Ring Wrangling

Sex, war, and pointy helmets: a guide to the San Francisco Opera's Ring cycle, the only thing Bugs Bunny, Adolf Hitler, and Francis Ford Coppola ever agreed on

It's been appropriated by everyone from Bugs Bunny to Adolf Hitler. It's been interpreted -- and misinterpreted -- by Freudians, Jungians, feminists, capitalists, socialists, and environmentalists. It inspired the cliche of the "fat lady" singing in blond braids, horned helmet, and breastplate, and introduced the leitmotif -- a musical theme associated with a particular character, which John Williams popularized 100 years later in his compositions for the Star Wars saga.

It's Der Ring Des Nibelungen, aka the Ring cycle, Richard Wagner's four-opera, 18-hour masterwork based on Norse mythology and filled with enough twisted sex, violence, and symbolism to make Melrose Place seem tame in comparison. Conceived of as a "total artwork" (Gesamtkunstwerk), combining theater, music, and poetry, the Ring took Wagner 27 years to complete, from 1848 to 1874; the bulk of it was written while the composer was exiled in Switzerland, after being chased out of Germany for his political views.

Although the operas were composed in the correct order, the librettos were actually written in reverse; the plot was so complex that each time Wagner completed one libretto he realized that he needed another whole opera before it just to explain what was going on. The San Francisco Opera is offering audiences the chance to puzzle it out for themselves. From June 9 to July 3, it presents four complete, complicated cycles of the Ring, featuring an all-star cast of renowned Wagner interpreters including bass-baritone James Morris, sopranos Deborah Voigt and Jane Eaglen, and tenor Wolfgang Schmidt. The cycles, which are directed by Andrei Serban and produced by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, are led by the opera's music director, Donald Runnicles, who made his company debut conducting the Ring in 1990.

Richard Wagner was a racist, sexist, adulterous, anti-Semitic, egomaniacal control freak -- in short, a really bad man. The music he created has been no less controversial: A continuous stream of sound with none of the standard operatic conventions such as formal arias and recitatives to help "break" his works up, Wagner's musical style, like his politics, isn't to everyone's taste. While his innovative approach, coupled with the unsurpassed magnitude of his compositions, has led many to consider him the greatest genius the opera world has ever known, others disagree vehemently. Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, for example, said, "Wagner has some good moments, but some horrible quarters of an hour."

Or, as Baudelaire wrote: "I love Wagner -- but even more, I love the sound a cat makes when it's hung outside a window by the tail, and it tries to stick to the glass with its claws."

But no matter what one may think of Wagner as man or musician, it's impossible to dispute the significance of the Ring -- both in terms of the history of music in specific, and Western culture in general, from "What's Opera, Doc?" to "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." If the Ring still seems too Teutonic to tackle, this chart may help. If you do take the plunge and see the cycle, some tips:

1) Pee first. The first acts of some of the operas go on forever -- or close to it -- and Das Rheingold has no intermission at all. So go before you go.

2) Bring a serious snack. The operas often begin as early as 6 or 6:30, so they'll finish up before midnight -- meaning you can kiss that prix fixe pre-theater din-din goodbye. And a $4 cookie from the opera concession stand is not going to cut it hours into the show.

3) Dress comfortably. Yes, it's "The Opera," but this is five hours of it -- five pretty mentally taxing hours to boot. The last thing you need is to be squirming around in your seat because your sequins are scratchy.

4) Patience is a virtue. The Ring is an extremely long, extremely powerful work, and seeing it all can be a truly intense, not to mention confusing, experience. Don't be intimidated: You don't have to know as much as the die-hards to have a good time. Hell, you don't even have to like it all to have a good time. And if hearing "The Ride of the Valkyries" conjures up mental images of napalm and helicopter attacks, or makes you think of Bugs Bunny in braids, that's OK, too.

San Francisco Opera box office: 864-3330.

DETAILS
Title: Das Rheingold
Translation: "The Rhinegold"
Length: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Cast: Nicolle Foland (Freia); Marjana Lipovsek/Elena Zaremba (Fricka); Elena Zaremba/TBA (Erda); James Morris/Jeffrey Wells (Wotan); Tom Fox/Peter Sidhom (Alberich); Thomas SunnegŒrdh (Loge); Gary Rideout (Mime); Reinhard Hagen (Fasolt); Eric Halfvarson (Fafner); Jeffrey Wells/David Okerlund (Donner); James Cornelison/Mark Baker (Froh); Elizabeth Bishop (Wellgunde); Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)

Place: War Memorial Opera House
Dates: June 9, 15, 20, 25

KEY PLAYERS
Wotan: One-eyed ruler of the gods, playboy, and spendthrift.
Fricka: Wotan's wife, guardian of marriage vows, kvetch.
Alberich: Ugly Niebelung dwarf with a bad attitude.
Mime: Alberich's equally nasty dwarf brother.

Fafner and Fasolt: Giants disguised as contractors, or contractors disguised as giants.

Erda: The earth goddess.
Freia: Goddess of youth. Has nice apples.
Loge: God of fire.
Rhinemaidens: Underwater babes who guard the magical Rhinegold.
Valhalla: Newly renovated palace of the gods, sans smoke alarms.

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