Exiting the Muni Station at the UN Plaza, it’s always easy to spot the crowd streaming to the San Francisco symphony, or, like tonight, the opera. While SF’s civic center remains as shiny and demure as ever on the outside, dotted with ladies clad in black outfits and colorful scarves, bespeckled gentlemen everywhere you turn, and the grandiose architecture of “culture,” inside the War Memorial Opera House, something much more epic is happening. Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung is being performed, in its seventeen-hour entirety, in a weekly rotation through the first weekend of July. Comprised of four individual operas—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—the complete cycle takes seventeen hours of lavishly staged and (from what I’ve seen) artfully performed music, belted out in the original German with subtitles being provided for monolinguals like myself.
The Ring cycle is an epic undertaking as viewed from any angle. As the SF Opera website boasts via the production blog, “Notes from Valhalla,” there are 415 people involved in each cycle—from cast members to stagehands; the orchestra plays through 2,092 pages of music to complete one Ring cycle; there are twelve animals included in the drama (costumed people dressed as animals, in most if not all cases); and it required twenty-six big-rig trucks to bring parts of the set to the stage. Equal parts pyrotechnics, myth, visual design, sheer talent and tons of practice, The Ring is 100% spectacle.
As someone focused on contemporary arts, as a curator and a critic, writing for a website that is also focused on contemporary arts, I realized that it might be strange for me to spend this time thinking about Wagner. Dead more than one-and-a-quarter centuries, this composer, poet, failed revolutionary, and essayist (alleged anti-Semite and eccentric, to boot), may seem far away and in the distant past. But as this summer’s staging of a contemporary interpretation of The Ring recalls, Wagner often rushes out of the past and into the present.
Alongside the operas that he composed, Wagner was a writer who developed the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesized or total work of art. In his writings Art and Revolution and The Total Work of Art, Wagner discussed a vision for a formal merging of the three sister arts—music, dance, and poetry—that would meld together to form one enveloping production capable of captivating and uplifting audiences. Since his time, Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk has been brought to bear on everything from Kurt Schwitters legendary sculpture-as-habitat Merzbau, to Andy Warhol’s collaboration with the Velvet Underground, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. This idea has become a touchstone of art criticism, as we continuously try to work through our role as artists and cultural producers, our relationships to each other and to those who might come to look at, listen to, or otherwise experience, our creations. To highlight Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is not to discount the far-reach of his actual compositions, however. While we may not think of opera as an innovative musical form, Wagner was a composer who innovated with musical forms—atonality, and atypical musical structures are prevalent in Wagner’s scores. Adorno would argue of the master, “All of modern music has developed in resistance to [Wagner’s] predominance—and yet, all of its elements are latently present in him.”
The history of Wagner, and of the Gesamtkunstwerk that he famously framed, is far-reaching and has filled volumes, and I certainly can’t do it justice here. However, when I heard that the San Francisco Opera was producing The Ring cycle this summer, I got excited—maybe more so than I can remember being about any other exhibition or show in recent memory. And not just for the opportunity to spend five hours reading English subtitles over booming German, but to experience first-hand the notes and words of Wagner, and to think about his original vision for the all-encompassing ideal work of art somehow manifest on the stage.
Images courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.