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.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Alberich steals the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens and out of it forges a magical ring to rule the world. Wotan engages Fafner and Fasolt to build Valhalla; unable to pay for it, he first offers them Freia in exchange, but then realizes the gods need her magic apples to stay eternally young. So he steals the ring and the gold from Alberich, who curses the ring. Wotan tries to keep the ring for himself, but the giants demand it. Fafner quarrels with Fasolt, kills him, and takes the gold, the ring, and Wotan's magic helmet. The gods enter Valhalla to the cries of the Rhinemaidens.

WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT
A dwarf with a Napoleonic complex tries his hand at metalsmithing and throws the gods into a tizzy.

MORAL LESSON
Giants don't take American Express.

DETAILS
Title: Die WalkYre
Translation: "The Valkyrie"
Length: 4 hours, 45 minutes

Cast: Jane Eaglen/Francis Ginzer (BrYnnhilde); Deborah Voigt (Sieglinde); Marjana Lipovsek/Elena Zaremba (Fricka); Mark Baker/Wolfgang Schmidt (Siegmund); James Morris/Alan Held (Wotan); Reinhard Hager (Hunding); Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)

Place: War Memorial Opera House
Dates: June 10, 19, 23, 27

KEY PLAYERS
Wotan: Still ruler.
Fricka: Still his wife.
Sieglinde and Siegmund: Wotan's mortal children, twins, separated at birth.
Hunding: An evil hunter whom Sieglinde was forced to marry.
Brunnhilde: Wotan's favorite daughter, a Valkyrie.

Valkyries: Wotan's nine warrior-goddess daughters. They carry the bodies of fallen heroes to Valhalla, the palace of the gods, where the dead warriors are revived to help defend the castle. Also known for their stylish taste in armor.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Siegmund and Sieglinde meet and fall in love, unaware that they are brother and sister. Hunding, with Wotan's help, kills Siegmund -- but only after Sieglinde has conceived his child. BrYnnhilde, who tried to protect Siegmund, helps Sieglinde escape to safety. Wotan punishes her by leaving her to sleep in a ring of fire until a hero rescues her.

WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT
Brother and sister have sex, fuck up family life.

MORAL LESSON
Know the last name of the person you're sleeping with -- it could be your own.

DETAILS
Title: Siegfried
Translation: "Siegfried"
Length: 4 hours, 50 minutes

Cast: Jane Eaglen/Frances Ginzer (BrYnnhilde); Elena Zaremba (Erda); Wolfgang Schmidt/George Gray (Siegfried); James Morris/Alan Held (Wotan/Wanderer); Gary Rideout (Mime); Tom Fox/Peter Sidhom (Alberich); Eric Halfvarson (Fafner); Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)

Place: War Memorial Opera House
Dates: June 13, 22, 26, 30

KEY PLAYERS
Siegfried: Sieglinde and Siegmund's bastard incestuous child, bound for greatness, glory, and grief.

Brunnhilde: Armor-clad banished babe from Die WalkYre. Also Siegfried's aunt.

Mime: Same evil dwarf from Das Rheingold, now raising Siegfried.
Wotan: Hangin' on Earth, disguised as a wanderer.
Fafner: Giant and current keeper of the ring, who's decided it looks more fetching on a dragon's claw than on a really big finger.

Erda: Earth-goddess-cum-therapist, now an ear for Wotan's woes.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT
After Sieglinde's death, the young Siegfried is reared by Mime, who tries in vain to claim the ring. Wotan, disguised as a wanderer, warns Mime of a fearless hero, who turns out to be Siegfried. Siegfried steals the ring from Fafner, who's taken the form of a dragon, and kills him. When Siegfried learns that Mime plans to kill him for the ring, he kills Mime, and, after battling Wotan, rescues Brunnhilde and claims her as his bride.

WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT
A man kills his greedy foster parent, beats up his grandpa, and shacks up with his aunt.

MORAL LESSON
Never trust an evil dwarf farther than you can throw him.

DETAILS
Title: Gstterdammerung
Translation: "The Twilight of the Gods"
Length: 5 hours, 25 minutes

Cast: Jane Eaglen/Frances Ginzer (BrYnnhilde); Kristine Ciesinski (Gutrune); Marjana Lipovsek/Elizabeth Bishop (Waltraute); Wolfgang Schmidt/George Gray (Siegfried); Alan Held/David Okerlund (Gunther); Eric Halfvarson (Hagen); Tom Fos/Peter Sidhom (Alberich); Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)

Place: War Memorial Opera House
Dates: June 16, 24, 29, July 3

KEY PLAYERS
Brunnhilde: Back with a vengeance and married to her nephew.
Siegfried: Boy on the move.
Hagen: Alberich's son; a chip off the old dwarf.

Gunther and Gutrune: Hagen's half-brother and half-sister, respectively; also housemates (wink, wink).

Waltraute: Brunnhilde's sister, a Valkyrie with a good head on her armored shoulders.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Siegfried goes in search of adventure, leaving Brunnhilde behind with the ring. Hagen and Gunther plan to steal Brunnhilde and obtain the ring for themselves. They drug Siegfried and make him betray Brunnhilde, who, in a wild rage, plots with Hagen to kill Siegfried. Hagen kills Siegfried, and then Gunther, in a struggle for the ring. BrYnnhilde places the ring on her own finger and plunges into Siegfried's funeral pyre. Valhalla goes up in flames, the gods meet their fates, and a new era begins.

WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT
A boy leaves his "special" aunt to go on a testosterone joy-ride and forgets about her in a destructive drugfest, which ultimately leads to their murder-suicide.

MORAL LESSON
If the ring fits, throw it away.

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