Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Wilder Guest: Deborah Weisgall on Siegfried, and What One Wears to the Movies

Deborah Weisgall (also known as my mother) has covered arts and culture for many major publications such as The Atlantic, Esquire, Fortune, The New Yorker, and extensively for The New York Times. She is the author of three books, Still Point, A Joyful Noise, and The World Before Her, and she's got the best writing and clothing style, work ethic, and culinary abilities of anyone I know. 

Last year the Metropolitan Opera staged the first two operas of Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung, Das Rheingold and Die Walkyre, directed by Robert LePage; this fall and winter, they’re adding Siegfried and Gotterdamerung, then doing the whole cycle in the spring.  The set for all four operas is an enormous electronic seesaw with slats that rotate, rise and fall, and serve as the screen for intricate three-dimensional projections.  It cost millions of dollars, it experiences technical difficulties, it’s noisy, and it’s a sublime computer game. I saw Rheingold in New York on opening night last year, when the failsafe mechanism caused the slats to freeze, and Wotan, the chief of the gods, and his wife, Fricka,  had no driveway up to Valhalla, their new house.  A bit confusing at the end, but, really, it didn’t matter; by then the music had taken over.  I saw Walkyreat the movies, the Met’s HD broadcast, and it was even better. [continued after the jump]

 The machine is both prepossessing and self-effacing.  It is the spectacular set—conception, really—that Wagner requires; it fills the stage and frames the singers.  The Ring of the Niebelung depends on shifting moments of grandeur and intimacy.  It is, at heart, a bourgeois epic.  The whole thing begins because Wotan, to impress his wife, has built a house he can’t afford; he uses his sister-in-law as collateral to guarantee payment.  Really—what was he thinking?  But the drama quickly gets cosmic: dwarves, giants, evil rings, lust, greed, adultery, incest, impossible moral choices, a complicated relationship between a father and his daughter, which is a relationship that seemed to trouble much of the 19th century (and that Verdi found as rich as Wagner).  All of it leads to certain doom, coming in February, with Gotterdamerung, which translates as Twilight of the Gods.  They will not go softly.

Photo from Die Walkure by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Siegfried with my mother in Rockland, Maine, at the Strand Theater.  I’ve had trouble with that opera ever since I saw it as a kid; a production I saw wasn’t very good.  Siegfried is the original innocent, strong and handsome and free of self-knowledge.  When he kills Fafner the Dragon and tastes his blood, suddenly he can understand the language of all animals.  Possibly because I had seen it in Rome, with no surtitles, I was offended by the tenor’s booming “Blut!”  It was one of the few words I understood, and it reminded me of Nazi atrocities.  But this production was a revelation.  The machine was in fine fettle, better than ever, shifting from a grim cave to a lush garden to the scorching ring of fire that surrounds Wotan’s sleeping daughter Brunhilde (not so different from Sleeping Beauty).  The singers were the best in the world.  There was something transparent about this performance; each element—orchestra, singers, sets, action—suggested connections, both emotional and musical. 

This is my favorite moment: Alberich, the dwarf, is describing Fafner, the terrifying dragon, to innocent Siegfried, who knows nothing of life or love or fear.  The dragon is, Alberich sings, a worm.  Worm, he sings—a long, rumbling note.  As low as he can go.  The same long, low note that Franz Joseph Haydn wrote seventy-five years earlier in his great oratorio The Creation, describing God’s creation of all living creatures, including the lowly worm.  And there it was, so clear you could almost see it: Wagner quoted that note, that word, on purpose.  His audience would have known the Haydn oratorio.  They would have understood that Wagner was inventing his own version of creation, of the Garden of Eden (so beautifully suggested by the projections), of Adam and Eve, their passion and destruction, all there in Siegfried and Brunhilde’s glorious half hour of love and death.

What the dragon really looked like. Char's attempt wasn't too bad, though. Photo: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave the realm of myth and come back to earth.  What do you wear to an opera that lasts six hours, that’s a movie, but held in an elegant theater (the Strand was recently beautifully restored) where lots of people you know are going to be, and that’s an occasion you want to honor?  An opera is not a trivial thing.  So: A sweater the color of the inside of a butternut squash.  Brown—henna, really—J. Crew khaki pants with the magic ingredient: 2% elastane.  They held their shape and I wasn’t wrinkled at intermission, not that I could really talk to anybody because I was so overwhelmed.  Scarf and boots.  I know, it shouldn’t matter, but we always think about it.  Maybe it’s a little ritual as we prepare to be, for a time, lifted out from our daily selves.


  1. OH I love this!
    you know...I'm Dragon...your mom draws dragons!
    miss you by the way

  2. Hahaha you ARE a dragon!! So thrilled you're reading :) I miss you too, let's catch up, stranger!


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