Then and Now: Reflections on the Ring

Then and Now: Reflections on the Ring

Photo from the 2011 San Francisco Opera production of the Ring. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle has been celebrated as one of the most monumental works of art ever created. Since the first San Francisco Opera production in 1935, nearly half a dozen presentations have graced the War Memorial Opera House stage, each offering a varied perspective on the transcendent journey. With fire, lightning, larger-than-life sets and dramatic performances—not to mention a full cycle runtime of over 17 hours—describing the experience as “epic” would be an understatement.

As a Wagner newbie, I found myself asking, “What’s the best way to experience this?” and “What’s changed since it was presented in 2011?” To help get me up to speed, I turned to our most devoted—and arguably most knowledgeable—source: our patrons. I connected with opera lover and longtime San Francisco Opera subscriber, Michael Strange, who shared tips and tricks he has picked up while attending the Ring at opera houses across the country and offered insight into what he is most looking forward to experiencing during the 2018 return.

Can you tell me about your opera background?
I grew up loving opera. My father and mother played Caruso records. We weren’t able to attend live performances except those at Stern Grove, but we used to listen to the Met broadcast on Saturdays. I actually remember listening to San Francisco Opera excerpts on the radio as a young boy. In eighth grade, as part of the Opera’s outreach to the schools, I went to a performance of Cavalleria and Pagliacci. It was excellent. I was instantly hooked!

Archive photo of Cavalleria Rusticana courtesy San Francisco Opera archives.
Program cover and insert from 1952 production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Photo: San Francisco Opera archives.

When were you first introduced to Wagner?
When I was living in Seattle, the Seattle Opera started its Ring  program—around 1976—for which it has become justly famous. My preferences were for the Italian and French repertoire (which I still adore), but I decided to try out their first Ring. I bought the cheapest seat in the balcony and was blown away by the experience. People came from all over the world. I was so hooked, I went back the second year to experience it again, but then moved back to the Bay Area.

You’ve been a loyal subscriber with San Francisco Opera for quite some time! Can you tell me a bit about your experience with the Ring cycle?
I became a San Francisco Opera subscriber around 1978 and have seen the Ring each time it was presented here. I’ve seen the full cycles eight or ten times—two in Seattle and one each in Los Angeles and Orange, CA (when the Russian Ring was presented). The productions in LA and Orange featured good singing, but the staging was not clear.

Rhinemaidens (Alexandra Hughes, Jean Herzberg and Deborah Sasson) in a wintry landscape (PHOTO: Scherl) Alexandra Hughes, Jean Herzberg and Deborah Sasson in the 1985 San Francisco Opera production of Götterdämmerung. Photo: Ron Scherl.

I enjoyed the recent Ring in 2011—great singing and conducting—and felt Director Francesca Zambello’s staging enhanced the story rather than distracted from it. The entire cast was fabulous. Nina Stemme was a standout as Brünnhilde. At this point, I had seen the Ring a number of times and had the story and music down, but still enjoyed experiencing it again—every cycle adds something new.

Photo of the 2011 Ring cycle. Photo by Cory Weaver.Watch footage from the 2011 San Francisco Opera Ring production.

Wow! So you are quite the Ring expert! What are you most looking forward to in the 2018 production?
I am looking forward to the 2018 Ring. It looks like an excellent cast—that is most important—and Donald Runnicles is always fantastic in whatever he conducts. He conducts such a variety of operas and is great with the singers. He brings the best out of the performers. We are blessed to have him here. The best way to see it is to see it all in one week, when one opera builds upon the previous one. You get to experience the whole thing. It just builds and is incredible and you are completely immersed in the story. The cumulative effect is great!

Whether you're a Wagner expert like Michael or a newbie like myself, I invite you to enter the Ring. Get in the conversation on social media: reveal your tips and tricks, share favorite memories from past productions and discuss what you're most looking forward to experiencing when the Ring makes its triumphant return. Tag @SFOpera on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Use #RingSF to join the international conversation.

Hello, Karita.