Art Singing

The Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera- Part 1

SINGING- The Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera


Before you roll your eyes or yawn, I want to ask you a few questions. Does a good drama make you cling to the edge of your seat in anticipation of what’s going to happen next? How about love stories- do you find yourself getting caught up emotionally in the outcome of what happens when two characters lock eyes for the first time? Not your thing? How about a good sword fight- there aren’t enough sword fights with the actual clash and clang of metal ricocheting on metal…

The opera is so much more than meets perception.

Let’s take another pass at this, shall we? Were you in line for the midnight showing of all three “Lord of the Rings” movies? Can you quote whole sections of the movie? Are you the rightful owner of the sword Arwen wielded holding back the Nazgul? Did you get married in a church that rather resembles the great Hall of Rohan?

Answers for this last section: a.) Yes- all three, but not in costume. There are limits. b.) It sounds like a noble endeavor. c.) A certain man we will call Beck does possess such a prize. d.) Yes, yes, a hundred times yes, though Theoden did not officiate.

the ring limited edition poster san francisco opera

For all you Lord of the Rings fans out there, let me present to you the original story of The One Ring. It comes from an opera by a German composer, Richard Wagner, entitled “The Ring of the Nibelung.” Several things of note here: Wagner is known for his use of leitmotif, which Merriam-Webster online defines as “an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama.” The Ring Cycle” as it is known consists of four operas, which rarely get played back to back by a single opera house.

If you act quickly and happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area  you can see the entire Ring Cycle at the San Francisco opera for a limited time.

san francisco opera

Before I get ahead of myself,  I got initiated into opera at a young age.

My dad lay on the couch and I toddled into the room as he watched Placido Domingo in the role of Alfredo singing of drinking and living the good life boisterously as he locked eyes on new lady love Violetta. “La Traviata” holds a special place for me still today as my first opera with me lying beside my father crying at the end and wondering if the music had inspired the tears or the plot line. You can imagine how incredibly memorable it was then when friends, Katy, Alan, Raina and JoVincent sang several arias at our wedding reception. I smiled looking on and thinking how much my dad would have loved it.

Do you have a bucket list? During one conversation my Dad told me in that very Dad tone he took on when he stepped into the role of sensei-Dad, “I would like to go see the entire Ring Cycle before I die. Annelies, it’s loong, but if you can do it once, it’s worth it.” He never got to fulfill that desire and surprisingly the San Francisco opera opened its doors to lucky little me.

san francisco opera

I must admit that the San Francisco opera house is stunning inside. I snapped a few pics to bestow some of that glittery gloriousness to you. Dear Alastaire, one of my favorite tenors and a good friend, bestowed the honor and gift to me of attending the final dress rehearsals to “The Ring of the Nibelung.” For two weeks, my life revolved around the War Memorial house and I must say it was an exquisite escape from the everyday… I even took a half day vacation from work to see the rather lengthy “Göetterdämmerung”.

san francisco opera

That’s about 17 hours of opera. My dad wasn’t kidding, but here’s the thing- the storyline is fascinating, if not weird in certain parts that an hour breezes by without batting an eye.

Can I applaud publicly the San Francisco opera for running all four at the same time? *Applause* As someone transfixed when in a good tale, you really do miss something to see them years apart. Instead, if you’re able to see the four around the same time period, then it allows for a greater immersion into the story. (This reminds me of my renewed desire to watch all LOTR movies in a row sometime soon. If that appeals to you too, leave a comment. Maybe we’ll make it a party.) I’m going to try to succinctly summarize each of the story lines of the four operas today and tomorrow. So let’s get started…

I. Das Rheingold
II. Die Walküre
III. Siegfried
IV. Göetterdämmerung


Das Rheingold cover art

I. Das Rheingold

The Rhine maiden sing about the gold glittering at the bottom of the river. Suddenly a man appears entranced with them. As they are teasing him, one of them spills the secret of the gold in their river: if it is gathered and forged into a ring, the owner of that ring will rule the world. The thing is, they sing, you have to renounce love. This man turns out to be Alberich, lord of the underworld. He steals the gold and takes off much to the devastation of the Rhine maiden you hear bemoaning their lost gold later.

Wotan, the all-father (like Zeus) and his wife Fricka await word on the construction of Valhalla. Giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who are brothers, come bringing good news of the completion of Valhalla. With the good news comes the bad as they require the payment agreed upon by Wotan and the giants: Fricka’s sister Freia. Wotan never intended to pay by giving Freia to the giants and he begins looking for an alternative, waiting for the arrival of Loge, lord of fire. Loge tells them of Alberich’s deed and how he has forged the ring of power. Wotan and Loge contrive a plan to steal the ring on behalf of the giants and in exchange for Freia.

All goes as planned after Wotan and Loge visit the underworld. They watch Alberich boast of the magical properties of the Tarnhelm, crafted of river gold by Alberich’s brother Mime. When someone puts the Tarnhelm on, they can shapeshift or disappear. Loge tricks Alberich into turning himself into a toad and they whisk him and the treasures away. As they steal the ring and Tarnhelm from Alberich, he curses the ring and proclaims anyone who owns it will die.

Remember the ring has tricks of its own and a power no man can resist. Wotan struggles with giving the ring to the giants and receives heavy words from Erda, the lord of the earth. (Her voice was like hot buttered rolls. Silky, rich and smooth!) Wotan relents and watches as Fafner and Fasolt fight over who gets to wear the ring. Fafner kills his brother Fasolt and all are privvy to see the power of the ring. Fafner leaves with the newfound golden booty, the Tarnhelm and the ring. The gods set off for Valhalla.

[Things that happen in the interim of the story, between Operas I and II]

  • Fafner has turned himself into a dragon and is guarding his golden stash.
  • Wotan fathers his warrior daughter Brünnhilde and the eight other Valkyries, daughters of Erda
  • Wotan goes to earth and sires the mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde.


die walkure cover art


II. Die Walküre

A fugitive seeks refuge in Sieglinde’s house. She invites him in and feels herself drawn to this stranger, but lets him know he can stay only until her husband Hunding returns from a hunting expedition. Of course this doesn’t go over well with Hunding who hears this man’s story of woe and realizes the man he’s been searching for is now in his house. He offers a night of shelter to the fugitive and challenges him to a duel in the morning. The fugitive is unarmed but remembers something his father once told him- that there will be a sword in his hour of greatest need (Notung! I love the leitmotif used to sing about the sword!). In the middle of the night, Sieglinde has drugged Hunding and comes down and frees the fugitive. She tells him of her unhappiness and of the sword thrust into the ash tree in the middle of their house. An old man put it there saying only a man of noblest honor can pull it out. Sieglinde tells him Hunding and all of his cronies have tried and failed. She watches as he pulls the sword out, having a moment of clarity and recognizing her long lost twin brother Siegmund in this fugitive. They flee. (This is where it gets weird people. I’m not going to lie.) Siegmund and Sieglinde pledge themselves in love to each other as brother and sister AND in the husband and wife sort of way.

Meanwhile Wotan is happily ensconced in Valhalla, charging his warrior daughter Brünnhilde to take care of his mortal son Siegmund. (You are also introduced to the leitmotif for Brünnhilde which is an easily recognized bit of opera music in non-opera settings.)  Their meeting is cut short as Fricka enters upset and wheadles Wotan to strike down Siegmund by letting Hunding triumph. As the patron lord of marriage, Fricka requires it and is disgusted by the incestuous relationship that has destroyed the marriage. It’s also a barb at her philandering husband. Brünnhilde comes back in and her father tells her she must let Siegmund die in the duel. Ever in his mind, Wotan is constrained to take on the ring of power on his own. He has decreed he won’t and yet the ring remains in his thoughts. His Plan B of grooming Siegmund as a free mortal to seek out the ring is foiled.  Siegmund and Sieglinde are on the run from Hunding. As Sieglinde is resting, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund in a dream and calls him to follow her to Valhalla. He refuses to go once she tells him that Sieglinde cannot accompany them. Brünnhilde finds herself moved by the twins’ devotion to each other and decides to go against the plan Wotan laid out. She decides to protect Siegmund and pledges to protect Sieglinde. We learn later that as the arm of Wotan she knew his conflict- wanting to protect his son, but being forced into an agreement with Fricka. Even as he clung to the agreement with Fricka, she tries to protect Siegmund. Hunding arrives and all hell breaks loose. Wotan shows up furious and shatters Siegmund’s all-powerful sword into pieces. Siegmund is struck and dies. Wotan has kept up his end of the bargain with Fricka and thus kills Hunding. Brünnhilde and Sieglinde escape with the shards of (Notung!) the sword. Wotan is seething with anger and looking for Brünnhilde.

Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, the Valkyrie head to Valhalla and learn of this rupture in their sister’s relationship with their Father as Brünnhilde shows up to Valhalla with Sieglinde. She tells them she is on the run from Wotan and asks them to help shelter her from his wrath. The Valkyrie are horrified and refuse. Brünnhilde tells them that Sieglinde is pregnant and they are roused to help her. Sieglinde beseeches them with a rousing plea and she escapes for the woods with the sword (Notung!) to dwell near the dragon Fafner, where Wotan is sure not to look. Wotan arrives looking for Brünnhilde intent on punishing her. He takes away her immortality and her role as a Valkyrie. He sentences her to a long sleep to be woken up by the first male that awakes her. (Lest you get all Snow White or Sleeping Beauty here, this is the worst thing she can imagine. As a warrior daughter, she is losing her independence to whoever rouses her. Desperately, she asks Wotan to let it be a man of honor and for an obstacle to be put in his way. This particular set of music is so poignant. The father and daughter talking through the difficulty of parting forever, of what went wrong. Wagner might as well hit me over the head with a two-by-four at this point.) Brünnhilde falls asleep on a rock and Wotan summons Loge to circle the rock with a ring of fire only the noblest of men can penetrate.


[Final notes:]

Nina Stemme who plays Brünnhilde could very well be the quintessential characterization of this role. Through her acting and vocalization, the audience is emotionally drawn into this heroine of heroines. Her lush and dramatic vocals both summon tears at times and smiles for her early bravado. Mark Delavan as Wotan carries the role well vocally and gives a commanding performance. I bring these two up because their synergy on stage is palpable. Together you sense the depth of their bond that is then inextricably severed.

At this point, you’d be 7 hours and 40 minutes in over two operas and several days. I say this because I feel like I skated over the storylines and left out the incredible subtleties worked into the operas.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2!

Art Grief Singing Spirit

Finding My Voice

SINGING- Finding My Voice

Olga once told me the worst thing you can do when you lose your voice is to whisper.

Instead, she said, you should either stay silent or try to talk normally so as not to damage the vocal chords. Clearly over the past year, I chose silence.

Just like talking about losing my voice found its appropriate time to be spoken aloud, this new season I am walking into is surprising. With the silence broken, I find myself immersed again in music and it brings joy not sorrow. Well, not every time because sorrow lingers in the corners of words and holidays.

Last week, I found myself at church singing as if no one else might be in the room. My voice has grown stronger and in that, so has my range… Olga, one of my repositories of information on all things vocal and musical once mentioned that the voices of women establish themselves in their thirties. I think it’s kind of magical really. Her own vocal transition is testament to that. The voice is an interesting animal.

In being silent from singing for a year, my voice is making itself known now.

Several Christmases ago, I encouraged my Dad to sit at the piano and play carols so we could sing them. It had been years since we had sung together. He chuckled and his eyebrows unexpectedly shot up with a “really?” This dormant part of me wanted to sing with my Dad like days of yore. And we knocked out a few songs together before retiring to the living room with the rest of the family. Singing had been our language early on and somewhere along the way we had set it aside.

In retrospect, he never knew my penchant and love of singing harmony. We didn’t have mutual songs other than those that breathed of childhood and thus tasted musty and out-of-date in my high school aged mouth. I fretted over sentimentality and he could appreciate it. I embarrassed easily when singing alone.

And then came college. And Choral Union with Ms. T. Later followed by singing more with church after church and while at college with another student group.

SINGING- Finding My Voice

The voice I have today reminds me of the three grey strands of hair poking out from the crown of my head. They are mine. They come at a cost.  See, for anyone who likes to sing (or run or swim or bike) the limitations stop us in our heads first. To climb over that wall, conquer that impasse is to forge a new path and perhaps take a risk.

As Beck says, “you can go higher than that” to me when we sing and play together, I have passed it off with a glib rebuff.  I am now scampering over those walls with delight and unabashed glee.

It feels good to sing again. Infectious. It feels good to know my Dad would want it so.

Art Grief Singing Spirit

Losing My Voice

Grief does weird things to a person.

You don’t exactly know the when or the where, but you know to take this visitor at its word, when it says it will drop by. Right after my dad’s funeral, people kindly sent emails, texts and phone calls. In the void and silence not to be filled, each word felt like a buoy to anchor me from the weightlessness that threatened to carry me deep into the sky. What is it about that levity that drains time of its usual punctuality, letting present ebb into future and blurring the lines of the past? Except for the event itself, when each detail can be recalled with rote precision.

Some of my earliest memories of my dad bring to mind two voices singing in unison. My starbird voice trilling in that high pitch special to children. His bass would carry the bottom like a firm foundation upon which the house could be built. He would take me out “driving” on his lap- hands latched onto the wheel, steering our way straight from the veering and careening he would do, I thought, so he could see Mama’s face contort into that of an irritated mime. In choir, his deep sonorous bass distinctively stood out from the lighter sopranos, mezzos, baritones and tenors. At one point in time, I equally spoke into existence my intention to be opera singer and fashion designer. My parents taught me to dream big and I did not disappoint.

I started really singing in church. Like Axl Rose. Like MC Hammer and probably scores of other singers. During high school, I auditioned for a youth singing group and made it in, though my point of pride settled on me being the only female rapper one year for choir tour. I wove the words around one another in rhythmic time and felt myself all the more impressive because of my cap worn backwards. Ah, youth. It’s no surprise really that my best friend is an opera singer and I casually took up karaoke.

The week my Dad died, I emailed Karl, our church music director, explaining I would not be able to sing with the church band, that I was in Texas, that my Dad had unexpectedly died. This was soon followed with a conversation that included the words “hiatus” and “not sure when”. Three months bled into six that later became eight and finally almost a year. I couldn’t get up the gumption to sing- it was like the song had been stolen from my mouth.

Months after his death, I would find myself alone in church, wearing a hat, feeling the part of the walking wounded. It didn’t take much to be bowled over emotionally- from the turn of a lyric, the chord progression, the violin playing pizzicato. And that surge of sorrow swept over me anew. There is nothing more mortifying than weeping in a crowd full of singers or trying to unsuccessfully stifle the growing storm. There is also nothing more humanizing. I would catapult myself out onto the street where the austere sun would shine its cold rays of sunlight upon me. The ambient street noises muffled against the backdrop of this particular kind of loneliness.

I say this because it needs to be said.

Last year, I learned a specific way to take care of myself- that it’s okay to seek out solitude and crave it greedily. It’s okay to sob because a silhouette on the street resembles that person. It’s okay to be embraced and sat with and prayed for and cooked for because sometimes your body wants you to stop and take heed.

Then Easter changed everything.

It did not bring back my Dad. It’s hard to explain in words really. It did remove some of the burden of the loss and the lungs that had felt unsturdy weeks prior began to feel stronger. I emailed Karl and said I thought I might be ready. Perhaps I could try and sing again? In his kind, gentle way, Karl told me there was no pressure. I could practice with the band and if I didn’t feel up to it, I didn’t have to stay and sing.

SINGING- Losing My Voice

The lights blazed on our faces. The microphone blared until the sound was equalized. My nightmare of crumpling emotionally on the platform during a song went unfounded. And something about losing myself in the harmonies strung around the melody, around the guitar rhythms, the hand-tapped drum beats on my thigh somehow brought my Dad closer. Music- the very thing that had for months felt too painful and too approximate to the forging and physical extinguishing of our relationship, now became sealant and mender.

I stopped singing for a year because it felt like the right thing to do and because I had no choice. My body began telling me how to interpret “take care of yourself” and once I started listening to my body, I began to find my voice again.