Wagner's 'Ring' Reimagined in America A bold new interpretation of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle sets its timeless tale of the corruption of power in a more contemporary American setting. Director Francesca Zambello talks about what's being called the American Ring.
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Wagner's 'Ring' Reimagined in America

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Wagner's 'Ring' Reimagined in America

Wagner's 'Ring' Reimagined in America

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow night, at the Washington National Opera, a new production of DAS RHEINGOLD, the first of the four operas in Wagner's ring cycle. The company plans to produce the entire ring over the coming seasons, and the director of DAS RHEINGOLD is a superstar among opera directors, Francesca Zambello.


FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO: I'm sorry. Rob, you don't have the stick 'til now. You come in, you look --

SIEGEL: That's Zambello at rehearse the other week. She is a New Yorker who has productions running in opera houses across the U.S. and Europe, as well as in Australia, and she's directed THE LITTLE PRINCE for television, as well as a stage production of Disney's ALADDIN. She's about to direct SHOWBOAT in London. Her idea for DAS RHEINGOLD is make it American, depict the Rhine as an American river, the Nibelungs as American slaves, the corruption of power as echoing that of modern-day America.

ZAMBELLO: You're the talking torturer, and later, you get a little bit violent, right? Guantanamo Bay meets Valhalla, all right?

SIEGEL: Francesca Zambello came to the studio a few days ago to talk about this first production of what's being called her American ring cycle.

ZAMBELLO: I chose this American viewpoint because I felt that we had such a rich storytelling and mythic past of our own and such a strong visual world that would make this work speak very much to an audience today, our audience, particularly in Washington, D.C. The piece is so much about power and the misuse and corruption of power, that it seemed to be an obvious parallel that would make Wagner resonate, not only hopefully for the Wagner purist, but also for a new audience to Wagner.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain what you make of an obvious hurdle for new audiences approaching Wagner in America, that is, new audiences. It's in German. We watched you directing three men, whose native language is English, who are singing to each other in German. Why not in English? Why not DAS RHEINGOLD in English?

ZAMBELLO: Well, I think that that would certainly be something to consider, but, generally, opera is performed in the language that it's written in. One of the great revolutions in opera has been the use of super-titles or surtitles, which is very similar to seeing a foreign film.

It's important to perform these works in their original language, I think, because so much of the poetry of the text, particularly of Wagner's text, is inherent in the words. Even if you don't understand them, I think the coloring of the words, the setting of the words, the shading of the words speak in a primal way so that I don't think that you necessarily would need to perform it in English.

The other thing is, of course, that many international opera singers, and since we're at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, we have an allstar international cast. There are many people in the cast, where English is their native language, but they have learned it in German because that means that, of course, you can do it anywhere in the world.

To do a ring cycle in English would demand, not only a translation that would speak to whatever context you're setting in, but also an enormous demand on the singers to re-learn everything in English, and, generally, opera is performed in the language of what the composer wrote it in as opposed to music theater, which is always composed in the language of the audience who's hearing it.

SIEGEL: But it does introduce a problem, I think, unique to opera, which is if one doesn't know the language the opera is being sung in, you can read the surtitles, you can follow the text, but the challenge of the text of the play being either moving or convincing is somehow, you take a by on that. We've just decided there will not be a relationship between the audience and the stage.

ZAMBELLO: Well, I think that it's important, I mean, and my goal, of course, as a director, is that there is always immediate connection between the audience and the stage, and I think that we have to have convincing enough opera singers, who make you believe that they're communicating that text to you in a way that you understand it, whether you literally understand the words or not. Anybody who's a great singer, a great actor, I think, can overcome that, and that's something that we accept in opera, I mean, Puccini, look at many of his greatest operas, LA BOHEME, those are a bunch of French Bohemians, yet they're singing in Italian.

His opera, FANCIULLA DEL WEST, based on the great David Velasco, played the girl of the Golden West, he's writing about cowboys and Indians, and they're all singing in Italian.

SIEGEL: But you have a production right now going in London in which, in LA BOHEME, they're singing in English, and I gather, to big audiences.

ZAMBELLO: Yes, well, that's performing at the Royal Albert Hall, which has 5,000 seats a night. That is a definite goal of mine to create a much more of a popular outreach about opera, and one way to do that, I think, is to perform in the language of the audience. In that case, that is a situation where, because of the volume of the seats, the ticket prices are very low. The top price is only about $50.00, which is fantastic, and there are two casts. It's a big, spectacular production, so that part of it is about inviting a new audience in to see the epic nature of opera, as well as, of course, the great intimate story of LA BOHEME.

I think that that's one way of addressing how do we make opera more popular. Another way is, I think, to make productions that speak to an audience, and, in this case, something like the American ring, where a lot of the audience will, of course, relate visually, I think, the moment they see something. They know immediately a context for that situation.

SIEGEL: You've also worked with Disney.


SIEGEL: Very different kind of work, or is it that different?

ZAMBELLO: No, I think, as a director, I view my primary job as a storyteller, and so to work with stories, I most recently did ALADDIN in the theme park in Disneyland based on the animated feature, and I'm working on THE LITTLE MERMAID for Broadway for Disney Theatrical. I think that, for me, my job is as an interpreter, in one case, Wagner created the work, in another case, it was written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and so I'm now translating what was on celluloid to the stage, it's in the same sense, very much similar, I find.

SIEGEL: Does it make a difference that the people who wrote LITTLE MERMAID are still around, and Wagner isn't here to tell you what he thinks of the production?

ZAMBELLO: Well, of course, it's great to be working with living composers, I mean, I have to say I'm making a personal shift much more to working with living composers, living authors, because you have that extra added dimension of being able to work with the creators of a piece, and that, of course, I think, is a way to keep things far more alive, and also, I think that we should be creating more things. The same thing in opera, I think we should be doing more new pieces.

SIEGEL: You said something the other day. I heard you say something that was very interesting. Someone asked about encouraging teenagers to see opera. Drawing on your Disney experience, you said that there, they've totally given up on one age group.

ZAMBELLO: I wouldn't say totally given up. They certainly make films towards it, but I think that in terms of opera getting teenagers to come to an opera, you've got to put on a fantastic show, and I also think that we should be doing that for an audience anyway. I think opera has to be made much more accessible to wider groups, particularly through production values, particularly so that teenagers do come see it.

I also think we have to stop being so sacred about everything, and we should make 90-minute versions of operas. We should make hour-long versions, where people can come and see the hour version and then go have dinner.

SIEGEL: You should have a quickie version then?

ZAMBELLO: I think that a lot of operas would benefit from being told in a much shorter, compact, concise way. I think that we have to stop treating every single note that a composer wrote as sacred. I think the same way we treat musicals often, the way we have no problem cutting them, shifting them, getting people to re-write and change things, I think that if we do that with opera, we would certainly build up a great big new audience.

SIEGEL: Francesca Zambello, thank you very much for talking with us.

ZAMBELLO: It's been a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Francesca Zambello is directing the Washington National Opera's new production of Wagner's DAS RHEINGOLD, which opens tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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