Sunday, March 26, 2006

an American gesamtkunstwerk

Last weekend I was in Washington, D.C. for an audition. Unfortunately I was dismissed earlier than I had hoped, and had nothing to do on Saturday evening. I took the Metro to Dupont Circle, and wandered into the fantastic bookstore Kramerbooks. I saw a notice about an event down at George Washington University - maybe a bit of a walk, from P Street to G Street, but it sounded worthwhile. The local Wagnerian Society was presenting Francesca Zambello, an acclaimed operatic director currently undertaking a completely new Ring Cycle production at the Washington National Opera.

I reached the university lecture hall just in time to hear a man greeting the crowd, noting the presence of many new and young faces in the audience. This seemed a little strange, since as far as I could tell I was the only person in the room under 30. Drawing new, young listeners is an obsession of opera and classical music presenters; I worry that any young person who does show up will be made to feel like a rare and exotic butterfly, about to be crushed between plates of glass and proudly displayed. Robert Siegel interviewed Ms. Zambello on All Things Considered last Friday, and their conversation quickly abandoned Wagner to tackle those elusive Gen-Xers.

Fortunately Ms. Zambello got to speak more about her work than demographics that night in D.C. I don't pretend to know a lot about opera productions, but I love Wagner's music and I'm fascinated by his mythic and dramatic content. Ms. Zambello was quick to admit that many might not agree with her new production, but she hoped to provoke fresh thinking and dialogue. She intends to make Wagner relevant to an American audience, and a politically charged Washington audience in particular, by incorporating American images, myths, and characters. The Rhinemaidens are depicted as pioneer women, weaving their gold into a quilt; the dwarf Alberich is a miner greedily despoiling the pristine West. The Nibelungen are portrayed as slaves, a dark underclass forced to toil in hellish conditions, while the Gods are presented as Gilded Age aristocrats. Ms. Zambello coyly did not tell what Valhalla would become, but the giants Fafner and Fasolt, she said, would be familiar as pushy contractors.

The Ring is so replete with symbolism to begin with, creating an elaborate new version almost seems like overkill. I was intrigued by the ambition and imagination of her ideas, though. Wagner's stories pose a lot of challenging questions about fate, power, love, and morality - as citizens of a powerful nation with jarringly unsettled society and values, we struggle with these issues now more than ever. So I'm glad to have heard what Ms. Zambello had to say, and I hope to read more reactions to her work, which opened just this weekend. Lately many people have been wondering where America went wrong, and to what tragic end we can look forward; while a century-old tetralogy of German musical dramas might be the first place to look for answers, it still might be one of the more interesting.

update: An excellent preview can be found at the blog ionarts. Anthony Tommasini's review of the production for the NY Times appeared on March 28th.

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