Maybe they hum “The Ride of the Valkyries” as they board their planes and trains or put their cars into drive.
Hundreds of Ring lovers, or Ringers for short, begin their pilgrimages to Washington this week, bringing with them their love and knowledge of Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Ring Cycle” to the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Francesca Zambello’s production — dubbed by some the “American Ring” for its use of U.S. geography and myth — is the first complete cycle ever performed by the Washington National Opera (WNO). It has attracted fans from 45 states, the District and Puerto Rico, as well as at least a dozen countries, including Ireland, Japan, Australia and Argentina.
David Hughes is flying from Albuquerque for the occasion. He searches for words to describe the Cult of the Ring and his fascination with the 19th-century epic.
“Wagner people are kind of, I don’t know, obsessive? Loyal? Fanatic?” the retired attorney said. “Most people don’t really regard six hours of singing in German as a fun evening. Wagner people look around and wish we could figure out a way to make it last longer.”
Opera companies count on the production to bring in new audiences, and the WNO has not been disappointed. About 26 percent of all tickets have been purchased by individuals who live outside the Washington-Virginia-Maryland area, WNO officials said. There are six tour groups and a large contingent from San Francisco, where the production was performed to much critical acclaim in 2011.
Many Ringers have been all over the world, to London and Los Angeles, Berlin and Bangkok and to Bayreuth, Germany, host of an annual festival of Wagner operas. Audiences at Seattle Opera’s 2013 Ring came from all 50 states, officials said. Thirty-four percent of their American ticket-buyers were from outside Washington state, while 8 percent came from other countries.
Like fans of car shows and Comic-Con, Ringers enjoy the immersive nature of the event. They revel in a community of like-minded fans willing to debate the voices, the production choices, the conductor’s chops. Because full cycles are rare — the WNO’s is the only one produced in the United States this year — they happily travel to get their fix.
“It’s fun to go and have people who are simpatico,” said Ira Barrows, who will be in D.C. with his wife, Carol, later this month. “We make a lot of friends with Wagner.”
The strangers in the next seats are likely to be friends by week’s end, say the couple from Hershey, Pa., and everyone has an opinion. “ ‘Oh, you should have seen so-and-so,’ someone will say. ‘Oh, we’ve only heard the recording,’ ” Ira Barrows said, recounting the conversations. “People remember things like when so-and-so had to substitute at the last minute and wasn’t that great?”
Ringers are also attracted to the many changes and interpretations made by different creative teams. “Part of [the attraction] is the rarity,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America. “But there are so many layers of interpretation and analysis. There is always curiosity to see how [the Ring] will be interpreted.”
And there’s a credibility factor, too. The sheer size of the undertaking can resemble a marathon or mountain climb, Scorca said. “It’s a real achievement,” he said. “I don’t think people hang banners,” but “I’m sure they’re talking about the pride they feel in being in a company that has done a Ring cycle.”
New York resident Ako Imamura calls her 30-year fascination with the Ring “a wonderful addiction.” Imamura attended her first cycle at the Met in 1987; her first international trip was to Vienna in 2010. In all, she says she’s seen the Ring at least 30 times. She has three scheduled for next year. “Either you can’t get into it, or once you’re into it you can’t escape it,” Imamura said.
Hughes is surprised by the reaction he sometimes gets about his Wagnerian obsession. People have long loved to take a deep dive into something, whether that means seeing a favorite rock group multiple nights in a row (we’re looking at you, Springsteen fans) or binge-watching a TV series.
“It’s a continuing story . . . and when you see it over the course of a week or 10 days it’s more complete,” he said.
The mythic story of love, jealousy and revenge is another draw, since they are “all the things that people relate to in real life,” he said.
Pop culture hasn’t always been kind to Wagner or the Ring, promoting images of large women in horned helmets or Elmer Fudd — in such a helmet — chasing Bugs Bunny. (Remember “kill da wabbit”?) Hughes just shrugs.
“It’s a different form of music,” he said. “We’re sort of like Deadheads. We travel all over the world, but the T-shirts aren’t as good.”