by RIP RENSE
Seattle Ringer 2
Second of a six-part series about my trip to
Seattle this past August to see Wagner's "Der Ring des
Nibelungen" performed by Seattle Opera.
(Dec. 16, 2009)
So I was sitting in the Bamboo Garden Chinese Vegetarian
restaurant a couple of blocks from Seattle's stupendous,
Opera House, with its gargantuan mural proclaiming “The Ring” to
most of the city, when they walked in.
They were gawky, they
were gangly, they were grungy, they were grinders. Their hair
was in their eyes, over their ears, disheveled, viny helmets of
insouciance. They carried skateboards like Valkyries carried
shields. They sat down in an adjoining booth, five of them, one
spilling over into a chair, and they studied the menus. Or made a
big show out of studying the menus.
“Thank you, sir,” said
one of them to the middle-aged Chinese waiter, with all the
Another snorted, and
“What’s won ton?”
“What’s won ton?”
answered a cohort. “Aren’t you cultured or nothin’?”
“Man, I been in Seattle
all my life.”
The waiter returned in a
moment, asked if they were ready to order.
“Uh, sir?” said the
apparent leader, “How much is your beer, sir?”
“I need to see I.D.,”
said the waiter, smiling.
“Oh, sure,” said Grinder
Leader. “What is the price of your beer, though?”
The waiter smiled
explained that they had several types of beer.
Grinders continued poring over the
menu. No I.D.'s materialized. Finally, two of them rose and walked out. Then one more.
At last, the Leader.
“Guess we’ll come back
another time,” he said.
“Oh, yes, please come
back again,” said the waiter, smiling and sounding utterly
Outside, on the streets,
the dumb crunch of skateboards. You could imagine the
conversation: “Dude, you thought you could scam some Chinese
dude out of beer. Dude!”
My wife and I laughed.
How quaint it seemed: oily teenagers trying to buy beer in 21st
century methamphetamine/antidepressant-soused America. I found
myself trying to fit their skateboard ethos into "Ring" mythos. Much too free-spirited
to be Nibelungen, but coarse and grotesque enough.
More like the male counterparts of roustabout Valkyries, that
sisterly bunch of goddesses whose job it is to carry slain
heroes to Valhalla on flying horses. Or maybe the lusty and
deceitful Gibichungs, whose plotting kills Siegfried and drives
Brunhilde to nihilistic abandon. I’m sure somewhere, in some
Ring production, some “visionary” director will desecrate the
proceedings by casting characters as grinders. You can easily
imagine it, really: an “urban” Ring. Loge is a Hollywood agent, Wotan a
CEO, the Valkyries are lesbian Latina gang members, the
Nibelungen suburbanite cubie slaves, Brunhilde a
pop star. . .
I’d better shut up before
I give some "genius" ideas.
So it was with even
anticipation that I looked forward to the evening's opera,
Das Grindgold---er, Das Rheingold---as
poetically staged by the
Seattle Opera and its heroically sane director, Speight
Jenkins. No concentration camp survivors, no symbolic abstract lighting,
no baseball players or paratroopers, just mountains and forests that look like mountains and forests
and dragons and Valkyries that look like dragons and Valkyries.*
In other words, the exact
opposite of the “conceit” of Achim Freyer, who has destroyed narrative, personality, and characterizations of the Ring in his
freakish L.A. Opera ego-puffed abstraction. (Which has nearly
bankrupted LAO at
nearly $40 million, as compared to Seattle’s approximately $9
million! See articles on the right.) Seattle's Stephen Wadsworth-directed rendering,
which debuted in 2004, has come to be known as the "Green Ring," for its
emphasis on nature---which dovetails neatly with Wagner's own philosophical
leanings, and is very much on point, in terms of 21sts century environmental
implications. (Thank goodness it is not known as the "Al Gore Ring.") It's
funny: doing these or any other operas straight has become almost
revolutionary. . .
Telling the story
literally is no easy feat, either. Here's the Rheingold plot: Wotan, king of the (Norse) gods, does some double-dealing with a
couple of giants hired to build a fortress in the clouds
(Valhalla), and creates a hell of a lot of stress and drang
for the entire Nelson god-family. In the process, Loge, the god
of fire and mischief (and Wotan’s chief counsel) leads him on a
trip to the underworld (Nibelheim) to recover the Rheingold that
was (deep breath) stolen by Alberich the Nibelung from the
gorgeous Rhine Maidens because a ring forged from said gold will
enable the owner to, dare I say it, rule the world! (“Help!”
reference.) Along the way, one of the giant brothers murders the
other, the goddess Freia is set free (thus enabling the gods to
keep eating the golden apples she grows that ensure eternal
youth), Erda, the earth mother, emerges from a crack in the
earth and warns
Wotan that all are headed for certain doom,
which I think is the job of earth mothers. . .
And then Wotan and
company march with rather mixed emotions across a rainbow bridge
and into newly built Valhalla, which is obviously on top of Mt.
In Seattle, you actually
see those gods walking across a rainbow. Not bad! The accompanying music is nearly deranged with elation,
celebration, triumph. I mean, crank up "Entrance to the Gods Into
Valhalla"---the Solti recording---and then check your socks.
So in the hours before
witnessing this marvel, Annie and I played tourist and called a cab to head out
Washington Park Arboretum and
Seemed thematically appropriate, what with the "Green Ring."
Also, living in the
grisly Nibelheim that L.A. has become drives me to seek pastoral calm
at every opportunity, and there isn’t very much
“every.” I mean, plucking empty beer bottles and Subway wrappers
from the narrow garden plots below the condo is as
close as I get to Walden. In fact, as soon as the
flying bus touched Seattle firma, I had a firm desire to never
set foot in the nasty remains of the laughably named "City of
Angels" again. I am badly, badly
in need of unfettered time in an unfettered environment.
Preferably green, decorated with hummingbirds, robins, and the
occasionally darting dragonfly. Where predatory blondes on
cell phones do not tailgate me in Cadillac Escalades.
“Washington Park Arboretum, please,” I
said to the cab driver, who would have been quite at home on a
camel. His license said something like “Achmed Abeboogiewoogie.”
“R bore E tum?”
“You know, the Washington
Arboretum and Japanese Garden.”
He turned around and
Yes, the cabbie had no
idea where the Arboretum was. He only drove a cab in Seattle,
that's all. We
had to give him the address, and trust to GPS. (Picture Jerry Seinfeld,
teeth clenched, declaring “Newman!” here, but substitute me
Fabled Seattle grayness
was nowhere to be found on this day, so there were no rainbows
as we crossed bridges over the broad bays and glossy waterways that
define this place, and Achmed Abeboogiewoogie finally did manage to
R Bore E Tum. We even tipped him.
Trees! Remember that old
Warner Brothers cartoon where the dog dies and goes to heaven and finds his Valhalla is nothing but, as he exclaims
This is how I felt,
though for reasons that did not involve lifting my leg.
Towering, lush, whispering, shimmering, humbling, singing, almost
psychedelically verdant, there they were: endless sycamores and
birches and pines and cedars and oaks and deodars. Frankly, I wanted to duck
in among them and never duck back out. I’ve been too long i’
the L.A. sun, too long among. . .cars. You know, people
forget that cars are barely 100 years old, and that the world
was not naturally meant to be overrun by trillions of combustion engine machines, everywhere, all the time, every damn
day, roaring, farting, honking, facilitating last potbellied
gasps of masculine fantasy. Let me put this subtly,
picturesquely, coyly, cleverly: I hate them. I hate living near
them, riding in them, life being defined by them. I just goddamn hate them.
But now, here in Seattle,
a place that has the good sense to do The Ring right, I was, for
the moment, free of cars! Astonishing. And what's more. . .
“No admission,” said the
guy in the kiosk. “It’s all free.”
How un-L.A.! Why, positively un-American! Such civility, such
generosity, such sense! How was it possible? I proceeded within,
stepped right into Verdant Valhalla, my heart singing, and
hoping my wife’s was, too. Trees! I remembered them well. As
Seattle Opera, for "Rheingold" opens in a forest as enchanting as any
found in romantic German oil landscapes, and the final opera closes,
after the demise of gods, with the world returning to
primordial. . .greenliness. Greenliness being next to godliness.
I walked ahead, a hint of
spring returning to my step, if not the springtime of my life.
Nothing to do for several hours but immerse myself in
Ring-inspiring Seattle nature,
breathe deeply, restore cell and soul, and. . .
What was that noise?
We had walked only 100
yards or so, when I heard something. . .strange. Strange,
yes, but. . .familiar. Too familiar to
possibly be true. Too ironic, too out of place, too cruel to be believed. Yes, it
was the last thing one would expect to hear in a ravishing forest, aside
from, possibly, Larry King. A. . .whoosh. A distinctive,
I quickened my step, my eyes narrowing, my brows knitting, and
how could it be? Was it. . .
Yes! Not only cars, but.
. .a street.
As Donner’s hammer
sounded in my head, I beheld in front of me a large and
extremely busy blacktop thoroughfare, cutting directly through the middle
of the R Bore Eh Tum.
Had Achim Freyer designed this place?
In my head, I screamed.
In real life, I turned to my wife and said,
“Can you believe this? A
street in the middle of the arboretum! I mean, they did
everything great, didn't they? Except for this one little
(I must add that the
preceding sentence was littered with the gerund form of the most
popular of all vulgar dismissives.)
She frowned. I have a
tendency to make her do that.
Then I began to chuckle
to myself, a little too maniacially for my own comfort, and
continued to do for the couple of hours that we spent walking in
pastoral paradise bisected by roaring, frantic humans in. .
Loge, again. No doubt
*Seattle Opera founder Glynn Ross was the first
to notice that local mountains, lakes and forests evoked the
same Alpine scapes that inspired Wagner. He went on to stage the
first of many Seattle "Ring" cycles in 1975---which was also the
first time an American opera company performed the cycle in its
entirety over the space of a week since the
Metropolitan Opera did it in 1939.
next week: "You look like a Rense."
SEATTLE RINGER PART ONE: Lugnuts
REVIEWS: SEATTLE RING CYCLE:
Seattle Opera Revives its "Green" Ring Cycle
Seattle Ring's Triumphant Finale
Seattle Humanizes Wagner's Ring
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