By John Rockwell
Der Ring des Nibelungen has been interpreted as an anti-capitalist allegory, most notably by George Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite. In the San Francisco Bay Area, 1967 marked the apex of the hippie phenomenon although events in 1968 garnered more publicity. For those of us who were there at the flowing source of hippiedom, by 1968 the well was beginning to dry up, however lively things were bubbling downstream, in New York, Paris and Berlin. For us, Das Rheingold was perhaps better seen as the triumph of love over money-grubbing Pigs.
I was no hippie, really, whatever my parents thought. I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, supposedly pursuing my doctorate in German cultural history (which I eventually obtained) but spending an inordinate amount of time doing opera programs and late-night-hippie musical free-for-alls on KPFA, the flagship Pacifica station in Berkeley. I was also dancing with Ann (now Anna) Halprin, the still active, still vastly influential experimental choreographer; writing all manner of freelance articles, mostly about opera; going to vanguard arts and pop-cultural events; pursuing women with intermittent success; dabbling at the outer edges of alternative lifestyles and chemical substances; hoping one day to get somebody to let me be a for-real music critic.
I had had my various encounters with Kurt Herbert Adler, who imperiously ran the San Francisco Opera and whom, with a few blips, I much admired. In the late spring of 1965, seeking some way into the classical music business, I tried to become Adler’s publicity director. He strung me along in a protracted “tryout,” getting me to put out a newsletter on spec, then brought in the person whom he had probably already hired, cutting me adrift. I resented his exploitation but respected his cleverness. That summer, instead, I went over to Bayreuth and spent three months in Friedelind Wagner’s “master class” at the festival, which was a pretty wonderful consolation prize. The summer included extensive rehearsals and multiple performances of Wieland Wagner’s last Ring.
In the fall of 1967 Adler embarked on his own new production of the Ring, conducted by Leopold Ludwig and stage-directed by Paul Hager, both men Adler used a lot. All well and good, except that through the local opera grapevine I picked up on the news that Adler was considering inserting an intermission between the second and third scenes of Das Rheingold. Who knows why? Perhaps there were German-provincial precedents (like the reduced orchestrations by the composer himself used in matchbox houses like Freiburg’s), though I had never heard of such a thing. Maybe Adler wanted to let his high-society patrons stretch their legs and rest their rears. Maybe he was kowtowing to the caterers’ union, though that last one seems dubious.
I had participated in a few street protests during the 60’s – the fabled Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, anti-Vietnam War marches, demonstrations for racial equality. But my 60’s (like most of Northern California’s, as opposed to the more politicized East Coast and Europe) were the 60’s of sex, drugs and rock & roll. I bought in, up to the point of self-preservation, to the ethos of a new age, maybe not of the Age of Aquarius but at least one of freedom, exploration, liberation (of what from whom, I wasn’t quite sure; maybe it was just the longed-for liberation of Mime from Alberich’s lash).
For me, Das Rheingold is the least interesting opera of the tetralogy: too much expository plot, too dry a demonstration of the text-bound theories of “Opera as Drama.” Still, an intermission was an unthinkable despoliation of Wagner’s score and intentions. So, emboldened by the tactics of the time, I allowed myself to become more and more outraged at the sacrilege of a Rheingold intermission. And I had a bullhorn through which to bellow, or articulate, my views, in the form of KPFA, which was ever-eager to foment revolution from the left. Over and over, I harangued my listeners about the Philistinism of such an intermission. I even threatened to unleash the hungry hordes of hippie Wagnerians, however many there really were of those, to picket the Opera House at the first performance.
In the end, Das Rheingold came and went without an intermission. Perhaps Adler never planned such a dastardly desecration. Perhaps he backed down due to the counsel of wiser, less excitable advisers than I – or allowed his own better instincts to prevail.
But in the spirit of the 60’s, I like to look back on this incident as a triumph of the Power of the People – or at least the triumph of one semi-hippie grad-student baby music critic to affect the course of tangible artistic policy in a salutary way.
John Rockwell is based in Manhattan.