The Sunday Magazine·Point of View

Ring Heads of the world, unite

Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle divides even passionate opera lovers. It’s crazy long, and depending on your point of view, epic or excessive. Sublime or bombastic. Beloved gardening guru Marjorie Harris doesn’t do Wagner by halves. Her essay is called "Ring Head."
Juha Uusitalo as the Wanderer and Peter Bronder as Mime perform during a dress rehearsal of Richard Wagner's opera Siegfried at Berlin's Staatsoper im Schiller Theater September 27, 2012. It is one of the operas which form Wagner's epic Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/GettyImages)

Special to CBC Radio

I am a Ring Head. I don't talk about it much — because, well, Ring Heads can be just a tad boring.

We are the people who buy tickets to Wagner's Ring Cycle of four monumental, life-defining operas. We squander all our savings on these tickets. We tend to organize holiday time around a Cycle being presented somewhere in the world — doesn't really matter where — because we will attend no matter what else is going on in our lives.

Examine every emotion in your own life and you'll find it echoed somewhere in Wagner's music.- Marjorie Harris

My obsession started innocently enough. I was standing on the berm out in my garden plugged into Saturday Afternoon at the Opera when I heard the opening notes of Das Rheingold. I was gobsmacked. I stood stock still, paralyzed by the magnificent sounds describing the birth of the world, of time, of music. I felt my own emotional life — from deep depression to soaring moments of joy — springing to life in those notes. The joy, especially. 

I knew about the healing power of music, of course, but listening to this felt as though all the broken parts of me were being put together again. I rushed into the house to listen properly — and I have never looked back. I can hear a few notes from any Wagner opera and I am that younger woman about to set out on a whole new journey: my opera life.  

Over time, I devoted myself to learning Wagner's glorious musical leitmotifs; then I set out to to know the dozens of characters and to understand the impossible twists and turns of his wild plots. Never mind that The Ring Cycle operas tell the story of the birth of a world gone mad with greed. They are still able to banish, if only temporarily, the rancidness of our own era.

It takes almost 20 hours to fully sing Wagner's highly personal view of history which includes giants, gods, flying horses [and] twins who have sex and produce a baby.- Marjorie Harris

Never mind — either — that that they are all very long operas. It takes almost 20 hours to fully sing Wagner's highly personal view of history which includes giants, gods, flying horses, twins who have sex and produce a baby, heroes, heroines and plots that hold together (sort of) so that each opera can be seen as a separate experience.  

Examine every emotion in your own life and you'll find it echoed somewhere in Wagner's music. I promise you — it's all there. Then pack that into a dense week of music and you have the makings of a sublime experience.

When she first heard Wagner's Ring Cycle, Marjorie Harris heard her 'own emotional life — from deep depression to soaring moments of joy — springing to life in those notes.' (Submitted by Marjorie Harris)

Not too long ago, I blew thousands of dollars to be part of the Metropolitan Opera's last Cycle of the decade. I did it without hesitation. I am still suffused.

I am a late bloomer, so this craziness didn't begin for me until 2004. I joined an opera tour and, because the first opera, Das Rheingold, is a relatively short three-hour stint, we gathered afterwards for a glass of wine. And I met my first Ring Heads. Some had been to 20, 30, 45 Ring Cycles and they were not interested in talking to a virgin, as they kept calling me. The stories of their experiences were global, highly competitive and I had no idea what they were talking about.

I didn't go for drinks again. I did not join the Wagner Society. And, yes, I do know he was a creepy, xenophobic anti-Semite, because my children gave me everything then available in print when they found out I was even listening to Wagner. But I was still transported by the music.  

I'm now finished my fifth Ring Cycle.- Marjorie Harris

I didn't care. I couldn't wait to buy more versions of it. I listened to them over and over again, not sure when I would ever see another Ring but determined to do it again.

And I did. I'm now finished my fifth Ring Cycle and this recent experience gave me some new insight into my condition. The first night I asked my seatmate if he would be kind enough to send me the shots he was taking of the curtain calls. Great aides memoires. We started talking and didn't shut up for a week. It was a dramatic contrast to my first Wagner marathon when the chap next to me solemnly pronounced: "I never talk during a Cycle." I thought that was a Rule. Silence was my habit through three more cycles: no discussions; no note comparison. Zero. Zip. Nada to anyone. My secret pleasure.

My new seatmate, Hans, a music journalist from Stockholm, changed all that. He was incredibly smart and very funny —not at all the stuffy image of a Ring Head I had developed. During one penetrating long aria sung by a Valkyrie, Hans murmured: "Typical German soprano: Bellowing at the audience and then walking off when she's finished." My opinion exactly.

I was vibrating with nerves before each performance. Rheingold (three hours); Siegfried, Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung (five hours each). I shook until I was safely in my seat each night. I was over the moon with this Robert Lepage production.

 'Much more delicate in the string section," said Hans who was on his 10th Cycle. Of course I agreed with him. If I was in danger of being another pretentious Ring Head, I wanted to be a Ring Head like Hans. 

On the last evening after an hour of hand-pounding applause, we walked out into the soft night air close to 1 a.m. and continued talking about what we had just heard, marvelled at the astounding German tenors and basses who had poured out their angst in their own language. Glorious singing is what it's really all about. Not competitive listening. 

I do need to find another Ring Cycle. I've missed the one in Paris, Chicago is sold out and Bayreuth is way beyond any strings I could pull to get in there. I will keep searching: If I've saved up enough money, if I have the strength — if, if. At 82, another Ring Cycle would impel me to live on into my 90s. And even if I don't, I'll be listening right into the grave. Play something from The Ring at my funeral and I will die a happy person.

Marjorie Harris is a Canadian writer who has published numerous books on gardening. Click 'listen' above to hear her essay. 


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