Isle opera lovers sing
'Ring' praises

An Arizona production draws fans
from Hawaii

By Jim Becker
Special to the Star-Bulletin

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Thirteen years ago, the celebrated impresario Glynn Ross completed work in Honolulu as consultant to the newly formed Hawaii Opera Theatre, and headed to his next assignment, director of the Arizona Opera.

His flight there took him over the Grand Canyon - and a dream was born.

"I thought, God has given us the Grand Canyon," Ross says, "and man should try to do something to reach for that, both spiritually and monumentally. I don't know anything more monumental than Wagner's 'Ring.' It's about life, death and redemption."

Ross determined then and there to bring Wagner's epic "Der Ring des Ribelungen," the "RingCycle" - four huge music dramas, a total of 24 hours of theater time spread over six evenings - to the Grand Canyon country.

George Gray

This month he brought it off - magnificently, triumphantly - with two complete cycles of the work that has been called the greatest achievement of music literature in Western civilization.

Everything seemed right for the "Ring."

The breathtaking - literally, Flagstaff is at 7,000 feet and breath is short at that altitude - natural wonders of Arizona, the Grand Canyon, the Red Rocks of Sedona, Monument Valley and the Painted Desert permeated the production.

The local legends of the Hopi and Navajo peoples enhanced the presentation of the mythical "Ring" story.

"Ringheads" from 48 states and 18 countries descended on Flagstaff for the presentations in the Auditorium of Northern Arizona University, an intimate space that closely resembles the special theater in Bayreuth, Germany, built for the "Ring" in 1876 and still home to the annual Wagner Festival, the hottest artistic ticket in the world.

And the Hawaii connection seemed omnipresent, beginning with Ross himself (who seems to remember every detail of his time in Hawaii as consultant to HOT), current HOT president Judge Evelyn Lance, of the now-thriving company, and opera buff Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, who was attending her first complete "Ring Cycle."

Hirono described it as a "total sensory experience," which was what Wagner intended when he spent 25 years writing it, and Ross, who has devoted much of his life to the "Ring," wanted.

During the "Ring" weeks in Arizona, Silvia Dahlby, the daughter of Honolulu sportswriter Dick Couch, met one of her former teachers at Kailua High, Jack Warriner, who with his wife spent 37 years in the Hawaii school system and retired as vice principal at Waianae High. Rosemarie Warriner spent her last four years as principal of Kalaheo High.

Their daughter, Sandra Linskey, is a science teacher at Castle.

Chuck Strang, longtime dean of Chaminade, surfaced, as did Herb Dauber and John and Elizabeth Galvin, members of the newly formed Wagner Society of Hawaii.

Ross even used surfing terminology to describe the Grand Canyon "Ring," which rode on the surge of enthusiasm he himself launched.

"Like the surfer, we're on a wave, and although it's impossible to be calm, we must keep our cool," he told the audience.

Glynn Ross' name has been linked with Wagner's "Ring" since he first brought it to Seattle in 1972, a time when "Ring Cycles" were dormant in our country.

Now 81, Ross began his career as a teen-ager by working his way across the Atlantic on a freighter and taking jobs as "gofer" in theaters all over Europe.

After service in World War II, during which he was wounded and was a guinea pig for the newly discovered drug penicillin, Ross worked at the opera house in Naples, and spent several years in Bayreuth, working with Wagner's grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, who revived the Festival there in 1951.

Ross founded Seattle Opera in 1963, and built it into the fourth largest company in the country - and more importantly sparked the revival of interest in Wagner's "Ring" in the United States.

(The Met in New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago have followed his lead with "Ring Cycles," and Seattle carries on the tradition.)

Ross left Seattle in 1983 under circumstances still not fully explained, came to Honolulu, and then took his fateful flight over the Grand Canyon.

The Arizona production was deliberately designed to make a statement against cluttered and political "Rings", which have proliferated elsewhere.

"Audiences have been reduced to discussing the props," Ross said.

"You will not leave our 'Ring' humming the scenery," added the director, Claus Konig. "Our 'Ring' is timeless and placeless - this is a presentation to free the imagination of each individual in the audience."

And the cumulative effect of the physical surroundings, the stage lighting, the striking scenic projections representing states of feeling by the artist Amy Shock, the splendid orchestral conducting of Stefan Minde, and the superb singing, particularly in the major roles, added up to an unparalleled triumph.

Praise was lavished on the Brunhilde, Karen Bureau, whose soprano is clear and clarion, touching and stirring by turns.

The six-six bass Edward Russell as Hagen (the villain of the piece) "simply blew me away," said the distinguished Salt Lake City critic Walter Rudolph, who has seen countless performances around the world.

And the tenor, George Gray, as the hero Siegfried, was hailed as the outstanding singer of this role in the world today.

Gray sang in Hawaii some years ago in Wagner's Flying Dutchman, and is anxious to get back.

"I'm afraid i couldn't concentrate the last time," he says. "I spent every day on Ala Moana Beach, swimming out to the rocks and back and thinking I had come to heaven."

Dr. Anna Chung of Manoa said: "The orchestral sound was marvelous."

Conductor Minde is a Hawaii veteran, having conducted "Faust" and "Turandot" for HOT.

The "Turandot" eight years ago was the first opera Lt. Gov. Hirono heard, and she was instantly hooked.

Minde approached the lieutenant governor in his Old World fashion, kissed her hand, and said: "I apologize, dear lady, for introducing you to this addiction, opera."

He was forgiven.

And as the Hawaii contingent made its way out after the final chapter in this saga of man's conquest and abuse of nature, and of his fellow men, of the struggle for power involving deals and stratagems - at once an entertainment, a world history in allegory and an analysis of the psyche conducted with vivid and eloquent musical and theatrical symbolism - Sylvia Dahlby turned to her mother, Aline Couch, and said:

"Glynn Ross promised me a religious experience - and he delivered."

Jim Becker, former columnist and current opera critic and previewer, has been to four "Ring Cycles" in the last 10 months, Seattle, Bayreuth, Chicago and Flagstaff, and says the Grand Canyon "Ring" was the grandest of them all.

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