Das Rheingold is a monumental undertaking.
Das Rheingold is a monumental undertaking.
Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

The Houston Grand Opera Prepares to Go Gargantuan With the First Part of the Ring of the Nibelung

Without doubt he is the most despised composer in history. Yet he wrote some of the world's most sublime music. More books have been written about him than any other composer. He's been called "a titan," "The wizard of Bayreuth" and "The Behemoth." He's also been called a rabid anti-­Semite, an unbridled hypocrite, a pompous windbag. After him, opera was never the same again — western art was never the same again. He forever changed the sound of music.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a mass of contradictions. Controversy plagued and nettled him throughout his entire career, although he fueled the scandals with wanton disregard or flaming ego. A hedonist and sensualist, he would privately parade about his Swiss villa at Tribschen in pink silk underwear and flouncy feminine dressing gowns, the air perfumed by costly attar of roses — although he would blame a skin condition on his sensitivity. He scandalized Europe by living openly with Cosima von Bülow, the married illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, and fathered three children before the couple eventually married after her divorce. Vows of matrimony didn't stop his constant philandering. Always in debt, he adored extravagance and luxury and wouldn't settle for anything less, even it if meant bolting the country to evade his constant creditors. His extremist political views got him exiled from Germany for 20 years, but at the lowest point of his life he was magically rescued by Ludwig II, the "fairy king" of Bavaria, who catered to his every artistic whim and built him his own custom-designed, state-of-the-art theater in backwater Bayreuth, where his work, and his work alone, would be performed (and still is today.) Wagner's Festspielhaus (Festival Theatre) is a shrine and site of pilgrimage for the Wagnerian faithful. The prestigious summer festival is the hottest opera ticket in the world.

He wrote ponderous philosophical treatises on "what makes a German?" "what is art" and "what specifically is German art?" but the only tomes read today are his anti-Jewish diatribes, which truth be told are excruciatingly stupid and reek of outlandish Neanderthal ideas. The Nazis appropriated his music as the background score to their 1000-year Reich, while Wagner's grandchildren romped with Hitler on his visits to Bayreuth and called him "Uncle Wolf." This family association with the Nazis, opportunistic, profligate and unashamed, has irreparably tarnished the man's reputation.


Das Rheingold

April 11, 13 (matinee), 17, 23, 26. 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $28-$386.25.

Wagner was a horrible guy, dropping friends, using friends, always bloviating about changing the face of art and music, but he was unyielding in his message of his rightful place in history. About that he was inexhaustible. And about that he was absolutely right. What he set out to do he did with a vengeance — transform formulaic, dusty opera into something that was new and serious, not just a passing entertainment for tired businessmen. He blazed a trail that is still indebted to him. The road of modern music leads directly back to Wagner.

He wrote his own librettos, and his operas are what he described as complete works of art, Gesamtkunstwerk, a melding of words, music and design. No longer would an aria stand alone and be its own showstopper that gets an ovation at the end for the singer, but it would be a piece of the whole, a continuation. The music, like the drama, doesn't stop. Throughout his operas, his major subject is always Love through Death. Unable to reconcile desire because of society or propriety, his characters inevitably succumb to passion that can only be realized in losing themselves in timeless eternity. But it wasn't his stories that revolutionized opera; it was his music. He took father-in-law Liszt's demonic chromaticism and turned it inside out, creating wondrous harmonics that had never been heard before. Lush, intoxicating, barbaric, sensuous, exotic — sexy, to say the least. His rhythms, dissonances and melodies shocked the 19th century. They still sound unique even today. Like him or hate him as a person, he was incomparable as a composer.

His masterwork is The Ring of the Nibelung, a mythic four-opera tale that mixes up Nordic, Germanic and Icelandic sagas of gods, dwarfs and giants with the emergence of man: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). With its dysfunctional and avaricious gods; heroic but naive heroes; evil, sadistic dwarfs; a magic golden ring that bestows unlimited power on its owner; love potions; a Viking warrior maiden with horns on her helmet; funeral pyres; and passionate family drama, it's almost Greek in its resonance, a big old epic fairy tale that has so many layers, it's been a field day for auteur directors to make of it what they will — the rise of capitalism, a socialist wet dream, an environmental tract, the face of fascism, the modern world's greed for oil. Last year's Bayreuth production, universally booed for its incoherency from director Frank Castorf, set its cycle in the modern world, where the Rhine was an aboveground swimming pool at the Golden Nugget Motel on Route 66. The convoluted world of the Nibelung has room enough to hold even the dumbest ideas.

Written sporadically over a span of twenty-some years, with a definite break for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tristan und Isolde, the Ring is one of man's monumental dramatic achievements, the operatic equivalent of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and Beethoven's nine symphonies. (Only Wagner could have interrupted work on four masterpieces to write two others.) The librettos were written in reverse order, when Wagner realized that Siegfried's Death, which would morph into Götterdämmerung, was insufficient to tell the colossal story he envisioned. He kept going backward in time, filling in details and adding characters to deepen the story, until he wound up at its very beginning (Das Rheingold). In the depths of the Rhine, three mermaids guard the golden hoard that is subsequently stolen by dwarf Alberich, who curses love to unleash its totemic power. Throughout the epic, the Rhine Maidens pine for its return, as the magic ring passes from hand to hand, leaving a trail of death, betrayal and destruction.

The Ring cycle is opera's lodestar, its sine qua non. No opera company, no matter its reputation, joins the big leagues without having the work in its repertoire. It's a gargantuan undertaking: huge orchestra, specialized Wagnerian singers who don't always appear each generation, and massive stage effects. When asked by a nervous tenor what he thought of Siegfried, the incomparable maestro Toscanini shot back, "Too many beasts. There's a dragon, a bear, a bird and then there's you!" Each opera stands alone, but the true magnificence appears only when the cycle is seen in its entirety — a special week, just as Wagner intended, with days off in between so the singers can rest. "Ring-heads" follow each cycle with ardent devotion, traveling around the world to get their fix.

As a devout Ring-head myself (my most recent excursion was to see the Seattle production last year), the news that Houston Grand Opera would finally mount the mammoth Ring made me giddy, even though we must wait four years for the final installment. It's one opera in the cycle per season, starting April 11. Whether HGO will stage the work in its entirety after the 2017/18 season is up for grabs, but we can only hope. It's a scheduling nightmare and a drain on the treasury, but other Big Boy companies do it — at least once in a decade. The venerable Metropolitan Opera, the world's foremost opera company, spent $50 million and had to reinforce the stage floor to accommodate Robert Lepage's Busby Berkeley-piano keyboard rendition in 2012. Several times each decade in August, Seattle Opera has solidified its global reputation with its celebrated and exquisite "green Ring," inspired by a Pacific Northwest look of conifers and terrain.

In a coproduction with Valencia's Palau de les Arts and Florence's Maggio Musicale, HGO uses the controversial La Fura Dels Baus production, directed by Carlus Padrissa. Catching snippets on YouTube, it's certainly different, a symbolic and grandly evocative retelling with Rhine Maidens frolicking in individual plexiglass tubs of water and gymnasts suspended in space, like rock climbers, to depict the wonders of Valhalla, the abode of the gods. It'll keep the audience on their toes and hotly debating its merits and relevance to Wagner's intentions. Wagner would relish the controversy.

Let the games begin!


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