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Wagner at Seattle Opera

Why are the works of Richard Wagner so important to Seattle Opera? The answer is both historical and practical. In the early 1970s, the founder of the company, Glynn Ross, who loved the operas of the German composer, realized that in the United States over the previous twenty years there had been less Wagner performed and that the mammoth work of the composer, Der Ring des Nibelungen, was receiving far fewer performances than it had since its introduction to the United States in the 1880s. At that time, only one major company, the Metropolitan Opera, had part of a Ring production, and because of complicated problems, the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, had not yet been completed. San Francisco and Chicago, both of which companies had produced the Ring in the past, seemed to have no plans now for producing the cycle, and no other opera company in America was contemplating its production. Due to the apparent dislike of Wagner by the Metropolitan’s General Manager, Rudolf Bing, who was about to retire, the company had produced far few Wagner operas than in the past, and this was at a time when one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, Birgit Nilsson, was at the height of her personal popularity and critical acclaim.

With all this happening in other opera companies, Ross looked around him in Seattle and saw a terrain that to him that suggested the Alpine reaches of Bavaria with our lakes and evergreens. He also believed that the audience in Seattle, up to then exposed only either to touring Wagner productions or to two of the earlier Romantic operas by Ross’s less-than-a-decade-old Seattle Opera, would take to the Ring. Ross had spent the summers of 1953 and 1954 working at the Bayreuth Festival. And, clever entrepreneur that he was, he perceived that since the Bayreuth staging revolution of 1950, created by the two grandsons of the composer, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, all productions of the Ring were eschewing the rocks and mountain scenes associated with Wagner’s own Ring in 1876 as well as the stage directions in his librettos. Ross reasoned that if he could create a Ring evoking the memory of the past, many from all over the country and, conceivably, the world would come.

That year was so successful that Ross convinced the Seattle Opera Board that the Ring should be repeated, and the audiences and press came from even farther away. Soon the annual summer cycles of the Ring (one in German, one in English) became a tradition and were repeated every year. In 1980, Ross presented a new production of Tristan und Isolde. In the summer of 1981, he presented a performance of that work between the two cycles of the Ring.

That year was so successful that Ross convinced the Seattle Opera Board that the Ring should be repeated, and the audiences and press came from even farther away. Soon the annual summer cycles of the Ring (one in German, one in English) became a tradition and were repeated every year. In 1980, Ross presented a new production of Tristan und Isolde. In the summer of 1981, he presented a performance of that work between the two cycles of the Ring.

The repetition established Seattle Opera worldwide as a Ring center; it did more: it inculcated into the Seattle opera public a liking for Wagner’s works and a familiarity with them that is probably still greater per capita than in any city outside Germany. Criticism of the 1975 cycle, after the first year, was fairly condescending and not generally favorable in some cases. By the early 1980s, the rocks were becoming fairly dilapidated, and the other elements of the presentation were not winning a lot of favor. Audiences, though faithful, were fewer, and there was a complaint, loudly heard in Seattle, that the money of the company was being siphoned off into the Ring.

Speight Jenkins was appointed general director of the company in 1983. A lawyer and by trade a journalist, Jenkins had previously worked as a music critic, a radio and TV commentator, and a speaker on opera. One characteristic might have increased his appeal to the Board’s search committee: he was an ardent Wagnerian who believed in the future of the Seattle Ring and was eager to create a new Ring production for Seattle. The Ring was not the limit of his desire for Wagner at Seattle Opera. Shortly after his appointment, he said that he wanted to produce all ten of the standard canon of Wagner’s works at Seattle Opera, and he proposed to begin in the first season he planned with Tannhäuser.

In the ensuing twenty-five years, Jenkins has done what he promised to do. In August of 2003, a new production of Parsifal completed the canon, enlarged as it has been by the creation of two complete Rings. Over these years, the company has enhanced its reputation for Wagner productions, productions created in a variety of styles and with many of the greatest singers of Wagner. The company is now held to the highest possible standard by the world press. Audiences come to Wagner performances from all 50 states and as many as 20 foreign countries. The non-Ring operas as well as the Ring attract interested audiences, and local support for Wagner has grown exponentially over the years.

In the early days, only the German cycle of the Ring was well attended. Now, with all performances in German, the three cycles of the 2001 and 2005 Ring were completely sold out before the opening. Other summer productions of Wagner are always well attended and the company's International Wagner Competition, inaugurated in 2006 and held again in 2008, received an enthusiastic response from its audience.

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Photo Credit

Das Rheingold, 2005 © Rozarii Lynch photo