Richard Wagner believed in the power of myth and Der Ring des Nibelungen, which some would claim to be the mightiest single achievement in the history of Western art, is timeless. It is of course about more than the giants, gods, dwarfs and humans it portrays, and has been interpreted in many different ways. On one level, it clearly represents the conflict between love and the abuse and retention of power. But it has also been viewed as a critique of the industrialisation taking place during Wagner’s time, as a presage of ecological disaster, as a socialist allegory, even in terms of Jungian psychology – all of which testify to the fascination it holds over people.
However it is interpreted, David Pountney’s first complete production of the Ring cycle is first and foremost an act of narration, seeking to harness the power of the Icelandic myths. Fundamentally one of simplicity, the approach taken by the English director and librettist allows for the illusion to be recreated through the magical pact between storyteller and audience. In pursuit of what he bills “theatrical naïveté”, there is minimal recourse to elaborate staging or parallel commentary. The designs create a theatrical framework which continually reverts to the pristine, virginal condition of the empty stage. In this way the intimate scenes exploring human, psychological dilemmas are given greater focus, while imaginative direction transforms the arena for the public and political scenes. Within this overriding theatrical framework each instalment of the cycle has its own distinct identity: Das Rheingold is styled as a political cartoon, Die Walküre is an Ibsenesque drama; Siegfried an ebullient and magical child’s view of the world, and Götterdämmerung a grand opera of love, betrayal and revenge.
This tailoring of the Ring stems from Pountney’s belief in a fundamentally Anglo-Saxon penchant for storytelling, and it promises to be an unmissable event. Indeed, his Das Rheingold was previously described by the Chicago Tribune as ‘Nothing short of a triumph on all fronts, intelligently conceived by the creative team, brilliantly executed by a top-flight international cast’.
Carl Sandburg’s ‘City of Big Shoulders’, meanwhile, also tells an interwoven series of stories, and is still the continent’s most enjoyably assertive and distinctly ‘American’ city. Following the fire of 1871, it reinvented itself as the first modern metropolis, with the ‘Chicago School’ developing the technical means and artistic expression for a new kind of city, and of course, the skyscraper. In addition to the medium of buildings, Chicagoans told their story through collecting; and the Chicago Art Institute quickly established itself as one of the great galleries of America. Spread over a week, there is a balanced programme of guided tours and independent exploration of Chicago’s cultural riches.
Joining the tour. Flights from London are not included – see Practicalities. Gather in the hotel at 5.30pm to meet the lecturer and fellow participants for a drinks reception before dinner.
Morning lecture on tonight’s performance. Walk through ‘The Loop’ to see outstanding skyscrapers and monuments of the Chicago School, as well as some of the public art more recently installed, with notable works by Chagall, Calder and Picasso. Some free time followed by an early dinner. Civic Opera House, 7.30pm: Das Rheingold, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Eric Owens (Wotan), Zachary Nelson (Donner), Jesse Donner (Froh), Stefan Margita (Loge), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka), Ronnita Miller (Erda), Diana Newman (Woglinde), Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde), Samuel Youn (Alberich), Rodell Rosel (Mime), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Fasolt).
Morning lecture followed by a walk to Millennium Park, with Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The adjacent Chicago Art Institute is one of the world’s greatest galleries, and within the US matched only by the Met. The superb and encyclopaedic collection is best known for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, as well as a wonderful display of American paintings. A guided tour of selected galleries is followed by time for independent exploration. Civic Opera House, 6.00pm: Die Walküre, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Eric Owens (Wotan), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka), Brandon Javanovich (Siegmund), Elisabet Strid (Sieglinde), Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde).
This day is dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright: in Oak Park visit his Chicago home and studio for 20 years, built in 1889, and the birthplace of the Prairie School of architecture. The surrounding residential streets are home to a number of Wright designs and his Unity Temple. The evening is free.
Morning lecture followed by a backstage tour of the Civic Opera House (subject to confirmation). Guided walk to the Gilded Age Driehaus Museum via Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, including landmarks such as the Wrigley Building. Some free time until early dinner and the evening opera. Civic Opera House, 6.00pm: Siegfried, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Burkhard Fritz (Siegfried), Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde), Ronnita Miller (Erda), Rodell Rosel (Mime), Eric Owens (Wotan), Samuel Youn (Alberich), Tobias Kehrer (Fafner), Diana Newman (Forest bird).
Return to the Art Institute for a further tour in the morning. The rest of the day is free allowing for independent time in the museum. We also suggest an architectural cruise along the Chicago River.
Morning lecture on the final opera. Guided visit of Glessner House, a fine design of 1887 by H.H. Richardson which redefined domestic architecture. Some free time. Dinner will be served during this evening’s performance. Civic Opera House, 5.30pm: Götterdämmerung, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Burkhard Fritz (Siegfried), Samuel Youn (Alberich), Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde), Diana Newman (Woglinde), Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde).
Free morning. Check out by midday.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £5,810 Single occupancy: £6,520.
Hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 3 dinners; finger food served during 2 performances; wine, water, coffee; all admissions for included visits; transfers within Chicago; all tips; all taxes; the services of the two lecturers.
Top-category tickets (‘Main Floor Prime’) for all 4 performances are included, costing c. £1,950.
Flights from and to London to Chicago are not included in the price of the tour. If you would like to discuss your travel arrangements, we are happy to advise. The cost of a World Traveller (economy) seat at the time of going to press is c. £700 and will be available to book in early May 2019.
British citizens can enter the USA without a visa by applying for a visa waiver online. We will advise on this. If you have travelled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya or Somalia since March 2011 you are not eligible for the waiver and will need to apply for a visa.
Kimpton Gray Hotel: set in an historic insurance tower built in 1894 within ‘The Loop’, this new 4-star retains a classic feel. It is within walking distance of the Civic Opera House (taxis will be organised for those who wish) and The Art Institute. Rooms are of a fair size and excellent standard, with subtle décor.
Room upgrades are available on request.
Stamina is required for the long performances – and to cope with jet lag if flying from the UK. There is unavoidably a lot of walking in the city centre. Fitness is essential.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.