Many people would rather throw themselves on a flaming funeral pyre than sit through four long operas. And yet, the Washington National Opera’s upcoming production of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung,” which starts Saturday, is nearly 95 percent of the way to sold out.
“In the United States, a performance of the entire Ring Cycle is a rare event, so it’s something that brings people from all around the country and even the world,” says Washington National Opera spokesman Michael Solomon.
Judith Martin, also known as the newspaper columnist Miss Manners, is among the lucky ticket holders.
“Devoting an entire week to opera, it’s a form of insanity,” she admits. “What attracts me is the music. It’s very sensuous.”
Though an acquired taste, “The Ring” is more accessible than one might realize. After all, these operas share a central plot element with the wildly popular “Lord of the Rings” franchise: a magical trinket that grants unimaginable power to anyone who wields it. (Wagner borrowed the concept from Norse mythology before J.R.R. Tolkien did.) Dragons, dwarfs and men fight over the ring, which also curses its bearer.
This production, by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello, doesn’t change the opera’s text, but uses costumes and sets to move the action to America. The gods, for instance, are reimagined as Gilded Age tycoons, the dwarfs as America’s underclass and the winged warriors known as the Valkyries are Amelia Earhart-style aviatrixes.
“Everyone will have their own interpretation of this production, but it does cover a lot of American history and American iconography, which makes it seem very approachable,” Solomon says.
If you still aren’t ready to sit through all 15 hours of Wagnerian opera, here are some ways to dip your toes in.
Get CliffsNotes from the cast
Musicians from the WNO production will go over the plots of the final two chapters of “The Ring.” They’ll also demonstrate how Wagner assigned musical phrases, known as leitmotifs, to characters and objects. Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage; Thu., 6 p.m., free.
Go to a performance of Wagner’s greatest hits
You probably won’t get any of Wagner’s arias stuck in your head, but you might be bowled over by their emotional power, especially when you hear them at close range at this performance of “The Ring” highlights and pieces from other well-known operas. Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage, May 12, 6 p.m., free.
Watch the Ring Cycle from the crew’s point of view
“Sing Faster” is an hour-long 1999 documentary on “The Ring” told from the perspective of union stagehands as they wrangle huge sets and a hydraulic dragon’s snapping jaws at the San Francisco Opera. AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; May 25, 7 p.m., $13.
Get tickets to the shortest opera of the four
At 2.5 hours with no intermission, “The Rhinegold” requires some serious sitzfleisch — German for the butt’s ability to endure prolonged sitting. That said, the first of the cycle’s operas is action-packed: A dwarf steals gold from magical river women, forges it into a powerful ring and is tricked into turning himself into a toad by a god who later loses the ring to a pair of giants. Kennedy Center; Sat., 7 p.m., May 10, 7:30 p.m., May 17, 7:30 p.m., $75-$525.
See a silent film based on the same Norse myth
German director Fritz Lang based his silent “Die Nibelungen” on the same Norse myth that inspired Wagner. An organist will play the music Lang commissioned for the film. National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; May 14, 1 p.m., free.
Watch the Bugs Bunny version
“What’s Opera, Doc?” is supposedly a seven-minute gloss of “The Ring.” The plots don’t quite match up, but the cartoon does feature a Viking-helmeted Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” fanfare. Watch it on Spike.com or iTunes.
By the numbers
With a flaming mountain, a poison-spitting dragon and flying warrior women, the Washington National Opera’s production of “The Ring” is a massive undertaking. Here are some numbers from this production:
2 German shepherds, who play hunting dogs
6 Versions of the dragon-slaying Sword of Nothung
37 Child actors dressed as dwarfs/gold miners
230 Rehearsals leading up to opening night
920 Liters of liquid nitrogen per performance, for fog
2,092 Pages of orchestral music in the score
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