BWW Blog: Paul Hopper - Burn, Baby, Burn: Reflections on the Ring Cycle at HGO
On Saturday, April 22, Houston Grand Opera will burn to the ground.
Well, not literally. But with the conclusion of HGO's first Ring Cycle, it's a bit easier to understand why the enigmatic Richard Wagner's original wish was for all copies of the score - as well as the theater built to premiere the four-opera cycle - be destroyed by fire after the first performance. Thankfully, the notoriously controversial composer was talked off the ledge, giving HGO the opportunity to complete our first cycle with the final installment, GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG.
My first season at HGO coincided with DAS RHEINGOLD. One morning in April 2014, as I was walking into the office through the front of the house, I passed a large poster for the production with a sticker plastered over it: "This performance is SOLD OUT." The city of Houston had embraced the company's largest artistic undertaking with open arms even before we reached opening night.
Backstage, the halls of HGO were buzzing about how we were going to be able to hoist three 2,500-pound tanks of water into the air to achieve the opening scene of Alberich stealing the gold from the swimming Rhinemaidens. How many aerialists would be needed to create the walls of the gods' castle, Valhalla? Just how much fire are we allowed to have onstage at the Wortham Theater Center?
That excitement quickly moved from backstage to the audience, as the dazzling first chapter was unveiled to the farthest-traveling audience in HGO history. Over the course of the four operas we've welcomed audience members from 17 countries and 45 states.
2015 saw the entrance of the peerless dramatic soprano Christine Goerke in the title role of DIE WALKÜRE. Not only can she suck the air out of a 2,000-seat theater with a single, searing phrase, but she's also a Brünnhilde that isn't afraid to chest-bump a fellow Valkyrie sister backstage after nailing a performance. It's impossible to predict what moments history will choose to hold onto, but I, for one, am certain that I will be telling my grandkids about how I had the privilege to hear some of Ms. Goerke's first performances of Brünnhilde.
The Ring asks a lot from its performers, but it also asks a lot from audiences. Last season's SIEGFRIED stretched to nearly 4 hours and 40 minutes. Soon after opening night I met someone in his early twenties who said he had come to HGO to see his first opera. After hearing that the opera was SIEGFRIED I immediately prepared to do some damage control, wrongfully assuming that the piece had scared this guy off our art form for eternity. Instead, his eyes lit up as he recalled the visceral feeling of experiencing such an enormous work of art, the committed performances, and the magnificent stage effects. SIEGFRIED was his entry to opera and he was hooked.
Our Houston audience has been hungry for as much Ring programing as we could provide. The annual Ring 101 series, which offered a broad introduction to each chapter, drew 500-600 attendees each year, ready to elevate their Ring experience. True "Ring-heads" repeatedly gave up six hours on a Saturday to attend intensive Ring Study Days-clearly, if they could make it through that, then the five-hours-plus journey of GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG will be a walk in the park!
What the Ring allowed us to do over the course of these four years is to dive deep. Not only into the story of gods, dwarves, giants, and warrior goddesses, but into the complex philosophies presented in the work. The piece asks some profoundly spiritual questions: What does it mean when a god dies? When we're torn between duty and love, which prevails? If the world as we know it were to end tomorrow, what would come next? It's through these questions that we learn that this is not a story about mythical creatures and quarreling gods. This is a story about humanity, society, and true human emotions. The Ring is about us.
There are no answers to these questions, just as there is no one meaning or interpretation of the cycle, since experiencing the Ring is a deeply personal journey. I'm just glad that so many have decided to come along for the ride.
Correction: Because of an editing error, the original version of this article omitted several paragraphs of Mr. Hopper's essay. On April 21, 2017, we updated the article to include the entirety of the text. We regret the error.
Houston Grand Opera presents GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, the last installment of Wagner's four-opera Ring Cycle. GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG opens April 22 and continues through May 7 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information about the current production or past productions, please call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org.