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Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” – from an Opera Skeptic’s POV

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  • Katie Culpepper
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"What's Opera Doc?"

This week, “Great Performances at the Met” presents Robert Lepage’s acclaimed new production of Wagner’s "Der Ring des Nibelungen," or "The Ring Cycle," a series opera lovers will surely appreciate. But what if you aren’t convinced that opera is your cup of tea? From one skeptic to another, let me reassure you. If you’re a fan Tolkien’s fantastic hobbit journeys and you enjoyed watching “wascally wabbits” on Saturday mornings, “The Ring Cycle” is for you. You’re at least already familiar with the music! 

Is that a bit of an oversimplification? Maybe. Okay (opera aficionados), probably. But I think we can all admit that, for better or worse, a certain stereotype about opera exists, and, if allowed to, that stereotype can intimidate us and limit our appreciate of an amazing series.

So let’s talk about what opera “is.” We know nothing is over until the proverbial fat lady sings. And we know that opera’s highbrow, for the highly educated (aka snooty) crowd. We stereotypically think of operas as historical, in one sense or another, and realize that they’re generally sung in a foreign language. 

Unless you speak Italian fluently (and in the case of The Ring, German, as well) and are comfortable in the circles of the intelligentsia, opera can be a bit intimidating. But the fact of the matter is that, like other formidable classics – Shakespeare, Dickens, the theater at large, classical music in general and what-have-you – opera began as a part of pop culture. Its stars were referred to only by their last names; screaming fans swarmed the performers in public; and opera’s divas gave the word a new definition – the one the majority of us use most frequently today. And, really, though we’ve set opera upon a pedestal, it’s still quite present in our lives today.

Exhibit A? Bugs Bunny.

Now, “What’s Opera Doc?” – though voted the best animated clip of all time by animation professionals in 1994 – is obviously not an complete approximation of Wagner’s opus. But it’s a start, and proof that, on some level, we all probably not only know Wagner’s work, but also enjoy it. However, “What,” you say, “if we only like the plot involving Bugs, and we couldn’t enjoy what’s happening if the music doesn’t document a helmeted Elmer chasing a wabbit?”

Exhibit B. “The Lord of the Rings.” 

Again, not an exact replica. But if you Tolkienites enjoyed the series’ general plot, you might enjoy a bit of a musical variation. A cursed golden ring and treasure, guarded by a dragon, power struggles between good and evil for the ring’s control, love and deception, plenty of magic and a fiery end? The Ring Cycle has it.

Still not convinced? Well, I suppose there’s not much I can do for you, but I know that I’ll be watching. In addition to catching a preview, I cheated and got the plotlines in brief, and after a considered review, I’m in. 

Monday night's "Wagner's Dream" provides a primer for the production's history and gets you acquainted with the composer himself.

Then, Tuesday through Friday, you can experience Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in full. I’ll be posting spoiler breakdowns – strictly from the book of me – every afternoon in preparation for the evening. Check back on the Engage blog for your entertainment, and give us your critiques in the comment section!

*Spoiler alert.* Follow this link for an immediate, much more … reverent … outline of “The Ring Cycle.” It’ll quickly bring you up to speed for tonight’s presentation of “Wagner’s Dream.” 



"Great Performances at the Met: Wagner's Dream," Monday, Sept. 10, 8-10 p.m.

"Great Performances at the Met: Wagner's Ring Cycle - Das Rheingold," Tuesday, Sept. 11, 8-11 p.m.

"Great Performances at the Met: Wagner's Ring Cycle - Die Walkure," Wednesday, Sept. 12, 8 p.m. - 12 a.m.

"Great Performances at the Met: Wagner's Ring Cycle - Siegfried," Thursday, Sept. 13, 8 p.m. - 12 a.m.

"Great Performances at the Met: Wagner's Ring Cycle - Gotterdammerung," Friday, Sept. 14, 9 p.m. - 12 a.m.