Completing the cycle

Home to Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks Coffee and Twin Peaks, Seattle is also the Ring centre of America.

This is the land of the legendary Bigfoot, Red Indian Chief Seattle, Snoqualmie (venue for TV's Twin Peaks), the home of Boeing airplanes and Bill Gates's Microsoft, where the last frontier of the Wild West abuts tomorrow's technological interface. Nowhere is this synthesis better realised than in the Seattle Ring, proudly billed by the Seattle Times as the city's "claim to international fame in the opera world". So just what is this small-ish city, nestling in the far Pacific North-west between two snow-capped ranges of towering mountain peaks, doing mounting a project of so vast a scale?

Thanks to its mostly Scandinavian and German settlers, the city has boasted a strong musical tradition since the late 1800s, but it was Seattle Opera's founder, Glynn Ross, who in 1975 made Seattle's name as the US's premier Ring city by presenting the first American cycles the way Wagner intended them - all in one week (the New York Met only caught up in 1990).

In 1986 Speight Jenkins, Ross's successor as general director, unveiled a new Ring directed by Francois Rochaix, with design by Robert Israel and lighting by Joan Sullivan. It offered an intimate, human conception of the characters, intended to provoke, stimulate and excite - but without doing violence to the music. From their decision that no singer should ever sing meaningless words came a post-modernist vision of a world where swords break, horses fly, fires flame. Jenkins loves to tell how Seattle's firemen all became Wagner fans while monitoring the incendiary rehearsals and performances of Gotterdammerung (272,000 BTUs of propane flame per minute: "the largest on-stage fire in theatre history"). There is even a live bear in Siegfried ("animals are trained using food and affection as positive reinforcement") and a huge, spinning God Tower. It is this Ring that is now being given for the last time, and loyal audiences are already lamenting the retirement of the famous flying horses.

As one would expect in this home of state-of-the-art technology, hi-tech wizardry features strongly in the staging: special effects for Das Rheingold include some dazzling disappearances and transformations by Alberich, a shimmering, slippery Rhine bed, and a "real" rainbow with lights and smoke. The capacity first-night audience was clearly delighted, and gave special ovations to the conductor Hermann Michael's warm, sympathetic reading, the excellent Seattle Symphony (whose horn section's foyer fanfares had lured us into the auditorium), and the luscious-voiced Erda, Nancy Maultsby (making her Seattle Opera debut). The cast, mostly American, is a strong one, with Monte Pederson's Wotan and Julian Patrick's Alberich - here seen as mirror-images of one another in a play-within-a-play in which Wotan is the theatre manager, planning the performances and controlling the actors in his Gesamtkunstwerk - particularly notable.

All this year's cycles were sold out in advance, with 85 per cent of the seats having gone by March. Yet so big a project is only possible thanks to the extraordinary civic support that plays such an important part in American funding of the arts. Much is made here of the economic impact of the 1995 Ring cycles on the local economy: for an investment of $3.7m, local businesses are expected to recoup an estimated $26m from the dozen sold-out performances. The marketing department reports that 70 per cent of ticket-buyers (53 per cent of whom come from beyond Washington state) are first-time Ring attendees in Seattle, providing an enviable base of money-spending tourists.

But the Seattle Ring is primarily supported by the Ring Fund, with "Ringleaders", the Boeing Company, in the $100,000-plus bracket, and Microsoft close behind ($55,000-$99,999). The International Ring Donor Roster boasts names from most of Europe (including Britain's Lord Young), as well as Australia, Japan and all 50 of the United States; while the ladies of the Seattle Opera Guild organise regular fund-raising events, including "Coffee Chats" with the production team (this is the home of Starbucks Coffee after all), "Ring for Beginners" talks and "Meet the Artists" sessions in the nearby Famous Pacific Dessert Company. With so much going on, it's no wonder Seattle is "sleepless".

n Ring cycles continue to 27 August, Seattle Center Opera House (001- 206-389 7699)

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