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Seattle Ringer
Sixth 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.

(Jan. 15, 2010)

          “The Ring” has Valhalla, home of the gods, and Seattle has Queen Anne Hill, home of the snobs.
          Actually, the denizens we bumped into in Queen Anne Hill were friendly, down-to-earth, talkative. Perhaps the snobs were on vacation. It was August, after all. But the neighborhood sits high above the opera house and the city, a lofty enclave of humans effectively as rich as gods, replete with homes the size and sweep of Rhine castles and the Hall of the Gibichungs of the fourth “Ring” opera, “Gotterdammerung" ("Twilight of the Gods.")
          I mean, a place like this might as well be accessed by a rainbow bridge. Still, unlike Valhalla, at least the average Wolsung can go for a stroll here.
          So there we were on the day after “Siegfried,” and the day before “Gotterdammerung,” pumping our legs up ungodly inclines to the reward of a view of Mt. Rainier and much of the western hemisphere. . .
          I’m not a veteran of many “Ring” cycles, but have experienced enough to know that there is something about immersing yourself in this Wagnerian world for a week that is good medicine. For one thing, it gets you out of the current world, which I think few would find an undesirable experience. Anything that gets you away from the onslaught of artificial reality designed and deigned by corporate media and Washington D.C. has to be a good thing, right? The world is not, repeat not, made of CNN and preening senators and stupid wars and bankruptcy and weeping Oprah and I’m Lovin’ It and gay marriage and abortion and celebrity deaths/facelifts/adultery and Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher and idolatrous commercials for Toyota Tundras.
          Really. It isn’t.
          You could live inside “The Ring,” and it’s not surprising that a lot of people do, from academics to hobbyist admirers. This is one satisfying alternate universe. It’s an event, an experience, that puts you inside a tale, a play, a milieu, a myth, an atmosphere, an id, a motivation. It immerses you in a saga so rife with romance, intrigue, complexity, perversity, grandeur, banality, heroism, cunning, mythos, foible, fate, as to afford endless contemplation, exploration, cogitation. The more you listen and see, the more this epic allures and beguiles.You walk through the days, preoccupied with the operas at night. You see Seattle, but you are thinking of Wotan and Brunnhilde, and their parting, and of Siegfried’s impossible purity and naivete, and Siegmund's nobility, and Wagner’s astonishing interweaving of leitmotivs. You read the morning paper over breakfast, but you are thinking about Brunnhilde’s Immolation to come that night.
          “The Ring,” in short, becomes your opera-tive frame of reference, from how it was written over several decades(!), to how it is being staged in a few nights, to how-the-hell-do-they-sing-that-long, to yodeling “Heda! Heda! Hedo!” in the shower. You know how everything will turn out, only you don’t. Subconsciously or otherwise, you feel a reflexive hope that this time it ends a bit differently---and of course, it does. It is always different, depending on the interpretation, the singers, the staging, what you might have read about Wagner in preceding days, weeks, new thoughts or insights or ruminations, or what you ate for lunch (salmon, usually.) And this is why there are Wagner societies, and Ringheads who travel from production to production, as if to dwell in that strange world as constantly as possible.
          There are worse ways to spend your time.
          So as I strolled through Valhalla, er, Queen Anne Hill, with Annie, and our “Ring” friends, Keith and Jerry, I felt removed, a distant observer of the moment. “Ring” themes played in my head in leitmotiv scrambles that would have horrified Wagner: fragments of “Wotan’s Farewell” and since the preceding night’s “Siegfried,” the sweet and enchanting “Forest Murmurs.” As I looked down on the sweep of Seattle---strangely bucolic, for a big city---I heard the gentle play of woodwinds as they mimicked birds, and the lush swirl of strings answering. Jerry and Annie were talking real estate, and Keith was well into an expert commentary on the overall Seattle Opera "Ring" production, and I was wondering how in the hell I could just spend the rest of my life going to concerts, operas, and taking afternoon walks in nice cities. Truth be told, I’m tired of writing.
          After a while, I’d had entirely too much fresh air, sunshine, and lush green-shrouded Seattle. I craved some smoky, dank crags where Brunnhilde awaited, or one of those misty Nordic Walds, or the slow-pulsing deep waters of the Rhine. Or at least some bad restaurant food and a bionic “everything all right, guys?” waitress with too many visible teeth. Old L.A. reflex. So we stopped at the Queen Anne Café in a placid little neighborhood that was so benign, so subtle in appeal, so homey, so suffused with forgiving light, that you certainly had to have countless millions of bucks to live in it. To my great disappointment, the waitress turned out to be unpretentious, friendly, helpful. But I figured on exposing her inner L.A. with this fiendish request:
          “I know it isn't on the menu, but can I just get some scrambled eggwhites with salmon, please? And no pepper?”
           Ha. That would bring out the Alberich in her.
          “Sure, honey,” she said.
          Well, it would undoubtedly turn out to be one egg with little flecks of salmon skin or something, and would take a half-hour to arrive, capped off with forgotten toast, a mistake on the check, and a machine that would not process my credit card. With raised eyebrows, tense voices, and “Have a nice day, guys!” indigestion for good measure.
          But. . .no.
          Not only was the hillock of eggs well interspersed with fresh, wild-caught smoked salmon chunks, but there was also a side of the poor, noble fish for me, as well. Sigh. And as we stepped outside the Queen Anne Café, sated and spoiled, we found ourselves serenaded. Yes, serenaded. A group of about fifteen old guys in jaunty togs intoned a multi-part harmonized and surprisingly moving version of “Red River Valley.” The Seattle Seachordsmen, they were called, and they seem to just wander about this perplexingly happy city, making people feel good. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for “Red River Valley.”
          As we ambled back the couple of miles downhill toward the opera house (with the giant mural on the side proclaiming “The Ring” for all the city to see), talk turned again to various grand old homes and architectural nuance and decore and the general loveliness and priceyness of the district. I sort of dropped out and let the conversation have its flow, stopping occasionally to pet fat cats that seemed to approach passers-by just to cadge a free massage.
          In a couple of hours, we would take our seats for the end of the world. Or the end of Valhalla, at least, and all the gods’ plans for humanity. Hey, the way I figure it, the gods’ plans for humanity haven’t worked out so well---either in “The Ring” or the so-called real world---so I didn’t mind a little cataclysm, a little apocalypse. I was in the mood for it, really. Brunnhilde the ex-Valkyrie would soon become a sort of avenging angel and torch the whole shebang, which was really the wish of her father, Wotan, anyhow, wasn’t it? He was tired of all the games, all the double-dealing with Nibelungen and giants, all the hectoring from his wife, all the trouble with all those goddesses he’d fornicated with (whether they'd agreed to it or not), and all that conspiring to produce a hero to save the world, only to have him destroyed by backstabbing (literally and figuratively.) Poor Welt-weary Wotan wound up more beleagured than Bill Clinton. Who could blame him for essentially egging Brunnhilde on to just nuke the joint? Besides, L.A. was burning, or much of its surroundings, and the evening seemed extra right for a little incendiary resolution.
          So as twilight stole over Seattle, and the utilitarian electrical grid below turned to twinkly poetry, I thought of the impending Gotterdammerung, “The Twilight of the Gods,” and how it was that one man not only had the mind to dream up a “Ring,” but to spend much of his life writing and staging it: libretto, music, sets, effects, even designing the theater itself. And this in between writing a bushel of other operas that would have established him as one of the greatest composers, even had there been no “Ring.” What a mind. It is hardly a revelation to say that Wagner’s freakish genius probably required its accompanying titanic egomania, just to sustain itself. As the critic and composer Deems Taylor suggested in his iconographic essay, “The Monster,” what were this man’s personal foibles compared with the wondrousness of his creativity?
          Yes, in a little while, I would sit in a gorgeous opera house filled with merrily attired and merrily mooded lovers of “The Ring” who would watch in respectful silence (hardly any sneezing or coughing during these operas, folks, and no applause after “big moments”) as the fourth chapter opened and closed. And with it, the annihilation of guile, deceit, cunning, madness, greed, scheming, murder---all because Brunnhilde’s love and understanding of her father, Wotan’s, truer nature superceded her blind obedience to authority. Brava! She knew that Wotan understood that the best laid plans of mice and gods are doomed, and that all his dreams of living happily ever after in Valhalla were bought at fatal expense.
           Sounds just a little like the real world, doesn’t it?
          At the end of the Seattle Opera’s production---the nature-oriented “Green Ring”---the stage returns to designer Thomas Lynch's dramatic primeval forest after Valhalla goes up in smoke. And as the music settles poignantly, the last notes falling softly, like the last leaves of autumn, the stage returns to the initial forest scene, where there is new growth. The immutability of nature? A touch of hope Wagner did not intend? Perhaps. But given his love of the woods, rivers, mountains, one that he might have embraced.
          These were the thoughts rambling through my head as Annie and our friends made our way back that night, after the nice salmon-and-eggs, and the Seattle Seachordsmen. I thought about how good the preceding week had been, and how good it had been to exchange 21st century reality for 19th century art and music, and how great it would be to just stay there. Why can’t Seattle do the “Ring” every year? I thanked Wagner and the gods for allowing me such an experience. And I was just about to give boorish voice to these same thoughts, when present company was spared such a fate by a strange sound.
          Was it coming from. . .a house? No. A tree? Yes!
          It was a. . .meow.
          Yes, definitely, a meow. A plaintive, upper-register meow, definitely a soprano. And it continued, almost---dare I say---operatically commanding my attention, and then Annie’s, and Keith and Jerry’s. Was there a cat stuck in a tree? If so, it must have been a diva cat. Bircat Nillson. Kitty Flagstad. I peered through the gathering dusk at a large pine in front of an impossibly picturesque gabled Queen Anne home, whose windows were now transformed into yellow squares of elite prosperity and comfort.
          Meowwwwwww. Meowwwwwwwwwwww.
          We stepped forward, but could see no cat anywhere. What manner of Forest Murmur was this? And then I saw it, and if I had been a Tex Avery cartoon, I would have rubbed and blinked my eyes, which would have bugged out like binoculars. There, seated on a branch, tail twitching, it stared down at us, and meowwwwwed again. This would have all been perfectly fine, except the meower was. . .
          A squirrel.
          That’s correct, a meowing squirrel. Perhaps it was the famous Meowing Squirrel of Seattle, that I’d never heard of. I’d never heard of so many famous things in Seattle, after all, but. . .
          “Why is that goddamn squirrel meowing?” I said.
          Everyone stared. No one had an answer.
          Meowwwwwww, said the squirrel. I kid not.
          After a minute or two of speculation that involved a squirrel genius, or the reincarnation of George Carlin screwing around with us, or a new genus of squirrel (and a passing reference to the old Cream song, “Cat Squirrel”), we shook our heads and moved on.
          A meowing squirrel?
          Loge, again.

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SEATTLE RINGER PART THREE: Der Rense des Nibelungen
SEATTLE RINGER PART FOUR: Sleepless in Seattle
Seattle Opera Revives its "Green" Ring Cycle

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

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