Wagner’s Ring cycle is one of the most massive projects an opera company can undertake. As a writer, how did you approach topics of such epic scale as the Ring and Wagner’s colorful life?
I think of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, which teaches how to begin an enormous project and not panic. In my case it was CD by CD for the 18 CDs in my Ring recording. I began by listening to Wagner’s work and reading about his life, absorbing as much as I could, writing down everything odd or memorable. “Father put on puppet shows after dinner” — written down. “Tried to elope with the wife of a benefactor” — definitely written down. I also asked lots of people about their thoughts on Wagner, since the show’s not just about the man himself, but what he means to all of us. Finally, Lyric was instrumental in offering materials and suggesting areas for research.
Following the huge success of the Second City Guide to the Opera, what makes you excited about L! L! W!? What should audiences look forward to? What’s different about this project?
I was part of the first SC/Lyric collaboration, and I am thrilled to be back! I’ve basically been biding my time, waiting for Lyric’s call. That show covered a little bit of everything: as stated in the title, a guide to all things opera. This time, we zero in on a single topic – an enormous, timeless, hugely influential topic – and dig deeper. (It turns out, there’s plenty there.) Also, working with Lyric’s vastly talented singers was so much fun the first time that we’ve tried to incorporate them even more into the show. Finally, while our first show was a series of songs and sketches, our signature style, this show has a more connected story to tell.
Wagner was complicated, and people have strong opinions about him. What draws you to him?
Strong opinions are good. Writing about someone who most people describe with “Eh, he’s fine…” is harder. Larger-than-life personalities fascinate me because some of their worst traits are similar to our own flaws, amplified a little. We’ve all had moments of feeling overlooked, but only Wagner, feeling the same way at a dinner party, struck a high note and held it until everyone stopped talking and paid attention to him. (Really.)
While writing L! L! W!, what has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Wagner?
I will admit, I thought Wagner was more celebrated during his lifetime. I had no idea he had it so rough – always running out of money, often denied the critical acclaim he clearly wanted. I was surprised to learn about his political life – Wagner played a role in the revolution in Dresden. But of course, it’s Wagner: when it looked like the uprising wouldn’t be successful, he basically said, “Okay, I’m gonna skip town now – good luck going to jail and everything!” I think Wagner made a lot of people angry in his life.
Wagner began composing the Ring cycle more than 150 years ago. What makes it relevant today?
In its essence the Ring is a story about power, corruption, impossible quests, bravery, betrayal, love, and sacrifice. It will be around as long as people are. (And as our life spans increase, devoting four days to a single masterwork will feel like less and less of an imposition.)
What do you want audiences to know before they walk into L! L! W!? What do you want them to know by the end of the show?
Nothing you don’t already know. A comedy show shouldn’t require homework! Your current level of Wagner knowledge is perfectly sufficient. But I would like you to ask this question: