When an opera company wants to make the leap into the big leagues, it raises millions and stages a Ring cycle. Since its completion in 1874, Richard Wagner's 15-hour, four-opera cycle based on ancient German and Scandinavian mythology, The Ring of the Nibelungen, has provided fodder for racist megalomaniacs, inspiration and aversion for composers great and minor and the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoon ever (1957's What's Opera, Doc?). But never before has the contest among gods, heroes and dwarves for the ring of power that will rule the world been turned into a quest for the perfect tan.
Only the creatively demented imagination of Opera Theater Oregon's artistic director, Katie Taylor, could have done that. Wagner's tale is the vehicle for the company's new production based on that notorious 1990s weekly paean to bronze bodies, Malibu superficiality and beach-safety tips: Baywatch, with its modern blond gods and goddesses, gliding and strutting heroically in paradise. "The very idea of Baywatch conjoined with the Ring was so enjoyably ludicrous that I couldn't resist it," Taylor recalls, "in spite of the fact that Wagner's music had always made me feel like a damp, heavy, evil-smelling blanket was being pulled over me." But when perpetrating such Rocky Horror-style projects, "I do always seem to be drawn to source material I hate," she explains. "I think if I loved an opera too much, then I couldn't mess with it adequately."
Taylor found a 1994 episode called "KGAS the Groove Yard of Solid Gold" that provided a typical quest narrative that sort of fit the first Ring opera, Das Rheingold. She somehow inveigled its co-writer, series creator Greg Bonnan, into granting permission to use the story, and set about adapting the two stories to one another while paring Wagner's three-hour monstrosity into a 21st-century listener-friendly 80-minute extravaganza.
Music director Erica Melton, with Electric Opera Company's Bobby Ray and singer Ben Landsverk, rearranged the original 100-instrument score for a 16-piece chamber orchestra, including a half dozen electric guitars, electric bass and drums. Taylor compares EOC's sound to Queen: "It's like listening to eight Brian Mays and eight Angus Youngs," she says. Really, how far is such an electrified epic from, say, a Decemberists song cycle?
Along with the contemporary sound, non-opera fans should enjoy typical Opera Theater Oregon antics: clever staging, onscreen explosions and preshow leitmotif bingo (spot the recurring musical theme associated with a character—one of Wagner's many musical innovations that lurks in almost every film score today). While the company may poke fun at the genre's pretensions, it takes its music very seriously, and opera fans will surely cackle at the in jokes, such as the "tan-helm."
Even Taylor admits that she came away from her two-year Wagner-boarding immersion impressed. "It's the only music I've ever sung that makes me feel totally obliterated on a personal level—as if I could be anyone, and I'm just stepping into this vast, elemental thing totally incapable of being influenced by human beings," she says. "I have to acknowledge how amazing it is that someone was able to accomplish such a thing, and it's exhilarating and seductive to be swept up in it. But at the same time, it's horrid, and I wouldn't want a career as a Wagner singer for anything in the world.
"My chief consolation is how much Wagner would hate this production," she continues. "Here's hoping he will spin in his crypt when he hears Wotan sing, 'Raise your flotation device.'"
Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., 205-0715, operatheateroregon.com. 7:30 pm Feb. 17, 19, 20, 24, 26 and 28. Leitmotif bingo begins before each performance at 7 pm. $15. Not appropriate for children under 10 or genocidal Austro-German dictators.