Yes, I have read Dante's The Divine Comedy. All 14,233 lines. And War and Peace. Twice. Three volumes of James Boswell's Life of Johnson. The Iliad, Odyssey — also twice— and The Aeneid. And Moby-Dick, Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest which, combined, are nearly as long as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, which I also read, but only the first 1,100 pages. I quit, not quite half way through — I just got tired of carrying the thing — to my eternal regret, because I actually really liked it. Proust's childhood was a whole lot more interesting than mine.
So I am a fan, obviously, of massive works of art, and you don't need a master's degree in psychology to understand why. Two reasons come to mind. Big books immerse you in a world, and worlds are by definition big, or should be, and take a long time to assemble. A blog post just won't do it.
And yes, to be honest, massive works are a challenge, the way Mount Everest is a challenge to those physically inclined. I would never strap on oxygen tanks, grab my ice axe and head off up the mountain. To me, those people are tossing their lives away. I suppose many people view those of us who read thick books as tossing our lives away too, slowly but more certainly. Maybe so.
But like a mountain, a massive work calls to you. Not by its pure massivity, mind you. There are plenty of works that are long, multi-part 19th century romance novels and such, that have fallen into deserved obscurity.
But certain long works endure into our Twittery time, not because they're big, but because they're also good. Very good, wonderful, something that becomes clear when you gird your loins and finally sit down and read them. If they weren't, they'd be forgotten. People don't hold onto these things because they should, but because they have to. War and Peace is the template for every Barbara Cartland novel that followed. It isn't tedious -- well, much of it isn't -- but filled with love and conversation, with blood and battle, with war and, umm, peace. It's a great book. That sounds obvious, but so many years of it being a "great book" sometimes obscure that. Tolstoy knew his stuff.
Thus when the Lyric Opera held its press conference last week to annouce that it will be staging the Richard Wagner's entire The Ring of the Nibelung, I was there. If they made big foam horned helmets, the way they make big wedges of cheese, I'd be wearing mine, and I've never even seen Wagner's four-part epic cycle; when the Lyric last performed it, 10 years ago, I hadn't quite sunk into my present opera addiction. I considered going, back then, but didn't.
This time, of course I will, and it is a sign of how much I have yet to learn that, while I knew they wouldn't be announcing that it was going to be present next year — too soon, obviously —I hoped maybe it would be coming by 2015/16. Guess again. The first opera in the cycle, "Das Rheingold," will be staged in the 2016/17 season, with the other three, "Die Walkure," "Siegried" and "Gotterdammerung" performed in each subsequent season, with the whole megillah, as Wagner definitely would not say, being performed — three complete Ring Cycles — in April, 2020.
Mark your calendars.
At the press conference, General director Anthony Freud cut to the chase.
"Wagner's Ring is one of the most iconic and fascinating music and stage works ever created," he said. "It represents the high water mark of our art form. It's unique in its scale and complexity, its fascination and, indeed, its ability to hook an audience."
I appreciated the "hook an audience" part, a little whiff of P.T. Barnum in all this high culture. The Lyric, locked in the same life-or-death struggle that every arts organization faces in this age of Angry Birds, has to think of that too. You need to put the slop where the pigs can get at it. It can rationalize scooping up the groundlings with "The Sound of Music" later this season (a progression, or, if you prefer, decline, from "Porgy & Bess" to "Showboat" to "Oklahoma" to the von Trapps, which, for me, crosses an aesthetic Rubicon on the slide toward "Miss Saigon." But that's another post). Yet at the same time it can charge itself with the task of conquering this massive edifice of Teutonic bombast and excess—think 500 costumes—certain that that the I-Survived-the-Ring-Cycle crowd will break the doors down to get in. Of course we will.
Why? Just to do it? To prove they can endure? In part, yes. But nobody sits through 15 hours of opera just to do it. Traffic school is also a time consuming ordeal, and you don't see people lining up to pay for the privilege, at least not voluntarily. For me, the first and last consideration in any opera is the music, and Wagner is off in another realm of power and weirdness. Sir Andrew Davis, who will conduct, nailed it with his opening remarks.
"Wagner takes the Nordic sagas and makes them extremely modern," he said.
That is the key word: "modern." The Ring was composed in the 1850s and 1860s, a time when, in American, popular music consisted of barbershop quartets and banjos and "Oh! Susanna." Meanwhile, Wagner starts his masterpiece with this incredible sound, that Henry W. Simon calls "136 bars of rising sequence in an undulating 6/8 rhythm based entirely on the E-flat tonic chord," a low, vibrating hum that's like the whole blood-soaked, mechanized Frankenstein's monster of the 20th century about to be born, fluttering one red eye, stirring to life and straining against its restrains. To me, you'd go to hear that sound alone, the first minute or two, and the fact that you have to sit through the next two and half more hours — "Rheingold" is the shortest of the four—well, nothing's perfect.
Of course, there is more—flying maidens, giants, a gold-mad dwarf. Alberich, the gnarled villain, who gets the cold shoulder from the Rheinmaidens, so steals their gold, renouncing love for power (a path the Germans as a whole would be skipping down soon enough).
To me, a novice, there's a joy in seeing the archetypical moment of an art form. In ballet, it's "Swan Lake," with those four white swans, arms interlocked, bobbing up and down en pointe. In jazz, it's Dizzy Gillespie, in a beret and heavy glasses and his soul patch, head tilted back, eyes closed, blowing his horn. And in opera it's the lady with the braids and the spear and the horned helmet—remember, "the opera ain't over until the fat lady sings?" That fat lady is Brunnhilde, to be sung in the upcoming Ring by soprano Christine Goerke, who was at the press conference and answered the opera press's questions — mostly about scheduling, sadly. Listening to her speak in a normal New York accent, well, it was a bit of let down, like hearing David Copperfield discuss what kind of mirror he uses to make the elephant disappear.
I knew better than to ask any questions. I almost said, "You're going to wear the horned helmet, right?" But that might have been stupid and, besides, if they don't, I'd rather find out during the show — no doubt when she emerges from a cloud of dry ice, madly pedaling a unicycle and wearing a bicycle helmet, or whatever godawful odd twist they come up with — than know ahead of time, and spend the next five years brooding about it.
The thing with these longer works is, you have to adjust yourself to their pace. For the first 100 pages of Infinite Jest, I thought it was an artless Thomas Pynchon rip off. Then the magic kicked in and I thought it was genius. Ditto for Moby-Dick, where, the first 50 pages, there's a lot of sighing, on the part of the reader, and thinking, "yes, yes, whales." But then it draws you in to its unique realm. Maybe that's what sets these epic works apart. There is nothing like them. You wouldn't say, "that's the novel that's sort of like Remembrance of Things Past" because there's nothing like it. There's nothing remotely like The Divine Comedy. And there's nothing like Wagner's Ring (thank God, because it's hard enough to cope with the one). To return to the great great Henry W. Simon, my go-to guy on opera:. "The Ring of the Nibelung is the greatest work of art ever produced by a single man, or the most colossal bore, or the work of a supreme megalomaniac," he writes. "It has been called all three repeatedly—and the epithets are by no means mutually exclusive."
That sounds about right. To those who find the time demanded by the Ring unimaginable, a question: what would you do instead? I probably spent 20 hours this month playing on-line Scrabble, and never once had to contemplate the role of myth and man, power and ambition. I bet there are 15 hour of Bulls games on TV this week; nobody marvels at the discipline needed to watch that.
No point in belaboring this; we've got three years to wait. But even if you never consider going, and most readers won't, you should take pleasure that it's being done at all, since we worry about the culture of the old fading in light of all this technology. While an army of technicians no doubt are working at this very moment to, oh, perfect a GPS suppository so your refrigerator always knows where you are and what you just ate, there is a small team of people in Chicago — highly-paid, supremely-talented people who dedicate their lives to this stuff—who are pouring their energies for the next five years into putting on a 145-year-old show, sung in German over 15 hours, a performance that not one Chicagoan in a hundred would dream of seeing. That's dedication to art. Yes, I've gone on too long about the Ring but, given the subject matter, I suppose that's only fitting.