Chicago stages drive-through Wagner in underground garage

A bit of Richard Wagner's “Ring” cycle is being performed in an underground parking garage in Chicago

Via AP news wire
Wednesday 28 April 2021 13:27
Opera-Wagner Underground
Opera-Wagner Underground

Amid signs pointing “To Elevator” and advising drivers to “Take Parking Ticket With You,” the Rhinemaidens lament the theft of their gold, Siegfried is murdered, and Brünnhilde drives off in a red Mustang convertible to redeem the world.

Welcome to opera in an underground parking garage.

A year after Lyric Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s complete “Ring” cycle was scuttled by the pandemic, the company has brought a bit of the epic back to life. But instead of walking into the opera house and taking their seats, spectators drive down into the garage and stay in their cars.

“Twilight: Gods,” as the production is called, is the brainchild of Yuval Sharon, who premiered it last November in Detroit where he had just been named artistic director of Michigan Opera Theater.

It’s a reimagining of “Götterdämmerung,” the final installment in Wagner’s four-part saga of gold, greed and the downfall of the gods. Using his own English translation, Sharon has distilled the four-hour-plus opera down to six episodes lasting just over an hour all together.

“He came to me with this amazing, wonderful, crazy idea,” said Anthony Freund, Lyric’s general director. “The cancellation of our ‘Ring’ … certainly made it seem particularly appropriate. There’s great excitement around it.”

So much so that all three performances, April 28-May 2, sold out almost immediately, as had all the Detroit shows. Still, the total audience for “Twilight: Gods” will be a fraction of the number who could watch a single performance in the Lyric Opera House, which has a seating capacity of 3,276.

But for now, the house remains closed to live opera, as do other major houses in the U.S., including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Many companies have instead reached out to audiences by streaming new content and videos of past performances or presenting opera in outdoor venues.

For “Twilight: Gods,” nine cars at a time, each paying an entry fee of $125, enter the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage, a 13-acre underground structure near the shore of Lake Michigan. Spectators watch the action through their windshields and listen to the music on their car radios.

When the first group of cars has finished a scene, they drive to the next location — the speed limit is 3 mph — and another nine enter. This continues until 14 groups of cars have cycled through the whole show, requiring the singers to perform their scenes 14 times each day.

In Detroit, Sharon used the company’s own parking structure, which is above ground and allowed scenes to be played on ascending levels open to the air at the sides. By contrast, in Chicago the action all takes place on the same subterranean level.

“It’s likely to have a much more labyrinthian feeling, a sense of being kind of lost in the space,” Sharon said. “It’s very appropriate for where we are now as a society, as we feel our way to where we are going next.”

And, indeed, at Monday’s dress rehearsal, winding in the dark through vast stretches of empty parking spaces from scene to scene created a disorienting sensation. This feeling was heightened after Siegfried’s death when the procession of cars was directed to snake through a section where 2,880 battery-powered candles burned on the floor, while his funeral march played in an arrangement for jazz combo.

The cast is largely the same as in Detroit, headlined by soprano Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde — the role she was to have sung in Lyric’s full production — and tenor Sean Panikkar as Siegfried. One key difference is the narrator who connects the segments.

In Detroit, Marsha Music, a local Black writer and cultural historian, portrayed Erda, the mother of the universe, who appears in two earlier “Ring” operas. For Chicago, Sharon chose avery r. young, a Chicago-born Black poet, composer and activist. He portrays all three of the Norns, the daughters of Erda who foretell destiny.

Young said Sharon “asked me to put a modern-day spin on the work, to tell the story the way a Chicagoan who grew up where I did would tell it.”

“A lot of the themes are aligned to things we see today in this political climate,” young said. “Who in this current America is given value and who is still protesting and advocating that they should be valued.”

In his version, Brünnhilde’s rock becomes a “stony island,” a reference to Stony Island Avenue, the thoroughfare that runs the length of Chicago’s predominantly Black South Side.

And young’s narration includes images of police brutality and the murders of black men, as in this passage about lynching: “like him know rope/ like him know tree/ like him know how much of dead/ make a bough break.”

Because a full orchestra was out of the question, Sharon had composer Ed Windels adapt the score for an unusual assortment of instruments, including an accordion in one scene and a marimba in another.

Freund said that once the pandemic is past, the company remains committed to presenting its full “Ring” in a future season. Meanwhile, a film of the Chicago “Twilight: Gods” will be released this summer and available for streaming free of charge.