Sketchbook: A Canadian Ring

The Ring Cycle is the operatic equivalent of Mt. Everest; every opera company feels compelled to try to climb it at one time or another, though not necessarily just because it's there. Recently, the Canadian Opera Company took on the task of bringing Canada's first fully staged Ring Cycle to fruition, with not one, but four directors: Michael Levine (Das Rheingold), Atom Egoyan (Die Walkure), Francois Girard (Siegfried), and Tim Alberry (Gotterdammerung). The great unifier in this undertaking is Levine, who also serves as production designer for the project, which will be seen in its entirety in the COC's new home at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto in September.

“There have been productions of the Ring where there have been different directors and designers for each opera with no visual or narrative link, but that's in Germany with an opera-going public that has a certain familiarity, and we don't have that here in Canada,” Levine says. “That's a challenge — to tell the story to the audience in a way that's clear to them. It's important to me and the other directors to find a certain imagery that people will relate to. Who do these gods, giants, serpents, and dragons represent? What characters are they manifestations of?”

Levine's initial inspiration was the Industrial Revolution. “We're not establishing the whole opera within the framework of the Industrial Revolution because it moves through time and space,” he says. “But, at the same time, there is a reference to that which was very present in Wagner's mind when he wrote Das Rheingold. He was under the influence of the anarchist movement when he was writing the Ring Cycle. The anarchist movement had a different connotation to what we think of now and, at the time, was a response to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — in a way, a desire to turn back time or stop it in its tracks.”

But Levine soon found numerous other layers beneath this mountainous epic. “One of the things you discover in the process of understanding the piece is that it's impossible to impose a rigid definition on it. As the operas progress, the story and its relationship to the music is always moving and changing. That's the challenge; that's also the delight.”