by RIP RENSE
Third 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.
DER RENSE DES
(Dec. 23, 2009)
As I mentioned, my father introduced
me to Wagner's “Der Ring des Nibelungen” when I was ten,
via the recordings of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic on
our precociously gigantic living room stereo. Should have named
the speakers Fasolt and Fafnir.
Dad was a brilliant
lecturer on the subject, especially when mildly lubricated with
Early Times Kentucky
Bourbon. I recall his explaining “Wotan’s Farewell,” and how the
first orchestral climax marks the point where Wotan and his
estranged daughter, Brunhilde, turn and look at each other.
“And now,” he said, above
the rising crescendo of the second climax, “They embrace!”
I would say that my hair
stood on end, but seeing as I had a butch haircut, it was
already standing on end.
I might have been the
only kid in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in the early ‘60’s, to make
the acquaintance of Wotan, Brunhilde, et al., and Wagner’s
music, there in my Valhalla-like perch on a hilltop above that
once-little country town. Funny thing, though: in a parallel
universe about 1500 miles away, another kid had much the same
introduction provided by his father (sans the Early Times.)
Whose name was also Rense.
Why it took 56 years for
us to get together is one of those “family things” that no one
can really explain, but it was The Ring that made it happen.
Specifically, the Seattle Opera Ring’s third cycle, for which we
had independently purchased tickets.
We had arranged to
meet inside the
opera house, my cousin and I, prior to the first opera, “Das
Rheingold,” and I took a appointed position above the
staircase near the entrance, under the wonderfully daffy
seemingly made out of old shopping carts, junk, and plastic. A
suitable junction for Rensian fate.
Cousin walked in among
the fragrant, dressy throng, talking on his cell phone.
“I’m looking at the top
of the staircase,” he said, purposefully.“Yes, yes, okay, I see
you. You’re waving. Wearing a brown coat and green tie.”
In a matter of seconds, I
was shaking hands with Will Rense, a genial, retired professor
of geography at Shippensburg University who had flown in from
his home in Colorado. And a devoted Ringhead, he’ll pardon my
saying, who is next heading to Wagner HQ in Bayreuth for the
“You look like a Rense,”
This seems to be the
customary greeting used by Renses meeting for the first time, as
Will’s brother, John, made the same remark when we met a few
years back, and I recall an uncle making a similar statement
long ago. I think it’s akin to dogs sniffing around to make sure
one of them is not a coyote.
We chatted just barely
long enough to agree to have lunch. Succinctness is a family
hallmark (which I can do, though my nature is to blabber.) So
the next day, there we were again, outside the elevators for the
restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. Well, it was Seattle,
after all, and we were tourists.
“I’ve done a little
shopping,” said Will, who had, among other items, a “Wagner
Action Figure” in a bag full of gifts for nieces and nephews. I
noted the “Action Figure” with a chuckle, saying something
polite about avuncular generosity.
“That’s for me!” said Will,
adding something about how the absurdity made it irresistible.
Yes, he was a Rense, too.
Now, I don’t do well with
heights, unless extremely high. Meaning either loaded, or in an
airplane, take your pick. So when the elevator took off, and
Seattle receded underfoot, well, it was a good thing we were
going to lunch, and not from it. I had to stare at my feet until
we reached the top, a task made slightly more difficult by the
remarkable breath of the chirpy girl elevator operator in front
of me. Who had obviously not eaten since the night before. When
the menu featured dried skunk.
“WEL-come to the Space
Needle,” she said, and my nostrils shut faster than those of
Brunhilde’s horse, Grane, in a
And then I was sitting
with Will and my wife, Annie, as the city, the Puget Sound, and
the impossibly imposing Mt. Rainer turned slowly in the
periphery, like a dreamscape.
I barely saw it at all.
My mind was on the opera. The family opera. Der Rense des
Now, readers might
have already figured out that Renses are an unusual lot. We
tend to have active, inquisitive minds that shun fraudulence,
and we tend to go our own way, rather like Brunhilde, doing
“what is right” and steering clear of unthinking authority. My
grandparents, whom I never knew,
were immigrants from Tyrol who arrived her early in the last
century. My grandmother was not quite a mail-order bride, but
was introduced by family friends, and emigrated to the States in
order to marry. The family roots, and perhaps the Rensian
personality, it is speculated, go back a long way. My aunt Wanda
(Will’s mom) posits that the “Ice Man” discovered in northern
Italy (modern Tyrol) was possibly an original Rense(!), perhaps
an intrepid, free-thinking wanderer seeking independence from
religious tyranny in the north. . .
my great-great-great (and a lot more greats)-grandfather.
never met Art,” said Will. “Can you tell me what he was like?”
And so the conversation
went, both of us getting acquainted with our late uncles through
one another’s memories. My uncle,
William A. Rense, was a greatly admired and loved professor
of astrophysics at the University of Colorado for 31 years, and
a founder of the school's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space
Physics. He got the science genes. While my father loved
science, he got the verbal genes, and spent his life in writing:
for the old L.A. Daily News (sports
columnist), United Press, magazines, public relations. He was
also an inveterate poet, at least in
youth, and his final years.
Both men, it turned out, adored and were addicted to football
(my dad covered the Rams when they won the world championship in
’51), as well as music, particularly Wagner. Accordingly, Will
and I had been imprinted with the Rhine Maidens’ lament and the
leitmotivs of Nothung and the Ring’s Curse, etc., since
childhood, by respective Vaters.
“I used to rush home
from 5th grade in order to put ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on the
stereo at full blast,” I said.
Will spoke a little of
his visits to other Ring productions (I talked him out of
attending the ridiculous, ongoing L.A. Ring), and related a
wondrous little incident at a performance by the Metropolitan
Opera, where one of the people sitting beside him turned out to
have been a former pupil of his father. And one who, as was
apparently usually the case with many former pupils, revered the
man. The ex-student had been an immigrant in the ‘50’s, and my
uncle had gone out of his way to treat her as equal to all the
other students, which had meant much to her.
I said. “Your sitting beside her.”
“When you’re at a Ring
Cycle,” said Will, smiling, “there is magic in the air.”
In between raising the
ghosts of Renses past, the conversation veered into history, the
economy, the general decline of civility, the stranglehold that
electronic media have on the American psyche, the sad loss of
newspapers (and expert beat reporters), religions (atheism,
really), and sundry tangents. Blunt, articulate appraisal
abounded. It felt good to connect with a Rense-wired mind, which
sure hasn’t happened enough for me since my father walked across
the rainbow bridge in 1990.
“So you actually knew our
grandmother,” I said. “Can you tell me anything about her?
Will told a story of
visiting her at the home of another uncle, with whom she had
lived in her final years. “Ma Rense,” as she was known, had gone
to some trouble to bake a cake for the occasion.
“I remember,” said Will,
“that something went wrong with the cake. It did not turn out
the way she wanted it to, and she just could not stop crying
about it. She was a classic German hausfrau.”
That jibed with what I
understood of this durable, devoted mother, who had seven
children and several more who did not survive much past
childbirth. I thought vaguely of
the earth goddess, and her unassailable strength and assurance,
dealing with the egotistical, reckless and priapic Wotan. (Which
might have at least partly described my grandfather, from what I
As we left the Needle and
parted company (I stared at the floor again in the elevator,
which my lunch appreciated), a strange feeling came over me. I
couldn’t quite put my finger on it, like music you can’t quite
bring to mind. . .
“What a terrific guy,”
said Annie, and she was right.
We walked through the
park toward the opera house, and past the goofy-wonderful giant
fountain where sun-deprived (or sun-depraved) Seattleites
frolicked a little too enthusiastically. I was watching this
pale kid about 20 wearing jeans and no shirt violently striking
all the gushers as they erupted, with big crazy windmill
motions, and thought vaguely that this must be confirmation that
the sun only comes out here about 50 days a year.
And I watched moms in
bathing suits leading their tykes into burbling water at their
feet, laughing as the pulsing jets changed rhythms to whatever
was the music of the moment: Beethoven, Beatles, or. . .Wagner.
Yes, the fountain was doing a choreographed series of spurts to
excerpts from “The Ring!” I sort of hoped that none of the
Wagnerites in the vicinity were directors, in case this gave
them ideas for staging the Rhine Maidens’ sequence in
“Rheingold.” I could just see Alberich as a shirtless
20-year-old manic Seattlite.
As we neared the hotel
to change clothes for the evening’s opera and second of the
four, “Die Walkure,” where I so looked forward to
“Wotan’s Farewell” and those two orchestral climaxes my
father described to me so long ago, I figured out the strange
feeling that had overtaken me. It was, you could say, a sort of
leitmotiv, and one I had heard since childhood, though
frustratingly little in recent years. It was the song of the
Renses, which I imagined might sound a bit like the theme for
Valhalla, and a bit like
“Annie,” I said. “I
figured it out. I am having the same feeling I would always get
when speaking with my dad, or my uncles. A feeling of being part
of the family, of being a Rense again. A feeling of knowing who
And a feeling of my dad,
and perhaps my uncles and grandmother, walking beside me.
As Will said, when you’re
at The Ring, there is magic in the air.
next week: tai chi, Keith and Jerry
SEATTLE RINGER PART ONE: Lugnuts
SEATTLE RINGER PART TWO: Verdant
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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