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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)

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A special essay on the occasion of the broadcast of the complete Ring Cycle.

Has CBC Radio gone crazy over Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle?

All the fuss about Wagner these past couple of weeks made the three-day celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday in January seem like a mere blip on the programming radar. I have never seen the CBC take such a pro-active stance on any programming. Ok, I grant that it’s a historic occasion – the first Canadian production of the entire Ring. Add to that the fact that it’s the premiere production in the Four Seasons Centre, the Canadian Opera Company’s long-awaited new home. That makes the occasion noteworthy. But so much so that we need to be inundated day and night with hype? You’d think the CBC was trying to convince us that this was, culturally speaking, the Summer and Winter Olympics combined.

Here’s a sampling of some of the promotional stuff I heard. Constant advertisements featuring "characters" from the operas in telephone answering machine mode. Numerous quizzes and contests relating to the Ring. A painfully unfunny spoof of the Ring on "Music and Company" for several mornings running. We heard Anna Russell’s send-up of the great work, in whole or in part, at least three times on various programs. On "Here’s To You" we had "audio postcards" from cast members of the productions, plus a documentary about a kids’ summer camp featuring Ring themes. Eric Friesen not only moved his "Studio Sparks" to the lobby of the new opera house, he interviewed people connected with the show every day. Need I say what Catherine Belyea was doing on "The Singer and the Song"? Or Rick Phillips on "Sound Advice"? At the end of last Sunday’s "On Stage" – a lovely program about the Mozart family – we got more interviews with members of the COC orchestra. Even Eleanor Wachtel had to devote "Writers & Company" (Radio One) to Wagner. Not that she doesn’t sometimes deal with Dead White Males on her program, but when she does, it’s usually because there’s some new book about them. Not so in this case. It seemed that the one program that might escape the Wagner plague was Andy Sheppard’s jazz program, "After Hours". But so help me if he didn’t one night announce that he was going to be playing Stan Kenton’s Wagner suite!

The one item in all of this build-up that I truly enjoyed was a Thursday night panel discussion about Helden tenors. The members of the panel were Canadian Wagner singers Ben Heppner, Paul Frey and Alan Woodrow. Their comments were fascinating and we got to hear some celebrated Helden tenors of the past.

I know the Ring is considered one of the great works of Western culture. People make much of the fact that it took Wagner something like 20 years to whip the thing into shape. Not only did he write all the music, he also adapted myths from several sources and he wrote all the libretti, word for word. What’s the big deal about him writing all the music? He was a composer, wasn’t he? He had to do something with his time during those twenty years or so. I’ve been trying to whip myself into shape for 20 years and nobody is claiming that my efforts are super-human. As for his writing all the words, don’t forget that he was German, after all. It might have been quite a chore for me to spew out all that German but not for him.

And those adapted myths. Well, I must admit I’m not a fairy tale kind of guy. When I was in school, the official line was that everything you needed to know about fallen the human condition was in the Bible. No sense wasting your time on any other attempts to explain the mess we’re in. (Or else I was away the day they talked about those versions.) But I’m trying to be more open-minded now. I’m listening to the opinions of all those experts out there who keep saying that the Ring has enormous implications in the meaning-of-life department. I’m trying to see if the myths might have some resonance for me. So I actually phoned the COC one day to see about tickets to one of the shows. The only tickets left were in the $400-$300 range. To watch a bunch of elves and giants cavorting? No thank you.

You may have guessed by now that I’m not what could be called a keen Wagner fan. I enjoy some of the standard excerpts that you hear: the Song to the Evening Star from Tannhuser, the prize song from Die Meistersinger – that sort of thing. I’ve never been seriously tempted to attend one of the operas. In fact, when I hear extended sections from them, I’m reminded of one of my favourite comments about opera from an outsider's point of view. In the movie Joe Hill, the future radical is a newly arrived immigrant in Manhattan and a Hispanic kid is showing him around. As they pass the Metropolitan Opera, the kid says, "Dey scream in dere. Dey get paid for eet." That’s the way Wagner sounds to me much of the time, even though I love operas by many other composers.

However, being a devoted listener to CBC radio, I thought it incumbent on me to give the broadcasts a try. If the authorities at the CBC feel that something is good for you, then you should try to act as though you believe it is. So I tuned in Tuesday night around 6:30 for the opening of Das Reingold. Howard Dyck was describing the mounting excitement in the hall. People were coming in wearing tuxedoes and cocktail dresses. They were looking around the hall in wonderment, taking it all in. You could hear the orchestra tuning up in the background.

Truth to tell, I began to feel a little envious. I’d been watching the building take shape through the various stages of construction at the corner of Queen St. and University Ave. I’d been drooling over what it would be like when finished. So now I was wishing I was there to share in the excitement of the occasion. It would be nice to be one of the beautiful people, one of Toronto’s culturati. Why couldn’t I be there sporting my tuxedo or my cocktail dress? Well, maybe because I don’t own either piece of apparel. And if I had been able to scrape together the $$ for a ticket, you can be sure my clothes would be strictly Goodwill Industries from here to my coffin.

Since it had to be radio participation for me, I settled down with the conscientious intent to listen to as much of the broadcast as possible. I’m at the stage now where I need to know the words when listening to opera. The downloading of the Ring libretti from the CBC website seemed too complicated But we happened to have, tucked discreetly into the dining room bookshelves, tiny copies of the libretti of the first three Ring operas in the original German (presumably from my wife Jane’s year in Germany as an unattached backpacker). There was no German dictionary handy but I still had a few words from my YMCA night school course in German 35 years ago. I would attack the libretto the way you do when you’re in solitary confinement and the only book they give you is in a foreign language: if you stare at it long enough the meanings will start to fall into place. (Think of that guy de-coding the Rosetta stone.)

Sure enough, the occasional sentence or phrase jumped right out at me, clearly intelligible. After about half an hour, though, a library book that would soon need to be returned started calling to me rather more loudly than the singers. Still, I did feel a slight pang when our cultured neighbours arrived home in the dark about 10:30, stepping out of their gleaming car in cocktail dress and tuxedo.

Next night, I wasn’t able to listen to Die Walkre because of another commitment. As we were going to bed around eleven, we turned on the radio just to check the setting for the alarm. The entire cast and orchestra were still going strong. I must say we were glad to succumb to sleep feeling grateful that we weren’t trying to hold ourselves upright down at the Four Seasons Centre.

On Friday afternoon I was busy with other things. Jane happened to very late getting home from school, so I turned on the radio just before 6 pm, thinking to hear the news. Siegfried was in full swing. Turning to the tiny libretto, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the eponymous hero was in the throes of his encounter with the Wanderer. Then came the final scene with Brnhilde’s awakening. It thrilled me to find that I understood the words of practically all of the first few pages of her exchange with The Man. By the time Jane came home, I was deeply immersed in the lovers’ rapture. When Jane said she wouldn’t mind waiting to go out to dinner until after the opera, I mumbled my distracted thanks. Clearly, I was hooked.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the libretto for Gtterdmmerung but maybe it’s just as well because I have work to do on Sunday afternoon. The opera can be playing in the background. Perhaps something will sink in.

But I feel that to appreciate Wagner, it’s more important to follow the words than in any other kind of opera. Not just the meanings in translation. The actual words, the sounds of them, the rhythms. I suspect that’s because Wagner is not loaded with the kind of stand-alone melodies that make other operas easy listening even when you don’t know the words. It seems to me – as possibly, a pre-Wagnerite – that the singing in his operas is much closer to a kind of speaking than to pure song and that is why you really can’t appreciate the full effect of the music without paying attention to the words. At least, that’s the way it seems to work for me.

Has the CBC’s Wagner onslaught made a convert of me? Possibly. Would the governors of the crown corporation, the politicians who foot the bill -- and ultimately the taxpayers -- feel this one conquest was worth the massive effort? Maybe. The bible talks about the good shepherd who goes to great lengths to bring the one lost sheep into the fold. Funny, even though I call myself a devoted listener, I never thought of the CBC in such pious terms.

You can respond to patrick@dilettantesdiary.com