The American attention span, we hear, is growing shorter. Twitter has reduced our utterances to sound bites; Facebook pulls us away for our regular doses of dopamine with the satisfaction of each “like” click; and people have lost the ability to focus for long periods of time.
And yet the average American can binge-watch a whole season of “House of Cards” in a single weekend.
Whenever Wagner’s “Ring” cycle comes to town, music critics start hearing about how impossibly long it is. Admittedly, the “Ring” can be a little daunting to a newcomer: It comprises four operas, and the last and longest one, “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), clocks in at 5
But in this day and age, this argument is anachronistic. Yes, the “Ring” cycle lasts 17 hours. But that’s over several days, with days off between each of the four operas and long breaks after every act. By today’s standards, Wagnerians are wimps. You want long? Try a “Hobbit”/“Lord of the Rings” marathon — all six movies. That’s about 20 hours, and people sometimes do it nonstop.
(And by the way, where do you think the idea for “The Lord of the Rings” came from, anyway? The all-powerful golden ring that comes loaded with a curse and must be destroyed to redeem the world? You think J.R.R. Tolkein made that up? The man was a professor. He was all about drawing on primary sources. Wagner was there first.)
Length is all the rage these days. When we do take enough of a break from multitasking to focus on leisure time, we want it to be memorable — even in our reading. (See “The Goldfinch,” or “A Little Life,” two recent doorstop-sized bestsellers.) In classical music, we’re hearing more and more performances of complete cycles: for instance, all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in a single day. (The pianist Stewart Goodyear does it in 13 hours, with meal breaks and intermissions.) In theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine-hour “Nicholas Nickleby” paved the way for things such as “Angels in America” or “The Coast of Utopia.” And on screen — between “Harry Potter” and “Mad Men,” “Star Wars” and “Breaking Bad,” we gravitate toward tests of endurance and sitzfleisch, a German word denoting the ability of your derriere to tolerate remaining seated through protracted displays of entertainment.
Of course, Germans would have a word for this, since Germany is the king of long entertainment — and not just because of the “Ring.” Long before “The Wire,” there were the epochal TV miniseries “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (15
Oh, but, people say, the “Ring” is different from, say, a “Harry Potter” marathon. You can take bathroom breaks during a movie marathon. You can eat snacks. This argument implies that watching the “Ring” is tantamount to being locked into a darkened room for 17 hours straight, with no possibility of egress or sustenance. In fact, I think people do actually feel this way, not just about Wagner but about opera in general. The “Ring” is simply an outlet through which all of our primal fears about this art form have license to come to the surface.
The irony is that while some Wagner operas, such as “Tristan and Isolde,” can be a challenge for the uninitiated (translation: may bore you out of your skull), the “Ring” is pretty approachable. Indeed, with its giants and dwarves and dragons and battles and love duets, it bears marked resemblances to a lot of today’s most popular screen sagas: the political shenanigans of “House of Cards,” the epic flavor of “Game of Thrones,” the fairy-tale elements of “Lord of the Rings.” Furthermore, Wagner pretty much directly inspired today’s film music industry with his practice of creating a clear musical theme for each symbol and trope in his opera, from the giants to the sword to the redemption of the world. By the time you get to “Twilight of the Gods,” you barely even notice the length because you are dealing with so many leitmotifs that all the action is being spelled out on the musical equivalent of a Dick and Jane level (“Here is Siegfried. He is thinking of a sword. Shine, sword, shine!”).
As a cautionary tale, I turn to my memory of a long-ago “Flying Dutchman” that I attended with a student friend who had just spent the entire night studying for a final exam. “Dutchman” is early Wagner, so it actually has such things as arias and duets in lieu of 20-minute monologues; furthermore, we had cheap standing-room spots that necessitated standing on tiptoe and craning our necks to the side in order to see even a small part of the stage. Despite these aids to wakefulness, my friend finally gave up, sat on the floor and fell sound asleep. (The director Achim Freyer once informed me that sleeping during Wagner simply means listening on a different level.) I continued to watch until Senta flung herself into the sea, the Dutchman’s ghost ship was swallowed by the waves and the curtain came down to resounding applause. This woke my friend, who stretched, rubbed his eyes and pronounced himself ready for the second act — only to learn that there was no second act, and that all of the characters were dead. Take heed, and learn from my friend’s mistake. Wagner may not be as long as you think.
The Washington National Opera will present the four operas of the “Ring” cycle — “The Rhinegold,” “The Valkyrie,” “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods” — three times between April 30 and May 22. For information, visit kennedy-center.org.