Zambello as artistic adviser, may complete its cycle in a future season.)
Gockley decided to forge ahead in San Francisco, trimming $400,000 from the budget for the fourth part, “Gotterdammerung.” (The entire production cost about $4.6 million for sets, costumes, performance fees and other direct expenses, not including overhead. By comparison, he estimated that the Metropolitan Opera in New York spent $16 million to $20 million on its new “Ring.”)
“We had so much invested at that point that not to go through with it was a worse fate than canceling it,” Gockley recalled. He had a practical reason, too: “One of the great things about the ‘Ring,’ from a financial point of view, is that people are used to paying high ticket prices.”
The “Ring” is one of the most popular titles in the opera repertory, with legions of devotees. They’ve already bought 92 percent of the tickets for the three full cycles in San Francisco.
“I think we’re going to sell out,” Gockley predicted. “By that third cycle, there are going to be people pounding on the doors trying to get tickets.”
Both Gockley and Zambello point to the appeal of sprawling mythological tales for general audiences as well as for the fanatics.
“People are drawn to these stories,” Zambello said. “This is not any different from ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Twilight’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘The Fountainhead.’ All of those are inspired by Wagner.”
The trick is to make the production both rigorous and accessible, she said.
“You need to create the show for two audiences, the cognoscenti -- the people who are opera lovers and who think they know it all -- and the first-time goer,” Zambello said.
The San Francisco production manages to do this with a combination of world-class singers, including soprano Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde and baritone Mark Delavan as Wotan; an orchestra with a rich, velvety sound conducted by longtime Wagnerian Donald Runnicles; and an action-filled staging on sets by Michael Yeargan that sometimes evoke 19th- and 20th-century California (panning for gold, Yosemite Valley).
Much of the action, especially in the later parts, is set in desolate industrial landscapes -- warehouses, junky trailers, places that reek of environmental degradation.
The characters are more modern American than old Germanic. Brunnhilde, for example, is “a tomboy who becomes a woman,” Zambello said. (Brunnhilde makes a spectacular entrance in “Die Walkure” by parachuting onto the stage in a 1920s aviator’s jump suit.)
Gods vs. Trolls
“Wotan looks like a businessman, like a Madison Avenue lawyer,” the director said. “By giving those associations, the audience immediately feels at ease. You want people to know what’s going on.”
On one level, the “Ring” is a tale of gods (and trolls) behaving badly -- lying, cheating and stealing as they seek power through control of the magical ring created from the Rhine maidens’ gold. Unlike some productions, where Wotan or Siegfried may be the central character, here Brunnhilde is the hero.
“That’s what Wagner wrote,” Zambello said. “She’s the one who gets the ring back and returns it to its rightful owners, the Rhine maidens. More than that, she restores the natural order, she has the power of redemption and transfiguration and rebirth. She enables the world to have a second chance.”
Along the way are sword fights, poisoned drinks, magical spells, a ring of fire and a smoke-breathing monster that looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a piece of construction equipment. The scale of the production -- 17 hours for the four parts -- explains why Gockley calls the “Ring” a “proving ground for a major company that can deliver the goods in every area: orchestrally, chorally, technically, design-wise.”
Looking forward to the fall season, with six productions including a world premiere, Gockley joked that “everything looks like child’s play compared to this.”
The four parts of the “Ring” cycle will run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays for three full cycles starting June 14, 21 and 28 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. Information: +1-415-864-3330; http://sfopera.com.
(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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