by RIP RENSE
Fourth of a completely inconsequential six-part series about my trip to
Seattle this past August to see Wagner's "Der Ring des
Nibelungen" performed by Seattle Opera.
(Dec. 30, 2009)
morning before “Siegfried,” the third of the Ring Operas,
we went out to do tai-chi under the
Space Needle. Might it prove
some lightning rod for karma? A mysterious locus of chi
that we might incorporate into our tai-chi set?
Eyeing the Needle, we
picked a spot in a lush, pastoral corner of the grounds below,
surrounded on three sides by hedges of unknown flowers and fat,
waxy, dark green leaves. The grass was a deep, soft cushion into
which our feet sunk half out of sight. The air was cool, the sky
genial, the sun spoke in sane sentences. Unlike L.A., where it
shrieks and drools and demands your Social Security number.
I really needed this.
Aside from an ongoing case of losangelitis neuroticus, I
hadn’t slept much the night before. Too much acid. As in GERD,
LSD. The sulphuric digestive soup of my gut, you see,
sometimes creeps up into my esophagus and tells my throat to
slam the door, which would be no problem except that this can
prevent, uh. . .breathing.
So I sat up much of the
night, switching around endlessly on the flat-screen Demoral on
the motel wall. The only thing I remember was a hunting program
in which “sportsmen” took a teenaged boy out for his “first
kill.” This consisted of four or five fat guys---why are hunters
always fat guys?---in full military camouflage, sneaking ever so
stealthily within about 100 yards of some poor goddamn buck,
then shooting it through the heart with a
The “hunters” then
smeared the creature’s blood all over the kid’s forehead,
and said what a fine young man he was going to be, apparently
because he had murdered an unsuspecting, harmless animal. Sure.
Nothing like slaughtering an innocent, dumb beast with 21st
century weaponry to build character.
To quote Monty Python, I
fart in their general direction.
I sat there in the TV
flicker, in the late night motelness, thinking vaguely of Fafnir the dragon, and Siegfried
using a .308 Winchester to
slay the beast instead of
the sword. Perhaps some "visionary" director will one day employ
such a trick, and have Siggy as a middle-aged fatass white guy
in full military camouflage. . .
You can imagine how happy
I was to see the sun come up, and how much I was looking forward
to emptying my rattled brain, and resetting my body clock, there in
a arboreal dell under the once-futuristic Needle, in benign
Seattle. My body clock? Har. Which has no hands left,
grinds instead of ticks, and chimes like an elephant seal in
mating season. At the wrong times.
Now, when I do tai-chi in
glorious Cloverfield Park in Santa Monica, I can absolutely
count on being regularly interrupted by Oprah’s private jet (and
jet fuel fumes), gardeners driving massive $100,000 machines
designed to bite off the tips of chemically treated, fiendish,
evil grass blades (and spew enough exhaust to gum up the parts
of your lungs untouched by jet fuel), hordes of futbol
players yelling “puto!” and “chingao!”---overlaid with the
decorative scent of baking dog crap. Not the stuff that might
have inspired Thoreau, or Beethoven, but about as close as you
can get to it on the West Side.
So I could scarcely
believe the beatific nature of my current surroundings. This
was Eden, for all intents and purposes. Annie and I went through
our usual tai chi warm-up exercises, stretching, bending, and at
last began the
30-40-minute set. Twisting, turning, rooting our
way to detoxification, sanity, calm. Immediately, I felt the
benefits rush in---as if I was settling into a sort of full body
massage by the four elements of nature. Tai chi sets, you see,
can be stable, and smooth, and meditative, or they can be train
wrecks of imbalance and
monkey-mindedness. This one, it seemed,
was going to be good. Like slipping on a perfectly fitting silk
suit, or what I imagine slipping on a perfectly fitting silk
suit must feel like.
Memories of the Night
From Acid Hell, and the doofus hunters and the poor kid with the
blood-stained forehead disappeared. I was moving easily,
unthinkingly, at a steady slow pace, breathing deeply,
naturally, my sleep-deprived physiognomy declaring a breathless,
“Thank you!” I could almost feel the cells stretching, yawning,
But I forgot. Rense luck.
If a rhinoceros had
walked by on its hind legs, singing "By
a Waterfall,” I’d
have been slightly less amazed. It was a garbage truck. A
diesel-spewing, big-as-a-house garbage truck, lumbering and
roaring along on a “service road,” as fearsome as Fafnir the
dragon. But less lyrical. Thirty feet away, there in the grassy
sea of tranquility.
This turned out to only
be the warm-up act.
Now came a parade of
backhoes, fronthoes, and well, you could only ho ho. Roughly
every two minutes,
emanated forth. Great gushes of nice diesel particulate matter
were generously donated, in order that I might take them deeply
into the lungs with every therapeutic, oxygenating tai chi
breath. What were they doing? No idea. But I'm sure it was
something very important. Sweeping up old ticket stubs, perhaps.
I flipped out. I
grumbled. I glared. I swore in several languages and stormed
off, shaking my head, and then my fist.
Except I didn’t.
Funny thing was---no,
astonishing thing was---none of this bothered my set! That’s how
tied into chi I was. Annie’s set was apparently
compromised, if not ruined, but I was in a groove. You could
have picked me up and carried me, and I would have continued
doing “carry tiger to mountain," etc. Maybe it was the Space
Needle channeling mysterious ethereal powers, after all. . .
The net result: despite
extreme sleep-deprivation, I stayed awake with no trouble for
the five hours(!) of “Siegfried”
that night, which had not been the case with “Walkure" the night
before, much as
I loved the performance (the mind was willing, but not the
body.) Yes, I watched with wide-eyed intent as Siggy forged “Nothung,” marveled at the colossal, bat-winged dragon,
got goose bumps during the titanic, soaring
love duet between Siggy and
Brunhilde, winningly realized by
Janice Baird and Stig Andersen,
and left the opera house, walking on air that felt like the
cushion of grass where I had done tai chi.
What a smashing Ring
Cycle this was turning out to be. Sure, it had its nitpicky
points here and there---they all do---but as our friend and
Ring-going compadre, Keith Snider, said right after “Siegfried:”
“I’ve been to a lot of
‘Rings,’ and I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed one as
much as this! I absolutely believe that these characters
are who they say they are. I totally buy the events and actions
being played out before me. There is a narrative line and
tension here that I’ve never---never---encountered in a ‘Ring’
Keith’s words should
carry some clout, seeing as he has attended every single
Seattle “Ring” production since they began in 1975 (!),
as well as a few in San Francisco. Not to mention that he is a
veteran stage designer. (Whoops, guess I just did.)
How I first met the guy
is another tale of sleep-deprivation and Seattle. It had
years earlier, somewhere past Portland, around 1:30 a.m.. My wife and I had headed up to see
our first Seattle Opera “Ring” via Amtrak, but the
train had been delayed by, not necessarily in this order:
dismembered body on the tracks (three pieces), innumerable
oncoming freight trains asserting right-of-way, a failed engine
that had to be replaced in the middle of the night high in the
mountains of Oregon, a stalled car on the tracks, and finally,
an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere, not far from
somewhere, just north of where-are-we, because the
engineer and assistants were barred by their union from working
more than x-number of hours. Really. So a new crew had to be
driven out. Yes, that’s correct. Around 2 a.m., the train simply
stopped to wait for a new driver, never mind that the next major
stop was about twenty minutes away.
Did I grumble?
Did I complain? Did I gnash my teeth and mutter words that
Amtrak could not use in an ad campaign? Did I generate enough
stomach acid to burn holes in concrete? Ah, how well you know
Still, I willed myself to
take a seat in the observation car, where I valiantly tried to
read. This was akin to trying to play baseball with a lobster in
your pants. When some railroad genius eventually cut the lights,
I muttered profanities openly, as I am sometimes known to do.
A friendly baritone voice
startled me in the darkness.
“Oh, well, there goes
I turned around and
noticed for the first time that there was another insomniac in
the car, a tall fellow with gray hair. Yeah, just what I felt
like: casual conversation with someone I didn't know.
“I don’t mind losing the
reading light,” I said reluctantly. “I just wish they’d get the
goddamn train moving. I’m supposed to be in Seattle for an opera
“Oh? So are we.”
“Oh, you’re heading up
for the Ring?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t
worry. I heard them talking, and they’re bringing in a new
engineer. That’s why we’re stopped. Evidently they are barred by
union regulations from working more than a certain number of
hours. I’m sure we’ll make it in time.”
I wasn’t sure, a message
that this fellow cannily seemed to pick up. Next thing I
knew, he was engaging me in engrossing conversation about Wagner
and opera---two things about which he was well qualified to
speak. This was Keith, of course, and it turned out that he had
been a production designer all his life, working on plays,
musicals, operas in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.
It was very good of him,
a stranger, to try and take my mind off the delays, and after
about an hour, the poor old remains of the Great American
Choo-Choo shook off its union constraints and began chugging
again. True, I arrived in Seattle bleary-eyed and rumpled, and dozed
off repeatedly during the first opera, “Das Rheingold” (part of
the reason I returned for the cycle in 2009!), but I didn’t
forget Keith’s act of kindness, and kept an eye out for him at
intermission each night.
“I’d like to thank that
guy, and buy him a drink,” I said to Annie.
"That's nice of you."
"No, it's not nice. It
would just make me feel better."
“Well, you should do it."
Anything that puts me at
ease is okay with Annie, you see.
It was on the night of
“Siegfried,” as I recall, that I finally spotted Keith, and we
picked up our conversation right where it had left off on the
Next thing we knew,
Keith had introduced us to his partner of nearly 40 years,
Jerry Olson. Next thing we knew, we were all spending a
day together in Seattle. Next next thing we knew, we were
friends, and have since gone to operas in San Francisco ---after
splendid dinners prepared by Keith in the fabulous wonderland of
Americana antiques that he shares with Jerry. They have turned
to be two of the most gracious and interesting human beings
Annie and I have encountered.
So there we all were
again, four years later, me still battling sleeplessness in
order to stay awake for dragons and leitmotivs.
next week: Yoko Ono, a giant mouse, and the Pigmobile
SEATTLE RINGER PART ONE: Lugnuts
SEATTLE RINGER PART TWO: Verdant
SEATTLE RINGER PART THREE: Der
Rense des Nibelungen
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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