This article originally appeared in Opera News, Vol. 44, No. 5 (November 1979), pp. 18-20.

Ring Around the Rosy

by Stephen Wadsworth
There is a new Ring cycle. Basically it is a Bayreuth disk raked at ten degrees, but it also resembles the Karajan style, with a Walküre tree and a Valkyries’ rock straight out of Schneider-Siemssen, while the projection of Ludwig of Bavaria’s castle Neuschwanstein as Valhalla in Rheingold mirrors the latest vogue in Ring stagings—parallels to Wagner’s own life. Even more au courant is this new production’s Chéreauesque need to involve the audience’s sensibilities in new ways. Yet the Rhine is represented by undulating fabric, an ancient theatrical illusion. There is also brutal humor that smacks of Punch and Judy, and the action unfolds with the lie-down-and-die inevitability of ritual theater.

The music is played by a variety of orchestras under a variety of conductors, including Solti, and there is no singing. There is, however, a healthy substitute, and that is screaming. Freia screams when the giants drag her off, Sieglinde screams when Siegmund extracts Nothung from the tree, Brünnhilde screams when she sees the ring on Siegfried’s hand, and Gutrune screams when the dead Siegfried’s arm rises up. The Rhinemaidens, lamenting the theft of the Rhine Gold, howl like little girls over a stolen ball at recess. The act of screaming rivets their bodies, opens wide their mouths and glazes over their eyes, and they look like sopranos singing over a large orchestra.

The great things about this Ring are its truthfulness to Wagner and its flexibility. Anyone can do it. You can do this Ring with children. In fact, you must do it with children, because it was arranged for them to perform. The Ring is adapted from Wagner by Philip Caggiano for a theater-and-music class at the School Settlement Association in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In Spring 1979 it was produced at the Somers Intermediate School in northern Westchester County, where it became known as the Somers Ring.

Caggiano, an aspiring opera director, brought much experience to bear on this enterprise. He has studied voice at Juilliard, toured in musical comedy, taken a degree in education at NYU, dressed windows and served as production designer for several Kung Fu films. He is thin and urbane. “I wrote the plays for kids who had no musical background, who couldn’t match pitches. This was really not an opera-education program. I just couldn’t find a play that used music I liked, and it was easiest for me to adapt opera stories, because I could knock them off in my mind. I didn’t want to take an opera that was originally a play, then do a tacky treatment of it and add music. And I could pull more music from The Ring than I could from anywhere else. The children who do these plays have an experience with theater, with Wagner and with how music and theater mix together. So if opera is musical theater, they certainly do learn something about opera, yes.”

In April, as part of the five-day Opera America Education Workshop in New York, some of the Somers production was carted into List Hall at the Metropolitan Opera House, where Caggiano introduced highlights, the cast performed them, and the Somers principal, Richard Stock, discussed the project:

I have grayer hair than I did before. Years ago, when I hired Eric Steinman, I did so because he played a great piano. He had other things I didn’t know about at the time. One of the things that’s evolved in our school has been the study of the opera. Every year Eric selects an opera, and we all go with it. This year the theme of our middle program was The Ring. All 650 of us were exposed to it, with help from some of Eric’s old friends in the junior and senior high. We put this on in the huge high school auditorium. When you do something in one building and put it on in another, you have some mechanical difficulties, and we overcame these with money. We put the performance on for over a thousand people, and up in Somers that’s a pretty good trick. We charged a dollar basically, and three dollars for the best seats, and we came out about even.

Whenever you do a big project that affects other areas of study, teachers complain. If you just sing Christmas carols, someone complains. Eric has had enough run-ins with the faculty, so we published a monstrous schedule, making sure we didn’t pull the same kids from the same class too many times, which is where principals get in trouble. And there was cooperation, especially from the parents. Theater’s important. I can remember The Pirates of Penzance in seventh grade; what fun it was. I run the school on that basis.

Rooting around among the stars, I found Siegmund and Siegfried in their furs. Do they think they learned anything about music from this play? “Well, I was over at his house and we were watching television,” said Siegfried, “and it was some of the music from The Ring.” “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” interjected Siegmund. A lot of the other kids seemed anxious to try out Wagner’s version in the opera house. “I mean, I know the story—nobody knows the story like me.” “I think it’s long, but I would be patient. I would wait for the redemption theme.” “Four nights? Forget it. They should do it on TV. I like opera okay on TV.” Caggiano adds with a smile, “We trained Sieglinde’s scream on the Rysanek Bayreuth recording. That little girl knows that part quite well now.”

The Somers Ring is often beautiful to look at, and when it’s over [in two hours] you feel a scaled-down version of what you feel when the redemption theme sends you out into the dark night at the end of a Bayreuth Götterdämmerung—tired, surfeited with images, moved, sentimental and grand. Caggiano’s Ring plays are clever, clear accounts of a good story, and extended bits of arching orchestral music sweep the dialogue along at crucial points. Children’s voices provide a touching counterpoint. A young soprano next to me said, teary-eyed, “They make me cry, the projections at the end. They really wreck me.”

Caggiano is full of the particulars:

I was very careful to be faithful to Wagner. I never pulled music out of other places in the score. I wanted to be humorous but not funny. I tried to write it as one of us might explain an opera story to a friend, paraphrasing what I thought would be a child’s vernacular. When you get to key lines, here may be humor—the humor of a Brünnhilde, age twelve, standing over the dead body of Siegfried and saying, “Gods, look at what you have destroyed!” I wanted to do things that weren’t so technically sophisticated that they would take away from the fact that these are after all children doing a children’s play. One source that was particularly wonderful is the book illustrated by Arthur Rackham, with that beautiful English verse translation by Margaret Armour. Also in designing the production I wanted to do a dramatization of a children’s book, simple and colorful, Beni Montresor-like.

Mounted on that Bayreuth disk with two mobile platforms to vary the setting, the production is framed by projections, first of the Seattle Ring logo (suspended perhaps over the basketball hoop, as in Brooklyn), finally of stills from the four plays which retell the story as the Cleveland Orchestra plays the finale over the loudspeakers. The only gimmick is something called The Great American Scene Machine (available from most lighting rentals for about $150 a week), which can create walls of fire, floating clouds and other fine effects with colored lights and an oscillating disc-and-lens system. There are tracks for movable scenery, which is set up by the same hands that operate the river.

In Somers, Caggiano had five assistant directors responsible for props and scene changes, who also took blocking and staging notes at rehearsals and kept a production book with diagrams. The cast of fifty included three adults—as Wotan, Fasolt (Steinman himself) and Fafner (the father of the brother and sister who played Siegmund and Sieglinde). Everyone in Somers was costumed by an intrepid teacher’s aid, Helen Webber, for about four dollars each, including fake fur. A parent built the disk, about twenty-three by fifteen feet, and the art teacher supervised the painting of the scenery, which was cut out of Homasote. The ring itself was a plastic curtain-rod ring with a red plastic translucent ponytail ball glued onto it. It is a big ring, and in Somers there were several of them, so elementary stage magic was possible—the Rhinemaidens, for instance, could hold one up instantly when Brünnhilde threw hers into the Great American Scene Machine flames.

There were many fine performances. Mime and Alberich were appropriately foul-faced, Loge was slimy, Gunther spineless and Freia beauteous in her yellow chiffon cocktail dress. Siegfried, a spunky real-life gymnast, and Brünnhilde, an older girl in athletic socks, believed in what they were doing, and their wildly disparate heights (the warrior-goddess was a foot taller than her hero) seemed a thing to rejoice in. Erda was a real find, a funny, round-jowled girl draped in lavender, eerily embodying Anna Russel’s “green-faced torso.” Alberich snatched the gold to the E-flat susurrations that start Das Rheingold, Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s eyes met on the love theme, and Siegfried lunched on a turkey leg during the forest murmurs.

And there are great lines. Gods to Wotan, after Freia has been carried off [in woeful unison]: “Wotan, Wotan, do something—we can feel the wrinkles happening!” Brünnhilde to Gutrune [snidely]: “You were never Siegfried’s wife. You were a mere interloper.” And so on.

Codetta (January 2002)

On January 30, 1980, Caggiano’s Ring was given its New York City premiere, with the original cast, at Kaufmann Concert Hall on 92nd Street, presented by the Wagner Society of New York. In March 1982, his adaptation was published by Avon Books as The Ring, ISBN 0-380-79434-9 (now out of print). The plays are very well done—accessible but not condescending—and the book includes the Opera News article above and a detailed list of 37 instrumental excerpts from the tetralogy (totalling nearly 40 minutes) which should be played at specified times. For example, here’s the text for the first excerpt, including the locations in the G. Schirmer scores:

The Rhine River (over dialogue)
2 minutes 30 seconds
page 2, measure 10 through page 5, measure 6
(fade on measures 5 and 6)

Regrettably, there is no evidence of a production featuring William Gaddis as Wotan.

—Alan Westrope

William Gaddis website