Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Greatest Story Ever Told8 min read

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Ron Stauffer

SAN FRANCISCO — “The Ring [Cycle] is a gigantic work of art. It’s comparable to the complete works of Shakespeare, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo, or any of the greatest monuments of art.” – Terence McEwen

Thus begins a narrated recording of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which was provided by the San Francisco Opera exclusively to ticket holders before the company’s June 2018 performance of the work.

McEwen (now deceased) was the former general director of the San Francisco Opera. He is not alone in his high praise of Wagner’s magnum opus.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a contemporary of the German composer, was his greatest admirer and most generous patron and wrote an even higher compliment in a letter to Wagner after viewing the final dress rehearsal of the Ring Cycle in 1876.

“You are a god-man… the true artist by God’s grace who brought the sacred fire down from heaven to earth, to purify, to sanctify and to redeem! The god-man who truly cannot fail and cannot err!”

In the book “Being Wagner: The Story of the Most Provocative Composer Who Ever Lived,” published in 2018, author Simon Callow shares this, and more of Ludwig’s nearly idolatrous outbursts of praise for the magnificent and massive artistic work that is the Ring Cycle.

The Ring Cycle is a tetralogy—a collection of four operas—written by Wagner, and performed in sequence within one week. The four operas are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdammerung. Each opera grows progressively longer, and when all are combined, the work lasts for at least 16 hours. Das Rheingold (at least in the San Francisco Opera’s 2018 production) lasts 2 hours and 35 minutes. The final opera, Götterdammerung, clocks in at a staggering 5 hours and 10 minutes.

Anyone familiar with the stereotype of operas being lengthy, pretentious, grand spectacles that are overly dramatic, ridiculous in scope and almost cost-prohibitive to stage will find that the Ring Cycle is all of those things.

In fact, the Ring Cycle is the quintessence of mammoth stage productions and includes everything you can imagine: costly stage props, silly wigs, fake blood, live animals, sword-fighting, a dragon, pyrotechnics and more. What’s more, when it’s over, a fat lady even sings. Yes, that fat lady – the one of clichés and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Wagner’s approach was so ambitious, he even rejected calling his compositions “operas,” preferring instead to use the term “Gesamtkunstwerks,” or “total works of art” in English.

The Ring Cycle is world-famous for its record-breaking scope and magnitude. As a collection of operas, the work is by far the lengthiest operatic production ever written.

The Ring Cycle is also big. Big in its demand for elaborate stage sets, big in scene changes and, especially, big in the number of performers it requires.

Hyperbole nearly fails to convey just how big the San Francisco Opera’s production was this summer. For Götterdammerung, the cast onstage consisted of 12 principal singers, 77 choristers and 11 supernumeraries (non-singing actors). In the orchestra pit, there were 89 instrumentalists, not including the two French horn players and three trombonists playing backstage to create an echo effect.

That’s 194 active performers on, under or behind the stage. Perhaps the composer was right and “total work of art” is, in fact, the only suitable term to describe it all.

The story within the opera is also massive: it’s a tale of gods and goddesses, love, murder, lust, curses, magic spells, power, jealousy, life, death, and, of course, a ring made of gold that makes the wearer invincible.

Keeping track of all the various characters in the tale can be difficult. Each act introduces new characters, and also refers back to others from past operas or acts. It’s so easy to get lost trying to remember all the relationship dynamics that the San Francisco Opera provided patrons with a downloadable “Genealogy of The Ring” chart.

On it, you can see a graphic representation of each character and how everyone intersects with each other. The Gods, the Mortals, the Norns, the Valkyries, the Giants, the Nibelungs, the Rhinemaidens, the Gibichungs, and one little Forest Bird. It’s one giant, dysfunctional family tree.

Staging a Ring Cycle is so ambitious, it often takes the collaboration of more than one opera company to pull it off. Co-productions between opera companies are frequent, and sometimes necessary. A sharing of staff, lighting, costuming, stage props, and more can lower the barrier to a successful staging.

This year’s Ring Cycle by the San Francisco Opera was a co-production with the Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C., and included the same director and the same basic staging and props.

Even if an opera company has the necessary logistics in place to stage a Ring Cycle, there’s still the added challenge that the music of Wagner is notoriously difficult to sing.

An interview published in USA Today in 2017 illustrates this brilliantly. In “Why an opera singer has to train like an athlete to hit every note,” writer Maggie Hendricks interviews J. Mark Stambaugh, a composition professor at Manhattan School of Music.

“There’s a whole genre of Wagner singers that are known as Wagnerian singers. They spend their career singing this repertoire, and you have to be a special kind because of the demands of it physically and because of the kind of voice that sings a Wagner opera. It’s very different than if you see a lighter Italian opera.”

The Houston Grand Opera recently completed their very first Ring Cycle in 2017, taking four seasons to complete it. In an article posted to their website called “Just the Fachs, Ma’am,” Eric Skelly writes about the specifics of Wagnerian performers. (The article’s title is a play on words, referring to the German voice classification system called “fachs.”)

“Wagner’s huge orchestras require singers of the very heaviest voice types to be heard through the dense orchestrations of works like Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and the Ring cycle.”

He notes that “A Wagnerian soprano who specializes in the heaviest roles of the Wagner and Strauss repertoire is called a high dramatic soprano. This singer makes a career of such monumental roles as… Brünnhilde in the Ring cycle.”

Because of this hyper-specific type of singing required, it’s not uncommon for singers contracted to sing these roles to drop out of those productions for health reasons. Being in anything less than tip-top vocal shape is simply not going to work.

Unfortunately for the San Francisco Opera, the German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius who was initially slated to sing the principal role of Brünnhilde backed out due to health concerns just one month before the performance.

Fortunately, the company was able to find a capable—and available— Wagnerian soprano to keep the production from falling apart. Iréne Theorin, the Swedish soprano, was chosen as Herlitzius’s replacement. (The fact that Theorin has sung the role of Brünnhilde in at least 11 countries was surely a factor in her selection.)

On top of all the challenges listed so far in staging the Ring Cycle, there’s also the pesky fact that it is incredibly costly to produce.

For example, The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 staging was estimated by The New York Times to cost $16 million. That’s expensive, but The Met has performed the Ring Cycle over 100 times since 1889 and has a sufficient war chest to keep doing so.

Many smaller or newer opera companies can’t seem to make the numbers work, however. On the West Coast, for example, the 24-year old Los Angeles Opera took a huge gamble in 2010, staging its first-ever Ring Cycle, and lost. On July 2, 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that the company spent a whopping $31 million on the production and lost $5.96 million.

Matthew Shilvock, San Francisco Opera’s general director put it bluntly in his own recorded narration of the Ring Cycle, describing the toll it takes on his company.

“The Ring [Cycle] coalesces the talents of [San Francisco Opera] in a way unlike any other work of art. Its demands on the company are vast, financially, artistically, and in stamina. And its demands on the audience and the community are no less.”

It’s almost poetic, in a sense, that the Ring Cycle is so expensive to produce today. Over 142 years ago, the composer himself was almost unable to complete the work due to financial difficulty. It was only finished after the king swooped in to the rescue, bailing out Wagner’s debts, and paying him a dependable salary that he could finally finish the piece.

What is it, then, besides the music (which one could listen to in a recording for free) that causes opera companies to keep staging such a lengthy, ambitious, difficult, costly operatic production like the Ring Cycle? Why do artists continue to perform it? …and why do audiences keep coming to see it?

Francesca Zambello, the director for San Francisco Opera’s Ring Cycle, summarizes exactly why in a video produced for this year’s performance.

“What’s important about the ring is that the ring is about us. The ring is the story of families, our lives, our society, the environment, our government, our economic situation, the world as we know it. …every theme, every idea that [Wagner] touched upon is very much part of our lives.”

Isn’t it true that people love to talk about themselves? If the Ring Cycle is a story about us, it is arguably the greatest story ever told.