From TLD, Whole Number 13 (May 3, 1996)


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Dragons and giants
and bears, oh my!


When I was 2 years old, I was given a record player for Christmas, and thereafter, my parents and all four of my grandparents gave me records on every conceivable gift-giving occasion until I learned to read. This was when records were great heavy black glass affairs nearly a foot across, and when adult record players were massive pieces of furniture into which huge stacks of records were piled. A complete symphony might take up both sides of as many as four disks, so that one record contained both Side One and Side Eight. The disks would be stacked on the player in sequence so that the listener could enjoy as much as 60 minutes of a composition uninterrupted while one disk after another was "automatically changed," before he'd have to get up and turn the whole heap over.

When audio purism became a mark of intellectual superiority, automatic record changers became, overnight, a way of detecting Philistines, who were so lazy that they'd risk scratching their virgin vinyl rather than get up and turn the disk over. But back in the '40s, an automatic changer indicated that you were serious about your music — serious enough that you didn't want an important composition interrupted while you got up and changed the record.

Children's record players, on the other hand, were plain turntables with tone arms that had to be positioned at the beginning of the record and manually removed when the record was over, and children's records were little brittle plastic rounds in garish colors. The stuff recorded on them was pretty awful, too — nursery rhymes and Disney movie tunes and lots of little ditties about always telling Mommy where you were so she wouldn't worry. I have no idea how a kid was supposed to make the transition to grown-up music; in our house, it was a function of getting tall enough to reach the control knobs on the adult equipment. By the time I was 6, I could reach them. But the tone arm would not reach over to my diminutive Golden Records, and soon I was playing recordings of Chopin and Mozart and assorted tenor opera arias, not comprehending them in the slightest, but knowing that they were somehow imbued with the dignity of being Grown Up.

Because I had no formal training in musical appreciation (although being raised a High Church Anglican and singing Byrd, Tallis, Stanford, and Howells in the choir for most of my teenage years probably counts for something), I haven't got the foggiest notion of how I wound up in my mid 20s as a full-blown Wagner fanatic. My parents had never owned a recording of an entire opera, even a French or Italian one, so God alone knows what accidental encounter sucked me into Wagner's world and his vision of human interaction. All his characters were larger than life and outrageously symbolic, but at the same time so puzzlingly, familiarly human. And I loved them all — canny Hans Sachs and wimpy Walter, mad Senta and poor perplexed Erik, eerie Kundry and scheming Klingsor — but above all, the Ring Cycle's passionate residents of Valhalla, trapped in their inexorable progression toward destruction. I agreed to some extent with Rossini's assertion that Wagner had lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour, but I was willing to endure endless droning diatribes from Fricka knowing that Wotan's aching parting from his most beloved daughter was coming.

From reading the libretti, I could tell that Wagner had a lot of stuff going on in his dramas besides what was actually being sung about, and as with all theatrical works, just hearing the dialogue is to miss the nuances of characterization and plot. I suspected that you actually had to be there to get the full effect of the opera. The problem was, it's nearly impossible to see a Ring Cycle staged. Remember, these are productions where one of the characters changes himself from a dwarf to a dragon to a toad right out there in front of everybody; where a guy leads a live bear into the house to scare his foster father; where a mountain bursts into flame; where a woman rides her horse into the middle of a funeral pyre, whereupon a river overflows its banks and sweeps a number of principal characters away. I mean, we're talking serious special effects here, O Best Beloved. Although in the late '80s and again in the early '90s, filmed productions of the Ring Cycle were broadcast on public television, the small screen was overpowered by the action; also, I secretly suspected that every time the camera zoomed in for a close-up, something interesting was happening just out of range.

A little over a year ago, I was in Chicago for a week on business. Every morning, the hotel staff would shove a copy of USA Today under my door. USA Today bears about the same relationship to incisive journalism that All I Need to Know about Life I Learned from My Gerbil bears to Cappadocian theology, but what the hell, it was something to read in the bathtub. And so it was in a theater review column in USA Today that I discovered that that night the Chicago Lyric Opera was staging a production of "Siegfried," the third of the four operas that make up "The Ring of the Nibelungs," with a cast that was simply beyond belief. I would have committed any of a fairly broad list of felonies to get a ticket, but it turned out there were available seats for which I didn't have to mug a single little old lady in a walker.

I won't even attempt to describe the performance; suffice it to say I flew home without an airplane. I also felt well and truly vindicated in my suspicions that when the PBS cameras closed in on one singer's face, there was action going on all over the stage that fleshed out the characters and reinforced threads of the story line. Nobody who merely listens to a recording comes close to experiencing the full impact. I doubt I was the only one in the theater who felt that way: the audience laughed, wept, cheered, applauded, and babbled ecstatically one to another in the foyer.

Looking around at them, I saw that they were old, they were young, they were male, they were female — and that was as far as the diversity went. In a house that seated nearly 3,800 souls, there was nobody who appeared to be other than Western European in lineage. That seemed a little peculiar for a city as ethnically robust as Chicago, particularly since my seat had cost less than a ticket for a Bulls game and a lot less than a ticket for a rock concert.

Six weeks after I returned home, I got an announcement in the mail from the Lyric Opera, describing their planned production of the entire Ring Cycle in March of 1996. Their advertising copywriters pointed out that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, which I would have thought was pretty much self-evident. They also warned the reader that the announcement was being sent to everybody on the Lyric's mailing list, so demand for series tickets would exceed supply. Not exactly a hard sell for me, but I've never tried to represent myself as a bastion of consumer resistance. And besides, in a world full of uncertainty, it was sort of comforting to know precisely where I would be and what I'd be doing in March of the following year.

The week before I flew to Chicago for my Wagner overdose, I treated my husband to an evening at the symphony. The guest artistes were Katia and Marielle Labèque, a pair of foxy-babe French pianists who would be right at home on the cover of Cosmopolitan if they ever got tired of the concert circuit. Their repertoire extends from Ravel to Scott Joplin, Mozart to Thelonious Monk. One would assume that their fans cover a pretty broad cross-section of the population. But oddly enough, in a crammed concert hall in Washington City, and with only a few exceptions, the audience was, as a Methodist clergyman of my acquaintance used to phrase it, "of a definite family resemblance." This started me thinking that the peculiar ethnic sameness I'd noticed in the "Siegfried" audience might not have been a demographic glitch.

It wasn't. In March, during the four performance nights of the Ring, I made a point of talking to as many people as I could during the intermissions. They were from all over the country, but they were all the same: fairly well educated, comfortably middle class, of the Nordic persuasion, and worried that this might be their only chance to see an opera series that was expensive to produce, required a lot of heavy-duty singing talent and an extraordinarily ambitious orchestra (Wagner's original score for "Götterdämmerung," the fourth of the operas, calls for six harps), and was, as the retired electrical engineer who sat to my left put it, "not really in the philosophical mainstream."

They were remarkably gentle and courteous people; I doubt that any of them had ever spray-painted a synagogue or burned a cross. But I'll bet that more than a few of them had a nagging hunch that the Thought Police will shut down Wagner performances in their lifetimes, and that this week in Chicago might be part of a vanishing world.

Whether or not Wagner was a raging anti-Semite is beside the point, and the critics who claim that his dwarves are actually caricature Jews are just reaching for something to grouse about. (One has to wonder whether the real anti-Semites aren't the people who suspect that little shrunken ugly men are caricature Jews. You might as well go after Walt Disney's "Snow White" with the censor's scissors.) What is relevant is that Wagner's great epic is a gut-level examination of the effects of pride and greed on ordinary people. The gods of Valhalla are not omnipotent. They make bad choices, get tangled up in personality contradictions, and eventually destroy themselves. The Ring operas tell a universal story, but they tell it from a peculiarly Western point of view, using characters and images from a distinctly Northern European mythology. It is a point of view and a mythology every bit as valid as the American Indian myths of Coyote and Crow or the memories of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime. But because Valhalla is literally peopled with Dead White Male warriors, it is increasingly becoming a place we dare not be caught visiting, no matter how dear a home it might be to us.

I would suggest to readers of The Last Ditch who are serious in their belief that we are watching our values and our heritage erode, that it behooves us to take an artistic stand as well as a political one. "The Ring of the Nibelungs" is serious Western culture, contains more than enough lovely moments to compensate for its occasional awful quarters of an hour, and is a whacking good grown-up adventure story. I strongly urge you to see it as soon as you can, however you can, and shed a tear for two lost worlds.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion but remembers a dominion that is older still.

Published in 1996 by WTM Enterprises.
Reposting and reprinting.

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