The Ring in San Francisco – Deep Immersion in Wagner’s World Thanks to Alex Ross, Tony Kushner & Clifford ‘Kip’ Cranna

By Lois Silverstein

San Francisco Opera is in the midst of its month-long festival dedicated to Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” In the coming weeks, Lois Silverstein will explore her experience not only revisiting the 2018 opera production, but several of the events and panels presented by the company. 

Clifford “Kip” Cranna kicked off the events surrounding the San Francisco Opera’s Virtual “Ring,” during the month of March with his “I Saw the World End: Exploring Wagner’s Ring.”

Cranna, is Dramaturge Emeritus of San Francisco Opera. He took his title from a Wagner draft of the RING and the title of Deryck Cooke’s book. In the talk, he outlined the scope of San Francisco’s project: the four operas streaming on four consecutive weekends, and a group of ancillary events spread across the weeks before and in between. It is ambitious and inspiring.

The SFO Virtual Ring is of the 2011 and 2018 production by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Sir Donald Runnicles. Cranna referred to it as an American Ring, in its set, and its particularization of the Wagnerian quest theme in the destruction of nature through technology and heedless greed, in addition to its focus on the destruction of the world through power and corruption. Cranna also mentioned the facet of them in the plight of the powerless and the question of what hope there is or isn’t for redemption and love. In this time of the pandemic, the production seems timely. The use of technological wizardry amplifies this timeliness.

Cranna pointed briefly to the main motifs in the music of all four operas and suggested their brilliance of Wagner’s skill in their interrelationship to express the themes. Further, he emphasized the popularization of several Wagner themes in our own era, such as “Apocalypse Now” and suggested that today’s plethora of epics and heroes in the arts relates well to the Wagnerian zeitgeist. He also set the stage for the forthcoming talks, interviews, and discussions San Francisco Opera will hold over the next several weeks to amplify the streaming of the tetralogy.

A Conversation between Tony Kushner and Alex Ross

To listen to artists who admire and appreciate Wagner is a pleasure. Tony Kushner and Alex Ross provided a welcome dive into these waters in this regard. Moderated by Cranna, Dramaturge Emeritus of San Francisco Opera, their conversation on March 9, 2021 was more than excellent.

Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, whose remarkable book, “Wagnerism,” was a kick-off point for opening questions, clearly illustrated how being steeped in the depths of “fin de siècle” life and art both fit and finessed the times themselves as well as its creators. As Kushner so aptly said, what Ross does in his book is create an atmosphere, a world in itself, through and from which he illustrates what “Wagnerism” is. Living in the book, one not only learns more than one might expect – at every turn, there are new stories and views of artists and art that evolved before, during, and after that period of time – but one experiences moods and modes of the times. Further, “Wagnerism” suggests how a musician, and man of the theater, could have such a profound influence on non-musicians and a whole era.

They each brought their lively minds and fascination with Wagner’s creative experience and the theme of how the renunciation of love, as Wagner depicts it, could lead to ruling the world. Some of the richest aspects of the conversation were the ways their own particular artistic and cultural experiences fostered how they see the “Ring.” Kushner detailed how some of his earliest exposure to it through his father, while Ross told something about how he veered into it from his background in more traditional classical music. Both extolled Wagner’s exploration of the depths of human feeling in a far more radical way than opera before he began his work and the birth of his “music dramas.” Kushner emphasized, in fact, how great a playwright Wagner was and how remarkable and “almost inconceivable” that he could create such a complex epic of the human heart, this from one of the most talented playwrights of our generation.

The sheer enthusiastic dialogue of these two artists about some of their own discoveries, past and on-going, easily ignited an audience to look closely as well as surrender to the texture of the narrative and the depths of its magnificent music. Their own personal experience even in this conversation increased our own wish to explore the cycle as the operas stream and increased gratitude to San Francisco for creating the opportunity for us to do so.


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