Not so long ago, the artistic director of Opera Australia was milling about in a theatre foyer in Budapest, Hungary, when a man sidled up to him and said, “You’re Lyndon Terracini, aren’t you? What will it take to get a ticket to The Ring in Melbourne?” before adding, “I know it’s sold out.” The pair swapped details and, following a generous donation towards the upcoming Opera Australia production, the UK-based man secured his coveted ticket.
Stories like these are not unusual when it comes to The Ring. There’s Supreme Court judge Jane Matthews who has seen close to 100 international productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, which is made up of four operas: Rhine Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods. Matthews has bought tickets to not one but all three cycles being staged by Opera Australia at the end of November.
Just what is the power of The Ring that holds people in thrall?
First, some background. Composed and written by German composer Richard Wagner between 1848-74, Der Ring des Nibelungen is based on the Norse Nibelung legend about the beginning and end of the world, a timeless story about the fight against power and corruption. Wagner composed and later wrote it against a backdrop of civil unrest, when the burghers of Dresden rose up against the aristocracy and demanded equal rights. According to Opera Australia: “At its heart the Ring cycle is a compelling drama, arcing through a mythological landscape. Immortals and humans fall in love and fight over power and wealth. Their destinies are determined by the fate of the ring.”
A little reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, perhaps, but there has to be more. Terracini says its power comes from a number of sources. “Firstly the music is unbelievably beautiful and exciting and fascinating, the last 20 minutes are some of the most beautiful ever written,” he says. “And at 16 hours, you can hear different things every time you hear it.”
Then there’s the great myth; the narrative Wagner created that can operate on many different levels and be interpreted afresh by audiences and directors alike. In the case of this production, internationally respected Australian director Neil Armfield has gone for a pared-back, naturalistic interpretation that explores the destruction of our world by the money-hungry powers-that-be - a story of acute relevance in 2013.
Then there’s the sheer size of any Ring production, in this case a cast of 230 including 77 members of the general public who are volunteering as The Crowd, and an orchestra of 110, in addition to sets by Robert Cousins, costumes by Alice Babidge and the amazing special effects that have become part of The Ring narrative. And finally there is what Terracini refers to as “the macabre fascination in seeing whether or not we can pull it off.”
So hot are the tickets there are scalpers earning themselves a tidy profit. It’s all very rock star; even the audiences defy opera stereotypes. “A lot of them aren’t opera-goers,” says Terracini, “they’re psychiatrists, lawyers, judges. It’s a very different demographic.”
Not only is it a huge commitment of time and energy for any Ring cycle audience, it is equally risky for an opera company to stage the full production. In fact, Opera Australia hasn’t staged one for 58 years. There’s the cost – in this case the small price of $20 million, which was met in part by the extraordinary generosity of keen Ring-goer and Lonely Planet co-founder Maureen Wheeler, in addition to other generous patrons who belong to the Ring Leaders program (like our British ticket-buyer). There’s also the small matter of finding Wagnerian singers who possess the ability to pull off this most challenging of operas.
And there are the problems that inevitably plague The Ring. “I often get asked what’s the most difficult part of doing The Ring,” Terracini says. “And the answer is ‘every day’. Because every day something will go wrong.”
And go wrong it has. Firstly Opera Australia’s co-producer Houston Opera withdrew from the production, citing conceptual differences. Then there was the resignation of two key singers in the roles of Wotan and Siegfried, followed by the exit of Australian conductor Richard Mills, citing a lack of ‘unity of vision’.
“The important thing is that you’ve covered your bases,” says Terracini. Mills was replaced with impressive young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen; while Terracini is convinced his new Siegfried, German tenor Stefan Vinke, is hair-raisingly good.
All is not lost for those have haven’t secured a golden ticket, as a free Ring festival will run in conjunction with the season, including cabaret-style performances, excerpts from The Ring, films, exhibitions and talks.
Is it all worth it? The New York Times seems to think so, listing it as number one in its list of must-see cultural events of the year. For Terracini, it’s akin to staging the Olympics. “For Opera Australia to be able to play the most difficult thing there is in the repertoire is important. It’s about us articulating who we are.”
Opera Australia presents The Ring in three cycles opening on November 18 at the State Theatre, Melbourne. Sold out. ABC Classic FM will broadcast the final cycle on December 6. The Ring Festival runs from November 15 – December 13.