Wagner, Chromecast, and effluvium

The year was 1990 (apparently). I would have been in the 10th grade (supposedly).

I think my Dad was the one who told me that F. Murray Abraham – who our family knew of through our viewing of Amadeus, was going to be hosting a series of operas produced by the Metropolitan Opera that would be aired on public television. For us, that meant SCETV.

I even think I remember that his informant was a family friend, a professor of Geology at the University of South Carolina who knew of my interest in music. If memory serves, the audio was simulcast on public radio. I always thought it was the coolest thing when I could enhance the audio quality of a televised performance by also tuning in through the radio.

Anyway, I was intrigued. In no small part because of the Abraham connection. I'm sure, in some odd way, that validated my intent to watch the operas given my reverence for Amadeus.

It didn't hurt that I also had a keen interest in Norse mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Of course, the operas in question were Wagner's Ring cycle. Four nights in a row of nearly four-hour works about Norse/Germanic gods, dragons, magical swords, and Valkyries.

I was in.

I can't say for certain how familiar I was with Wagner at the time. While I might have had some knowledge that Wagner had written a massive work about these myths, I didn't know too many particulars. I hadn't yet read the Nibelungenlied, but I had read various books on Norse mythology.

I can still remember reading Norse myths during the summer while listening to Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas and eating "red rome" apples – because, you know, the Gods eat apples and they didn't sell golden ones at the grocery store. I also remember wanting to try and find some mead to drink. And I remember repeated mention in one particular collection of tales about how thunder was actually a by-product of Thor's flatulence. BTW, I think this blog post is a by-product of mine.

But back to Wagner's Ring and the Met's production of it.

Up until the last few weeks, I remembered not watching much of those telecasts. They were long, it was during the school week, and I'd honestly never listened to complete operas before, having already failed to get through Ingmar Berman's vision of The Magic Flute. Plus, I couldn't pause them to take a break.

I do remember loving the look, the costumes, the make-up, and the nightly introductions … "Good evening. I'm F. Murray Abraham," he would say a few seconds after the blazing, heavy metal overture to Die Walküre began.

Since then, I'd always told myself I needed to watch all four works one day. I felt like not watching them was some sort of affront to Music on my part.

But I never really pursued the matter.

Then, recently, three things happened:

  1. About a year ago, I saw a movie about the Nibelung myth, and really enjoyed it.
  2. A few months ago, tired of movies, I made myself watch a recorded production of Tristan and Isolde.
  3. Then I decided I was ready to finally watch the complete Ring.

But then another thing happened.

As I was scrolling for versions of Das Rheingold to watch, I saw there was something to watch I'd never heard of before: Wagner, the miniseries, or rather the apparent film that was later released as a miniseries.

That makes sense, because the damn thing runs almost as long as half of the Ring cycle.

Which is to say, it's very long.

It's also very, very good.

And it appears to be well researched, although admittedly I'm no Wagnerian. But, hell, it's got Tausig, Meyerbeer, von Bülow, Mad King Ludwig, Nietzsche, and Liszt himself – although I could have sworn his character at some point donned a mole as Liszt had later in life, only for that mole to be gone in later scenes. I haven't verified Molegate, but I'm tempted to investigate.

The scenery is spellbinding. Wagner's music used for the film is, of course, downright glorious.

I also liked how many scenes showed von Bülow and Wagner rehearsing his scores one two pianos. I wonder if these are based on some arrangements by Wagner or von Bülow, Listz's famous transcriptions, or if there were specifically arranged for the film, etc. It was really interesting to hear leitmotifs and moments from the operas played on pianos.

After spending a weekend watching these – with copious napping whenever I started to get tired, I decided I needed to forge ahead (Siegfried pun) with my Wagner binge and see the complete Ring, one opera per week.

I saw versions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre on Amazon streaming. These were versions produced for EuroArts in 2002.

Oddly enough, a lot of Das Rheingold and vital parts of Die Walküre were not unfamiliar to me. Part of this is because, all those years ago, Abraham would provide a synopsis each night of what happened the night before, but seeing these operas recently reminded me of the experience of actually sitting through much of the operas in the 90's, although I distinctly remember having completely missed all but the last 10 minutes or so of Götterdämmerung and being kind of annoyed that I forgot to tune in. That's all to say that I saw a lot more than I've given myself credit for all these years.

While I enjoyed the two versions from EuroArts, it was hard to watch in the sense that these productions did not use, and I'd suspect could not afford to use, sets and costumes that I associate with the Ring. That's to say, these Gods were in modern suits and the giants in trench-coats.

For whatever reason, I couldn't see that the same EuroArts productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were available to stream. There was another complete production of the entire Ring for streaming, but I could only get through about 20 minutes of their Siegfried. While this production seemed to have a higher budget than the EuroArts versions, it too used more contemporary scenery and clothing. I can't fault anyone for that, but what I found so offensive was the interpretation of Siegfried (the character), who was portrayed not as an aloof, bad-ass, immature young man, but rather as more a child. I just couldn't take it and needed to find another way of seeing the rest of the Ring.

I knew what I really wanted to see that old Met version.

But then, naturally, something else happened.

While I couldn't find that old Met version for streaming on Amazon, I remembered getting an email from the Met a few weeks prior with an offer to get a month of their streaming service for free. I already had created an account a few years ago, but never tried the streaming service because my old laptop doesn't have HDMI and the DisplayPort output has some audio issues.

But now streaming to one's TV from a mobile device is commonplace, so I logged in to the Met site to start my trial and downloaded the Android app. The app allows one to stream via Chromecast, which I have.

And while I think that those 90's version of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung might be available to stream via the Met app, I noticed there was a 2012 production in HD, so I elected to watch those.

I could not be happier with that decision.

The productions are mind-blowing, featuring some large display screen that generate graphics of earth, wind, water, and fire as the singers walk around them and on them.

But was really rocked me was Jay Hunter Morris' Siegfried. The dude not only sings the part great, his acting is fantastic, and he looks the part. He's got the types of arms you get from playing sports as a kid and just being strong, rather than the kind you get drinking stevia-laden protein shakes and using machines in the gym. I wasn't surprised to hear that Texas twang when he was interviewed afterward (the interviews are part of the streaming service). I'd like to think that, as a Texan, he played football in his youth, giving him the physical presence a Siegfried ideally should have. That may not be true, but it makes for a good story.

I still plan to one day watch those 90's versions if they really are available on the Met Opera app, but I'd honestly first elect to watch the 2012 versions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and then re-watch the last two operas in the cycle. But it may be some time before I regain my stamina for Wagner.

For now, I'd like to think I've righted a musical wrong that was nearly thirty years in the making.

Update, August 29, 2017: Oops. The operas actually aired during the summer (allegedly), so I wasn't in school at the time. See: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/18/arts/review-television-taking-the-17-hour-plunge-with-wagner-s-ring-at-the-met.html

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