June 15th, 2015

The Skylight Ring

On Sunday afternoon, June 7th, we went to see “The Skylight Ring,” billed as “Wagner’s Ring cycle in two hours.

While it’s possible to condense the story of “The Ring of the Nibelung” into as little as forty-five minutes, as done by the late Anna Russell, it’s essentially impossible to do it without humorous effect, and “The Skylight Ring” does definitely go for the laughs.

Wagner’s Ring over all takes up eighteen hours, is most often performed over the course of four separate evenings, and has a cast of thirty characters plus chorus, and a large orchestra. The Skylight Ring was performed by a cast of four playing two dozen characters, with one of the performers, Robert Frankenberry, also providing accompaniment on the piano. A great deal of the condensed action is delivered either as narration, also by Frankenberry, or by modernized dialog. Actually, this was our largest complaint with the performance: too much talking and not enough singing. Even if you accept the old saw that “Wagner has wonderful moments—and bad half hours—“ there’s more than enough great music in the Ring to fill a two hour “greatest hits” session. Excerpting may be a problem, as Wagner doesn’t often break his later operas down into arias, but it can be done.

Anyway, what we did get was entertaining, if pretty far from Wagner in a lot of ways—notably the ways in which The Lord of the Rings influenced this production—a “ring” of influence, if you will, since Tolkien borrowed the idea of the cursed ring that is desired by all who behold it from the Volsungasaga, the literary source of Wagner’s adaptation of the Nibelungenleid. In particular, the ring is referred to several times as having world-shattering power, an idea that comes from Tolkien, not the Icelandic poets. In addition, Alberich (Mr. Frankenberry), the dwarf who forswears love in order to seize the Rhine treasure, becomes a sort of “Gollum” figure, stalking the Ring through the generations of the Volsungs, disguised (in this version) as the villains Hunding, Mime, and Hagen. (Rather like those productions of “Tales of Hoffman” where the same bass-baritone sings all four villain roles--.)

The other singers each also took on a number of roles, with Tim Rebers pivotal part being Wotan, but covering everything from the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde to the raven Memory (Munin). Erin Sura had some of the longest singing bits as Brunnhilda, but also played Freia, Loge, The Norn, The Forest Bird, and Gutrune. Colleen Brooks, recently seen as Dora Marx in “The Snow Dragon,” played among others Fricka, Fasolt, and Erda, but had her largest role (and the most fun) playing the swaggering and shallow Siegfreid.

The simple set consisted of the stage floor done as the section of an enormous tree, referring to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, which was also represented as a kind of cartoon signpost pointing in all directions at one side of the stage. A large chest up center held props. Costumes were partial and representative (crowns, cloaks, eyepatch--), which resulted in some amusing and sometimes clever effects, as when, for Seigfried to disguise himself as Gunther, Ms. Brooks appropriates and dons the “nose glasses” Mr. Rebers had been wearing as the Gibichung.

The performance was not without musical high spots, notably Ms. Sura’s songs as Brunnhilde, and Mr. Rebers’ evocation of the ring of fire as Wotan. The piano score was well played by Mr. Frankenberry, but just does not succeed in doing justice to Wagner’s music. Wagner, of all opera composers, was perhaps the greatest master of the horns, and “The Ride of the Valkuries/Brunnhilda’s Battle Cry” without brass is, frankly, an egg without salt.

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Milwaukee Public Museum, Sy Montgomery, “The Soul of an Octopus”

On Friday evening, June 12th, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for the first of a new series of lectures, to be called “Science on Tap.” This inaugural program featured author Sy Mongomery, who would be speaking about her experiences working with Giant Pacific Octopuses that formed the basis of her new book, The Soul of an Octopus.

Given her lengthy career and past books such as Spell of the Tiger, about the tigers of Chunderbund, Bangladesh, and Journey of the Pink Dolphins, about the dolphins of the Amazon, I was expecting a rather more weather-beaten figure, someone like Jane Goodall, perhaps, but was surprised by her slim and elegant figure. She also doesn’t “lecture” in the conventional sense. Her style is very intimate and confiding, as though we were all gathered in someone’s living room, rather than a lecture hall with huge close-ups of octopuses projected on screen. This manner very well suits her fascinating and very personal narrative of interacting with the octopuses she has met, giving us no room to doubt that they were each individuals, and very intelligent, though wonderfully alien ones at that.

The octopus is stranger than I had imagined. A fifty-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the diameter of an orange, if not smaller. Each of its hundreds of suckers can lift thirty pounds. The octopus brain can have seventy lobes, and some of its tentacles may be capable of not only independent action, but of having independent “personality” (as though your left hand were shy, but your right hand was outgoing--). The octopus tastes with all of its skin, but apparently does not hear. The eye of the octopus does not see color, but the octopus not only changes color depending on its emotions, it can change color and pattern to camouflage itself, matching its backgrounds. It is hard to imagine a creature more totally unhuman, yet octopuses are capable of recognizing and bonding with individual human beings.

Ms. Montgomery gave a very entertaining and informative talk, and I will definitely be reading her book (as soon as Georgie is done with it--). This was an excellent kickoff to the “Science on Tap” series, which is to include four programs a year, with the next one, on plate tectonics, to be in October.
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Racine Art Museum, “A Whole Other World”

On Sunday, June 14th, we drove to Racine to visit the Racine Art Museum. The drive itself was not without its adventuresome aspects, as not only is the main freeway exit to downtown Racine, Highway 20, closed, the rain in the area wasn’t as gone as we had hoped, and there was some rather tense driving between Franksville and Racine on the detour route as there was a fortunately fairly brief downpour.

We managed to find the Museum without difficulty, and also found free parking (on Sunday) in a ramp one block east. I don’t know if it was the daunting rain, or if it was Sunday, or both, but downtown Racine was very quiet, and we were two of a dozen or so people that visited the Museum while we were there. Admission was a very reasonable three dollars each, and the lady at the counter was very helpful and friendly, stashing our dripping umbrellas out of the way for us.

The Museum currently has two major exhibits. On the first floor is “Contemporary Art Jewelry at RAM,” which was fascinating and worth the price of admission itself. The exhibit was made up of recent additions to the Museum’s permanent Jewelry collection, and included some really unusual and interesting items. Also part of that exhibit (although stretching the definition of jewelry) was a piece entitled “Byobu,” by Mariko Kusimoto, which was a toy theatre made out of metal, decals, and magnets, which allowed one to assemble scenes and characters paper-doll fashion.

The second floor hosts “A Whole Other World: Sub-Culture Craft: Artists Inspired by Doctor Who, Star Wars, Steampunk, and Superheroes,” which we had specifically come to see. This was, as one might expect, a very eclectic exhibit. We were met by three fantasy dresses by Timothy Westbrook, which were also featured in oil paintings by Gary Leonard, an unusual juxtaposition. Other fashion items included dresses by Silversark, and clockwork jewelry by Creek Van Houten (Compass Rose Jewelry). There was a display of “jetpacks” by Magnus Effing, Charles Tritt, and others of the “Airship Fortuna” crew. Centerpiece of the Doctor Who portion of the exhibit was an enormous quilt, depicting the The Tenth Doctor, 96 by 68 inches (eight feet by five feet eight inches) done in white and sepia tone squares each roughly the size of a large stamp. Star Wars was represented by a thirty-foot long “Coruscant Tapestry” (by Aled Lewis) and a croggling four-foot long “Millennium Falcon” (by Thomas E. Richner) composed mostly of cardboard. Cheong-Ah Hwang provided intricate cut-paper bas-reliefs of superheroes which were an elegant contrast to humorous hand-knitted “supersuits” by Mark Newport. (I thought the familiar red and blue “Sweaterman” cleverest.)

This exhibition continues through September 6th. Reviewing the Museum’s website, I’m annoyed to discover that there is the additional exhibit, “Sci-Fi, Superheroes, and Steampunk: RAM Community Art Exhibition”, which is at an entirely separate location, the Wustum Museum. Particularly annoying since the route we took in and out of town drove us right past the Wustum, on Northwestern Avenue. Foo! I must read websites more closely in future. However, the Wustum is closed Sundays, so we couldn’t have seen it anyway--. Which is annoying in a different fashion--. The main exhibits are worth going to just for themselves, but I would plan to go on a day when I could see both museums.

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