Back in 1972, when the San Francisco Opera presented all four segments of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen as an integral part of the company's 50th anniversary season, Kurt Herbert Adler harbored grave doubts that he could fill the city's 3,200-seat War Memorial Opera House for such an audacious undertaking. To his simultaneous chagrin and delight, Adler learned that, even though Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Die Gotterdammerung had not been presented in San Francisco in festival format (with each opera in its proper dramatic sequence), he could easily have sold out four complete Ring cycles.
In July 1975, when Glynn Ross launched the Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival, the Seattle Opera presented two Ring cycles in festival format while making the Ring available to travel agents (through Gray Line Tours) as a commissionable "IT" package. Although, in subsequent summers, the Seattle Opera's German cycle always outsold its English cycle (which used Andrew Porter's excellent translation), Wagner fanatics from Europe, Japan, and Australia as well as from all 50 states continued to travel to Seattle with a frenzy bordering on religious fanaticism.
Two years after Lotfi Mansouri introduced Supertitles to the North American opera community, the way in which the Ring was marketed to audiences underwent a startling transformation as people were informed that opera's new technology would allow them to follow Wagner's text and really appreciate the cumulative effect of his 19-hour music-drama. Considering how effectively comedienne Anna Russell had always lampooned the Ring's convoluted plot twists, even the most devout Wagnerites were curious to see how Supertitles might enhance the Ring's communicative powers and heighten its dramatic impact on an audience. They soon found out.
In June 1985, when the San Francisco Opera presented its new Ring cycle in a strict festival format, Terry McEwen announced that, in order to appease the traditionalists in the audience, the first of SFO's three Ring cycles would be performed in German without any Supertitles. The following two cycles would be performed with those newfangled English-language translations projected above the stage. What happened? The demand for tickets to the Supertitled performances was so overwhelming that the General Director of the San Francisco Opera rented Davies Symphony Hall for a live, closed-circuit telecast of the Ring. McEwen later confessed that he could have kicked himself for not planning four, perhaps even five complete Ring cycles with Supertitles!
In 1986 and '87, the further use of Supertitles (containing even more text than those used by the San Francisco Opera) gave the Seattle Opera's new Ring a stronger sense of dramatic urgency and greater theatrical impact than any other Ring staged in North America during the past three decades. For these two West Coast companies to have insisted on using Supertitles in their Ring productions reflects sound artistic and business philosophies which acknowledge the simple fact that audiences who are willing to pay good money for the privilege of sitting through four nights of twisted mythology have a right to become involved in the dramatic action onstage.
Ring fever is about to strike America again, with 1989's outbreak of this peculiar disease localized along the Northeast Corridor. From April 1 through May 6, the Metropolitan Opera will present three complete Ring cycles (without Supertitles) in Lincoln Center. From June 2 to 18, the Kennedy Center for the Arts will present the Deutsche Oper Berlin in two complete Ring cycles using Gotz Friedrich's "time tunnel" interpretation. Wisely enough, the visiting German company will use Supertitles.
By now, you'd think that some people would have gotten the message. However, the Metropolitan (which claims to be the world's leading opera company) remains determined to keep its audience critically and, in some ways, criminally in the dark. Stubbornly clinging to James Levine's "over my dead body" policy, the company's official stance with regard to Supertitles reminds us of how Lily Tomlin's feisty Ernestine once described her employer's lack of compassion: "We're the telephone company. We don't have to care!"
The Met will undoubtedly sell out all three of its Ring cycles but, as far as the editors of Opera Monthly are concerned, Maestro Levine's artistic snobbery constitutes intellectual elitism. So, if you've been wondering whether you can afford to miss out on the Met's Ring, let us suggest that there's nothing to stop you from enjoying the Met's Ring live over the radio for free, or from listening to James Levine's interpretation on high quality compact discs as you prepare for the time when you can experience the Ring with Supertitles. Instead of being taken in by the glamor of experiencing the Ring at the Met (while suffering a severe theatrical handicap), why not approach Wagner's creation as the intensely dramatic work it was meant to be? Opera fans who attend Ring productions mounted by companies using Supertitles are destined to have an infinitely more satisfying theatrical experience. Find the Rhine's most precious gold at the Kennedy Center in the Deutsche Oper's production of Ring in June. Travel to the San Francisco Opera for its Ring in 1990. Go to Seattle for its Ring in 1991.
* * * * * * * * * *
This article originally appeared in the April 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.