Approaching great art is daunting, especially when you don't easily see what's so great about it. Who wants to feel like a big doofus? So when Wagner's immense and unassailable four-night masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelung, comes to town looking all important and incomprehensible, you cagily sum it up with a couple of horned-Viking-helmet jokes—it's Wagner who's known for the horned helmets, right? If that doesn't kill the conversation, it's straight to the bottom line: see, you don't happen to like opera.
Yet when the chance comes to see The Ring's opening-night prelude, Das Rheingold,to sit through two hours and 40 minutes of an intermissionless 19th-century opera about pagan gods and heroes fighting for control of a golden ring that grants dominion over the world, sung in German by Russia's legendary Kirov company, you however-dreadfully sense that only an-even-bigger doofus would turn it down. Okay, so your first clue was that the best tickets at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for this opening night of the Mariinsky Festival have a face value of $1,500.
But maybe a simple realization like that is where art begins to work its transformative magic. Art is about altering your perspective and sometimes, maybe, by exchanging it for a brand-new one. And as the curtain rose for Das Rheingold, art had already made a difference in me: see, I was going to tryto like opera.
No, it wasn't easy. The music was heavy and the plot advanced slowly, not to mention that it was woven around the kind of mythological themes that I make a point to avoid at the movies.
But there were times when I did lose myself in the story—thanks to the English supertitles—in its grand dramatization of the timeless human balancing act among forces like love, power, honor, wealth and prestige. I could see the relevance to today.
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The performance, I mostly appreciated on an athletic level—the grand and layered sound of a full orchestra; the clarity, strength and endurance of the singers, who went on for hours without a cough or, apparently, a drop of water; the extravagant costumes and imaginative staging . . . mostly, the fact that most of them had all this memorized.
In this regard, Das Rheingold reminded me of my days as a sportswriter, when I was suddenly assigned to cover professional ice hockey, which I knew nothing about. Whereas others in the arena were watching the game deeply immersed in the minutiae of strategy and execution, I was continually dazzled that guys could ice skate backward so fast. I dug it, anyway.
That said, I've never gone to a game since: see, I don't happen to likeice hockey.
THE MARIINSKY FESTIVAL FEATURING THE KIROV ORCHESTRA, OPERA AND BALLET CONTINUES AT THE ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 556-2787; WWW.OCPAC.ORG. CHECK WEBSITE FOR PERFORMANCE DATES, TIMES AND TICKET PRICES. THROUGH OCT. 22.