It may take 10 years to get a ticket to see Wagner’s cycle of rings
And why can it take up to 10 years to score a ticket?
First of all, let me set the stage for you, literally. It has a double front-stage structure, which gives the impression that the action takes place far from the public, in a dreamlike, mystical, mythical past. You never see an orchestra or a conductor, because they are hidden in a kind of dark hell, under the stage.
And going to the production is like going on a religious pilgrimage, and the audience is as physically uncomfortable as the worshipers probably were in the 1870s when the theater was built. For 17 hours, spread over four nights, your poor immobilized butt is perched on a wooden bench. It is forbidden to bring your own cushion, as it may make a noise or two if you fidget. But if you’re in line and you’re lucky, you can borrow one of the theater cushions.
The play is performed during the summer months, and you would probably love nothing more than the comfort of the fresh air. Alas, you have to suffocate in silence as no changes have been made to the original theater, which was built when air conditioning did not exist.
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Fortunately there are intermissions but let’s hope nature doesn’t call too often because if you go out during production you won’t be able to come in until the official break. Oh, and one more thing: it’s all in German, with no surtitles projected above the stage.
So why would you want to go there? Because it’s the most coveted experience in the opera world and it can take 10 years, if you’re lucky, to get a ticket. The ticket agent told me there were half a million applicants and only 6,000 seats available each year. It is Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (aka Der Ring des Nibelungen), and is widely regarded as the most sophisticated, theatrical, and brilliant expression of opera (which Wagner called “musical theater”). You can sometimes catch performances of the Ring Cycle in other opera houses around the world, but nothing compares to a trip to Bayreuth, Germany to watch the saga unfold in the Festspielhaus theater that Wagner himself designed in the sole purpose of staging his works. It is a shrine dedicated to his genius, and music pilgrims come from all over the world to soak up the music, words and history of the master. Every five years or so there’s a new director and a new take on the Ring, and some of them are wild, avant-garde, daring and provocative. The advent of a new production is rocking the music world and the next one will be premiered in 2022.
The Ring is made up of four parts: Rhine gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and twilight of the gods. The one-minute version of the story is that the Rhine Girls’ gold is stolen and part of it is forged into a ring by the blacksmiths of Niebelung. Whoever owns the ring rules the world. (Sound familiar?) Wotan, the one-eyed supreme god, steals the ring and gold and promises them to two giants for the construction of Valhalla, the lavish abode of the gods. When Valhalla is over, Wotan cheats the Giants with their payment. Wotan has a beloved daughter, Brunhilde, who travels to the battlefields with the Valkyrie Woman to gather heroic dead warriors and bring them to Valhalla. She wants to help Siegmund, her father’s son who is part god and part human and disobeys his father’s wishes. He sends her to a living hell – she will be exiled forever from the gods and asleep on a lonely rock with a fire burning around her. She will only be awakened by the true love of a hero. This hero is Siegfried, the son of Siegmund, and he gives the ring to Brunhilde as a token of his dedication. Siegfried is drugged and under the influence of the potion betrays the awakened Brunhilde. She kills herself and Valhalla burns down, ending the rule of the gods and the Ring’s takeover.
The Ring Cycle is a story of love, hate, betrayal, suicide, murder, incest, passion, war, wealth, power, retribution, greed, more greed , deities, humans and finally the destruction of gods and a world devoid of gods and left to itself. Wagner’s inspirations were Nordic myths and German folk tales, and if you are a fan of Tolkien, you will certainly recognize Wagner’s influence.
I first heard the Ring music when I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s song Apocalypse now. i can still hear Ride of the Valkyries echoing in my ears, as military helicopters plunged and hovered in the sky to the sound of pounding and rousing music. I found Wagner’s music in The blue brothers and What is Opera Doc? I decided that one day I would go to Bayreuth and worship at Wagner Temple.
Finally, I went and found myself surrounded by very knowledgeable and passionate Ring fans and aficionados from all over the world. “Coming here is the highlight of my life,” Miko from Japan told me. “I have known my father’s Wagner leitmotifs since I was a child.” The leitmotifs she was referring to are Wagner’s beautiful recurring themes that are written for different characters, places and even a sword. A British music critic who was sitting next to me confessed that he came to see three or four performances of each new production and added: “This is my form of devotion. The Ring is our modern take on ancient Greek dramas. An American, who was in a red dress with a matching parasol for Rhine gold, said she ships her gorgeous outfit in trunks and wears a different color outfit for each night of the production. A German musician explained that he played the “Wagner tuba”, invented by the composer. “I’ve played in Ring productions before, but Bayreuth is the Mecca.”
Inside the theater, I was stunned. The audience sat for hours without moving, squirming, coughing or sneezing. When the curtain fell at the end of each night, they hammered their approval loudly and insistently on the floor. They vocally booed the conductor when they disapproved of his performance. During the hour-long intermissions, they ate and chatted with Wagner over dinner in the dining room. Or they analyzed the production as they lined up for beer and Bratwurst. And after each marathon night, they would go to nearby restaurants where the waiters would join in lively discussions about the pros and cons of current production. There is a lot of alcohol and mirth and connections with other Wagnerians. And during the day, they explore the charming 18th-century Bavarian town of Bayreuth, home to statues of Wagner, the Wagner Museum in his former home, and even ATMs in his likeness.
I left with a mystery in mind. How could Wagner, according to most reports, a miserable, disloyal, whimsical, fiercely anti-Semitic man, compose such brilliant and transcendent music and write such dizzying hymns to love? Never forgetting who the human being behind the magic was, I have nonetheless joined the ranks of the Ring-obsessed devotees and look forward to the day when I can return to Bayreuth.