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Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
Rage Against the Machine:
A Very American Ring Cycle

The great Wagner Machine--Siegfried and Brunnhilde in Goetterdaemmerung [1]

The great Wagner Machine–Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung

2,427 words

It heaves and groans. It shimmies and clicks. One holds one breath during the best parts, hoping it will not malfunction and ruin the whole evening. One fears for the performers, halfway expecting it to devour them.

I am speaking of the gigantic Wagner Machine, built for the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent production of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

At first glance, it looks like an enormous keyboard. There are 24 “keys” in all, connected by a central axis. Controlled by a computer, the giant steel segments can move individually, creating different shapes. And each has been equipped with some kind of rear-projection technology that is quite beyond my ability to explain. Suffice it to say that this enables images to be projected onto the Machine, in 24 segments. It’s like the Wagner production Ernst Stavro Blofeld would have designed.

I saw the thing in action at the beginning of this month, sitting through all four operas in some very choice seats.

The Met’s previous Otto Schenk Ring production was very “traditional” (i.e., true to Wagner’s intentions) and lasted for about two decades. This new mechanized version is the brain child of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, a post he has occupied since 2006. Mr. Gelb has established a reputation as the P. T. Barnum of opera. Under his supervision, the Met has tended toward vulgar, flashy productions employing Broadway-like effects: laser shows, computer graphics, and acrobatics. Think Spiderman and Cirque du Soleil, if you want a good idea of what Mr. Gelb seems to be shooting for. All in a desperate effort to attract attention and, especially, to attract a younger crowd. Going to the opera, you see, is a lot like going to church. Too many gray heads.

Das Rheingold -- Cirque du Wagner [2]

Das Rheingold — Cirque du Wagner

The new Ring was staged by Mr. Robert Lepage, who actually has worked with Cirque du Soleil. I don’t know whether he designed the Machine himself, but I will blame him for it anyway (though ultimately it is Gelb who is truly responsible for this tasteless fiasco).

Das Rheingold opens with the segments of the Machine set at a steep angle and glowing blue (with bubbles!), to signify the waters of the Rhine. Suspended on cables, the Rhine Maidens scoot up and down the Machine (receiving, one imagines, an abrasion or two). At least the angle of the thing makes it genuinely difficult for Alberich to catch them.

Das Rheingold is not divided into acts at all, but consists instead of several distinct scenes – with relatively little pause between them. As soon as scene one ends we hear Wagner’s lovely music bridging the two scenes – and along with the music we hear CREAK! CLICK! THONK! as the segments of the Machine swivel into place to form the setting of scene two.

I chatted with some of the patrons during intermissions on the following three nights. “It made more noise last year,” an older women told me. Her accent seemed to be French. “It’s ghastly. Just ghastly,” she said. New York’s Eurocrowd was out in full force for the Ring. During Die Walküre I was entirely surrounded by Germans. Whenever the Machine would CLICK! or GROAN! they would begin giggling. During the final act of Götterdämmerung one woman behind me kept chortling and guffawing so loudly I finally turned around and told her to shut up. Quite honestly, my reaction was the same as hers – but I kept it on the inside, which is what polite people do.

Rheingold, Scene Two -- from the older production [3]

Rheingold, Scene Two — from the retired Otto Schenk production

Fortunately, I wasn’t there on the night when, during a performance of Die Walküre, the Windows logo appeared on the Machine for a few seconds, sending the audience into hysterics (at one of the opera’s most dramatic moments). Another performance of Die Walküre had to be delayed for about 45 minutes when something on the Machine went wrong. I also was also absent on the evening when something else went awry and the Machine refused to form the rainbow bridge at the climax of Das Rheingold. I was told that “they worked a lot of the bugs out.” Thank God I waited a year!

To return to Das Rheingold: once the heaving of the Machine has finished distracting us from Wagner’s music, we find ourselves in scene two. But surely there must have been some mistake, we think. The Machine has simply swiveled a few of its segments into new positions, some up and some down. With a little red glow in the background. And this is supposed to be the setting for scene two? The old Otto Schenk Met production had the gods on a kind of precipice with a gigantic, barbaric-looking Valhalla looming in the background. It looked like something out of Fritz Lang. The present production’s scene two looks like something hauled out of Ground Zero. (No wonder they’re searching everyone’s bags at the Met now.)

Rheingold, Scene Two -- like something hauled out of Ground Zero [4]

Rheingold, Scene Two — like something hauled out of Ground Zero

At the end of scene two, Wotan and Loge resolve to descend into Nibelheim to steal the ring from Alberich, and Wagner’s music bridging the transition from this scene to the next is among his most memorable. Normally, the curtain simply closes, or some smoke appears, while the scenery changes. But not at Cirque du Wagner! Before my wide eyes, the Machine heaved and lifted itself up into the rafters of the stage, forming into a kind of Escher-like staircase. From the upper wings, two stunt doubles (standing in for Mark Delavan as Wotan and Stefan Margita as Loge) climbed across the staircase suspended on cables, descending into “Nibelheim.” Gee whiz! It was such a spectacle, I forgot there was any music that went with it.

Das Rheingold -- the gods are hauled up into Valhalla (or is it the Moloch Machine?) [5]

Das Rheingold — the gods are hauled up into Valhalla (or is it the Moloch Machine?)

But the real low point came at the end of Das Rheingold, when the gods cross the rainbow bridge into the newly-built Valhalla. Again, this is one of the musical highlights. The segments of the Machine stood erect, but then several of the central keys swiveled downwards to form a steep incline. The “gods” disappeared off stage, and then reappeared attached to cables, climbing up the steep “bridge.” (Several did so, incidentally, with evident trepidation). And, by the way, to complete the picture: onto the “bridge” was projected a “rainbow pattern” that was just a little too . . . well . . . gay. I was so preoccupied by the idea that someone might hurt themselves, or something might go wrong, I once more forgot to notice Wagner’s music.

Metropolis -- the Moloch Machine [6]

Metropolis — the Moloch Machine

And for some reason I kept thinking of the huge “Moloch Machine” from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. You know the scene. Freder Fredersen descends into his city’s version of Nibelheim and finds an army of alienated laborers serving a great “heart Machine.” Suddenly, he sees it as a temple to Moloch, and the workers as sacrifices being herded into its great flaming jaws.

Just as suddenly, I saw the performers being devoured by the great Wagner Machine. And indeed they were devoured, as was Wagner himself. Because the Machine is the real star of this production. As the critics have unanimously and correctly proclaimed, the Machine is a distraction. It heaves like a three-masted schooner, and I haven’t even mentioned the worst part: it not only moves between acts and between scenes, it actually moves about during scenes.

I have nothing to complain about where the music and singing are concerned. Fabio Luisi’s conducting was masterful. Katarina Dalayman was an excellent Brünnhilde, and Jay Hunter Morris was a simply stellar Siegfried. But it was the Machine that – quite literally – occupied center stage. My attention was continually drawn away from Dalayman and Morris whenever the Machine made an ominous noise. Every time it began to move I held my breath, waiting for something to go wrong.

During my favorite parts – like the “Wotan’s farewell” scene at the end of Die Walküre – I sat with my hands tensed around the armrests, praying that the Machine wouldn’t spoil everything. After a while, like that over-electrocuted mouse we all heard about in Psychology 101, I just sat there numb, reminding myself that if something goes wrong there will always be other Ring cycles, other productions. It’s not like Wagner will be ruined forever. The whole thing became an experience to be endured, and I felt like a weight had been lifted from me when the curtain came down at the end of Götterdämmerung.

Metropolis -- the Heart Machine [7]

Metropolis — the Heart Machine

I also noticed early on that I couldn’t shake a certain morbid preoccupation: I continually imagined the performers’ limbs getting caught up in the Machine. In my mind’s eye I saw Peter Gelb as a Caribbean slave master, standing in the wings wielding a machete, waiting to hack off the foot of some unlucky soprano. Back to the whole “Moloch Machine” business, I suppose. Back to man serving the Machine.

But that’s exactly what this is. The Machine has taken over. The Machine become diva. We no longer notice the music, or the singers. We notice the tech. In other words, going to the opera has become like going to the movies. It’s not the story that matters, it’s the special effects.

But, of course, what the Met has done to poor Wagner is part of much larger cultural trends. It’s just what Spengler warned us about: eventually technics take over. What had been built to serve man, man now serves. The god Wotan is nothing beside the God of the Machine, who could easily crush his head like a walnut between two of its great pincers.

And there is, of course, something terribly American about the whole thing. Why is it Americans always have this attitude that if something can be done then it should be done? “Yes, by God, we can spend $17 million building a 45 ton computerized Wagner Machine that will strike terror into the hearts of audiences and make them completely forget about the music! We can do it! We have the technology! We can make Wagner better, stronger, faster.”

But why stop there? Why not introduce bionic singers – or, better yet, completely robotic ones. Instead of Deborah Voigt we’ll see on stage a kind of chrome piggy bank with spears and helmets stuck all over it. Though maybe I am underestimating the current state of robotics. Maybe more lifelike androids could be created, turning the Met into a kind of Disney-like Hall of Presidents spectacle. There’s a lot of standing around in Wagner, so it doesn’t really matter if the robots can’t move that much. Oh, but perhaps I’m dating myself. Why not an entirely CGI Ring?

The truth, of course, is that Wagner is bigger than all this, and when that Machine has been sold for scrap he’ll still be going strong. And, incidentally, it has just been announced that the Machine will be . . . uh . . . “retired [8]” for a few years. This certainly isn’t the first time Wagner has been desecrated by a bad production. Just recently the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf mounted a new production of Tannhäuser with the cast decked out in SS uniforms [9]. (Now this I would like to have seen! Though in the clips I’ve watched on German TV I’ve noticed some errors in the insignia.) Amid an enormous public outcry, the production was cancelled after only a few performances.

Why do they do this sort of thing to Wagner and, not, say, to Puccini? Wait. Don’t tell me. I think I know why. And I think it goes without saying.

But if Wagner was such a really, really bad man (enjoyed by a really, really bad Austrian), why do they keep performing his work? The answer, of course, is that like the Machine he’s simply too big to hide away somewhere. And, of course, he sells too many tickets. So, they keep on performing Wagner – but they just can’t restrain themselves from spitting at him at the same time. The Dusseldorf production, of course, is trying to “deconstruct” Wagner (HEAVE, GROAN). The American production has, in typical American fashion, no such intellectual pretensions.

I imagine something like the following dialogue must surely have taken place, somewhere in an office backstage at the Met:

Gelb: Wagner is like, you know, soooooo boring we have to do something to liven this thing up, or the kids are just gonna, you know, stay away.

Lepage: What about a gigantic Machine that would dwarf the performers and distract the audience from how dull the story is?

Gelb: Yes. And if it made a lot of noise, maybe people wouldn’t notice how much Wagner sounds like John Williams.

Lepage: I think we’ve got something here.

In truth, all these “modern” Wagner productions simply have no faith in Wagner – neither in his words, nor in his music. (So why exactly do these producers think performances keep selling out? Because of the crappy productions they put on?) The cardinal rule of any opera production – of any work by any composer – ought to be that the settings, costume, and acting complement the music and the story. Instead, these Ring productions distract one from the music and the story. They are just enormous ego trips for directors and designers. What they have done to Wagner is really not much different from painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. And ought to be greeted with complete outrage. To the credit of the Met’s audience, and its critics, this production has in fact prompted outrage. Every audience member I spoke to was disgusted by it. Even the stage hands I chatted with said they think that it stinks.

This won’t be the last Wagner desecration, of course – but audiences keep turning up. (The Met was packed every night that I was there – with nary an unoccupied seat in the house.) You see, in one way Wagner isn’t like the Mona Lisa. If we paint a moustache on her, you can’t see her anymore – she’s been destroyed. But because music dwells in the eternal realm of ideas, it can never actually be touched or destroyed. And so no matter what kind of crap they heap up on stage, Wagner’s glorious music will still shine through.

Smash the Machine!