We started with a brunch at 11:30 AM so that we could get to know each other a little before the formal proceedings began. The meal was catered by Michael Egan, a local culinary expert, into whose hands any person can confidently consign his needs at whatever time he is hungry in or near Chicago.
The first event once we all sat down was a brilliant Inaugural Lecture by Larry Fox, the latest contributor to What Do I Listen For Next?, who gave us a new analysis of the well known fact that Wagner wrote the Ring backwards starting with “Siegfried’s Death.” Larry moved backwards with Wagner, from Götterdämmerung to Siegfried through to Die Walküre and to Das Rheingold, showing what Wagner felt he needed at each stage in the composition, how he filled that need, and how that filling required him to start back still further. His lecture was magisterial and recondite, impossible to interrupt with questions but worth remembering word for word even in its most controversial parts. His comments near the end about Schopenhauer revealed the most genuine understanding of that philosopher’s thought that I have heard from any Wagner commentator, and he gave us a little homework too, by bringing up Giambattista Vico and the paradox of man as the one being who thinks of himself as a maker but lives in a world in which everything around him, including himself, is made.
Our next presentation was the first of Phil Raines’s three. After Larry went through the whole Ring backwards, Phil started at the beginning and moved forward, showing how the Rheingold is the “Embryo of the Ring.” And where Larry spoke from the stately height of the podium, Phil gave us audiovisuals with commentary and let the audiovisuals do a lot of the talking for him. He showed where in Rheingold the major strands of meaning — yes, the leitmotifs — first emerge, and then he followed the paths of their reappearance weave through the whole cycle, noting all along how their meanings shift and deepen.
This was a presentation that could serve as a guide and vade mecum for those less familiar with the Ring and about to hear it for the first time, and as a refresher for those who were more familiar. For the fanatics who know the thing inside and out, his presentation served as a reminder once again that they don’t after all — why else do we keep coming back?
Phil’s second presentation for the Sunday seminar, after the wine and cheese supplied by Steward Egan, reviewed the complications in the Ring’s plot, which Phil styled in his title as the nexus of “Actions and Consequences.” He again presented the essential moments audiovisually, and strung them all together with the congenial combination of experience and bewilderment that is his hallmark.
Beginners need all the help they can get with the plot, while even the most seasoned experts still disagree what happens and why. A good deal of the hour was spent on a stimulating extempore discussion of why Wagner ever wrote Act 3, Scene 2, of Siegfried, when Wotan tries to obstruct Siegfried’s way up the mountain to waken his daughter and become her husband, and Siegfried peremptorily breaks Wotan’s spear. The fathers in the crowd had an easier time with this one than the experts, I think.
The group adjourned for dinner together at the Erie Cafe, where Michael Egan is known and the portions are large.
After Die Walküre our group had a very wonderful opportunity to go backstage and meet the cast, including James Morris and Jane Eaglen. Marilyn Horne happened to be there, to Phil’s delight. Eric Halvarson sang Hunding that night, and was to sing a most stunning Hagen on Saturday. I did not know what to say to any of these people. Larry Fox told me just to say, “Thank you.” As I tried to get up the courage to say even this much to James Morris, somebody came up to me and asked me to take a picture of her with him, and so what I ended up saying to Morris was, “Do you mind?” Wotan smiled and said, “Oh, not at all!” and asked somebody to take hold of his dog on the leash. From that moment I appeared to be the official photographer and several others jammed their cameras into my hand and cheeked up to Mr. Morris. I was mistaken to be a somebody’s somebody!
What brought us backstage was an invitation from Jennifer Wilson, who had sung Helmwige that night and would sing Gutrune in the Götterdämmerung. The year before Jennifer had been selected as an Emerging Singer for a second appearance by the Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear Emerging Singers Program in Washington, D.C., which is closely affiliated with the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C., where Phil Raines is a Director. In addition to singing Gutrune and Helmwige, Jennifer served as understudy for Jane Eaglen’s Brünnhilde at these performances of the Ring. Wonderfully, she had had the opportunity to step in for Eaglen in the second of the two Götterdämmerungs that the Lyric had presented before the Ring Cycles proper. Her Götterdämmerungs Brünnhilde was received enthusiastically by the audience, according to her agent, and by reviewers at Opera-L. Jennifer will be singing “about twenty” Turdanots, as she put it, at Santa Fe this summer. Her performance was received enthusiastically by the audience, according to her agent, and by reviewers at Opera-L. Jennifer will be singing “about twenty” Turdanots, as she put it, at Santa Fe this summer. Listen to Jennifer Wilson singing “Ewig war ich” from Siegfried (MP3, 1.28 MB)
We then had the honor and delight to take Jennifer out for dinner. Trusty Michael Egan sent us to Gibson’s — one of the only places still open at this late hour — where we sat in a remote corner and visited until the place closed at two.
By the end of Die Walküre we are well into the experience and we have a day off to puzzle at leisure or to think about something else. Sometimes as I leave the hall Tuesday night after Die Walküre the prospect of returning on Thursday for the Siegfried seems unattractive, like a descent I’d rather not have to do! On Wednesday you can always tell yourself that you have most of Thursday to prepare, and that you can take the day off and think about something else. The weather in Chicago on that Wednesday cooperated very nicely, and the Cubs were in town for their first home stand of the 2005 season.
The part of me that wanted a break was entirely satisfied by sunset, Wednesday night. When I woke up Thursday morning the rest of me had already begun to collect itself and with mounting energy to prepare for the evening’s return to the story, and to the dark and shadowy glow with which the Siegfried begins. It was at just this moment that Raines’s third and final seminar was scheduled to take place — at 10:00 AM, since Phil refuses to schedule anything within six hours of “a Wagner performance,” as he puts it.
The resolution to return to the story can feel to be a resolution to return “for better or worse.” You are on board for the rest of the ride; you are implicated in the outcome. In fact you have become a full participant in the world of this great work of art.
What would be more appropriate at this moment than to have a look at the history of this work’s production, again in carefully edited audiovisual illustration and accompanying commentary; a look at the many ways that the operas of the Ring have been staged and that crucial moments have been directed, over the last century!
Production technique is Raines’s specialty, a specialty first conceived when at age nine his father gave him a magnetic theatre and he staged Puccini’s Tosca, moving the characters around the stage from beneath by magnets. In his teens he studied with David Heminway in Munich. During Phil’s career as a children’s speech pathologist in Maryland he continued his directorial work with a series of productions including a children’s opera theater workshop in collaboration with composer Richard Faith titled “You Too Can Love Opera.”
Besides the presentation itself the timing of the meeting was very opportune for those of us who were bewildered or confused, as people often are at this stage in the Ring. It was consoling and helpful to be able to ask Phil questions about what had happened at this moment or that. In particular many of us were relieved to discover that we were not alone in feeling that there was something missing in the conducting of the piece.
There are two things to do after the Götterdämmerung: one is to go home, which is what Larry Fox did after three consecutive Rings, and the other is to go out. It helps to have a place to go out to and people to go out with, especially if you are from out of town. Several of us dined together at the Italian Village, a restaurant open ’til two that is walking distance from the Lyric, where the Maitre D’ gave us a room of our own.