It might seem hyperbole to claim, as many Wagnerites do, that the Ring Cycle is "The Greatest Work of Art Ever." But the grandeur and power of this monumental work have permeated our culture from Star Wars to Bugs Bunny to J.R.R. Tolkien.
"The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania" asks what many of the uninitiated must wonder: "What's the big deal?" This journey, intended for both devoted fans and newcomers alike, visits with a diverse cast of characters who weigh in with their answers to this complex question, including
• Howard Shore, Oscar-winning composer of The Lord of the Rings, who discusses Wagner's critical development of leitmotifs, which radically transformed how music could become an integral part of telling a story
• Tony Kushner, the playwright who reflects upon his memories of listening to The Ring with his father, one of the rare bonding experiences the two shared
• Joe Clark, technical director for the Metropolitan Opera, who thinks that the ultimate litmus test for any opera house is whether it can stage The Ring.
• Alex Ross, music critic, The New Yorker, who observes: "Not even Peter Jackson would be able to keep pace with Wagner's hurtling, hovering, ever-evolving musical images, although someday an opera house is certain to ask him to try."
"The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania" was produced by Jad Abumrad and Aaron Cohen for WNYC Radio. Elena Park was Executive Producer.
"Der Ring Des Nibelungen" The Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon)
"Der Ring des Nibelungen" (Ring Cycle), The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti (Decca/London)
"Wagner without Words" Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel (Telarc)
"Ride of the Valkyries," played by Gary Lucas on electric guitar from his album "Street of the Lost Brothers" (Tzadik)
We asked two hosts for their favorite Ring recordings and came up very different results:
John Schaefer, WNYC Host
For my money, Wilhelm Furtwangler is the ultimate Wagner conductor. I know lots of people like his La Scala Ring Cycle from the early 50s, and the other Italian Ring from that decade with the RAI (Italy's national radio network) has a great cast. But the best has to be the 1930s recording with the great Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in the cast. Done at London's Covent Garden, it is a performance so good that it almost SOUNDS good despite a poor mono recording. With all due respect to the great singers who've done the Ring, the heart of these operas is the orchestral music. Furtwangler's reading creates an incredible tension will the slowly-spun lines collapse under their own weight? Of course they don't. The result is a truly epic performance a musical saga to match the Nordic tale being told, and almost a match for Wagner's own epic ambitions and ego.
David Garland, WQXR/WNYC Host
"What's Opera, Doc?" (Wagner, adapted by Milt Franklyn)
Performed by Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd and Siegfried) and Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny and Brunhilde), with The Warner Bros. Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Daugherty. From the CD "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," (Merrie Melodies/Warner Bros., 9 26494-2) released in 1991.
Probably most baby-boomers first heard Wagner's music while watching Chuck Jones' 1957 cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" Arthur Q. Bryan and Mel Blanc, the voices of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, prove remarkably effective at singing Wagnerian melodies in character. Before "Apocalypse Now" put Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries into a still newer context, for most Americans that melody would evoke the memory of Elmer Fudd singing "Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!"
Originally aired on WNYC Radio in March 2004