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Seattle Ringer
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.

(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 McCaw Hall 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 Sarah Sze mobile 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 cycle.
          “You look like a Rense,” he said.
          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 Magic Firestorm.
          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 Nibelungen.
          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. . .

Otzi Rense, my great-great-great (and a lot more greats)-grandfather.

           “I 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.
          “Astounding coincidence,” 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? Memories?”
          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 Erda, 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 have gathered.)
          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 Brunhilde’s Immolation.
          “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 I am.”
          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 Opera Revives its "Green" Ring Cycle

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

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