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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, lyrical McCaw 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 sincerity of Eddie Haskell.
          Another snorted, and mumbled:
          “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 again, and 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 sincere.
          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 greater 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. Rainier.
          Got it?
          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 to the Washington Park Arboretum and Japanese Garden. 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 Park Arboretum and Japanese Garden.”
          He turned around and smiled helplessly.
          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 saying “Loge!”)
          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 find the 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 ecstatically, “Trees!Trees!”
          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.”
          Free? Free? O paradiso! 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 does 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, telltale whoosh. 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 detail.”
          (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. . .cars.
          Loge, again. No doubt about it.

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 Opera Revives its "Green" Ring Cycle

Seattle Ring's Triumphant Finale
Seattle Humanizes Wagner's Ring

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