When the San Francisco Opera announced its $4.1 million June 2-19 production of Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs" last fall, company sales and communication manager Craig Scherfenberg hoped for "full houses" and recognition from the international press for a "serious effort."
What the San Francisco Opera got was an unprecedented flood of ticket orders from around the world and the serious respect of another important San Francisco music institution, the Grateful Dead, whose members canceled two area concerts during the month of their 20-year anniversary celebration so that four of them could attend.
Viewed as a financial gamble, the rarely performed 16-hour, four-opera epic was conservatively scheduled into three cycles (3,110 seats per performance). The opera spent $300,000 to market its Summer Wagner Festival in a sophisticated radio and print campaign that reached 14 U.S. cities (including Washington) and Europe.
By January, San Francisco had a sellout, but orders still arrived. By the end of March the opera had received enough ticket orders to fill two additional cycles.
San Francisco ticket broker Ralph L. Cicurel began receiving requests in December from England, Germany and all parts of the United States for the $51 prime orchestra seats he routinely prices at $90. Classified ads in area newspapers solicited tickets at prices of up to $800 per pair. Nobody would admit to paying or selling for that amount, however.
"I'm still getting about 30 to 40 calls each day," said Scherfenberg, as the third and final four-opera cycle began last week, "and I know we were criticized for not doubling prices, but we wanted to remain accessible to our subscribers." Scherfenberg estimates that despite the mail deluge and the bulk sales to package tour groups, 90 percent of the tickets went to city residents, 5 percent to others in the United States and 5 percent abroad.
To satisfy the demand, the company decided to telecast the first cycle live to adjacent Davies Symphony Hall via closed-circuit relay, on a 22-by-30-foot screen -- a technique that received mixed reviews. Hundreds of disappointed ticket seekers arrived at the War Memorial Opera House as early as 8 a.m. each performance day for the building's 300 standing positions.
According to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, this city has always been a serious opera town. "Opera is the only major league activity San Francisco excels at, with the exception of eating and drinking, though maybe not in that order," he said. Caen even took the opportunity to sideswipe another major-league operation, the 49ers, after their recent Super Bowl victory, by publicly wondering how such a team could exist at all in a city where the most popular sport is opera. (Caen, by the way, is attending the current cycle.)
Surely, nothing more dramatically typified the civic operatic spirit than Grateful Dead lead bassist Phil Lesh, a serious Wagnerian who canceled two of the group's Sacramento, Calif., concerts so he and three other band members, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart and Bob Weir, could attend the first "Ring" cycle. Lesh's San Francisco Examiner photograph backstage with bass baritone Morris Stewart (The Wanderer, Siegfried) became the sort of anecdote cab drivers pass along with racing and restaurant tips.
The photo didn't surprise Verna Parino, membership chairman and treasurer of the Northern California Wagner society. She first met Lesh last August at Bayreuth, West Germany, the site of Wagner's original "Ring" and the ongoing annual festival, and invited him to join the society. He did, but isn't yet active. Parino isn't familiar with Lesh's music, but "we discovered we had Wagner in common," she said and "talked about that quite a bit."
What Lesh does not talk about is the influence of Wagner on his music. Questions about a possible rock "Ring" were tersely answered with the statement that Lesh follows classical music closely and was heard to strum the "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walku re at a rehearsal of the group last week. Period.
The other great drama of the "Ring" cycle begins two hours prior to the curtain when each performance's 300 standing-room positions go on sale for $5. "This is the best $5 bargain in town," said longtime standee Deidra Warner, a Pacific Bell employe who took a week off for the "Ring." Warner, who met her husband several years ago in the standee line, is writing "The Standee's Supplement on Surviving the Second California Gold Rush," so that "we can civilize this process." Standing at San Francisco operas, according to Warner, is "passion, love, everything opera is all about."
Seeing the "Ring" (or any other opera) in San Francisco as a standee is also about patience, toughness, and raw athletic prowess. According to Warner, there is a code. People who arrive first save each others' places while colleagues run errands or go home to change, and nobody cuts in line. Tickets go on sale two hours before curtain. Standees position themselves immediately behind the four tall, glass lobby doors that will open exactly one hour later. These positions are important, because they allow the standees to get through the door as soon as they are open and move as quickly as possible to the prime orchestra or balcony places.
Since there are those who don't know the rules, 50-year San Francisco Opera veteran usher Frank (Tex) McKay repeats instructions before he opens those doors. "Regular seat holders should immediately step aside for the standees," he begins, since being in the way "could be hazardous to your health. Pushing in line will only result in your being unhappy when I close the doors in your face."
And he has done just that.