Every Saturday afternoon a 9-year-old boy plunks down next to his father and together they listen. The radio dial properly adjusted, a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Puccini's La Bohème begins. A gentle melody rises -- first from the clarinets and then the violins -- and a bit later Mimì makes a timid entrance. Soon after, her aria, “Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì,” envelopes the father and son. The boy closes his eyes as he envisions Paris’ Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve.
So began Jim Kincaid’s lifelong fascination with opera.
He recalls with fondness the hours he spent alongside his father and an old, scratchy radio. Their discussions of opera fueled a love for the complex art form that Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor of English in USC College, now hopes to share with his students and anyone else who will listen.
When the Los Angeles Opera announced its plans to partner with more than 100 Southern California arts and educational institutions to stage an arts festival around its production of perhaps the most monumental opera work of all time — Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen — Kincaid immediately knew he and USC College had to join the effort.
The only problem was, although he had enjoyed an intimate connection with opera since his childhood, Kincaid confessed he knew little about Wagner or his four-opera cycle, which runs approximately 15 hours. But for a seasoned scholar who has vowed to never teach the same material twice, this presented the perfect challenge. Kincaid dove into many of the thousands of volumes written on Wagner and multiple video recordings of the composer’s vaunted work, and eventually emerged with a plan to engage students of all ages.
Wagner composed the Ring cycle — “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” (The Valkyrie), “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” (Twilight of the Gods) — between 1848 and 1874. He based the work, loosely, on Norse mythology. At its heart a tale of the epic struggles on Earth and in the heavens through several generations, the opera was originally staged in the German city of Bayreuth over four days. Wagner conceived the Ring as a massive, yet unified, festival event that completely engaged the city in all aspects of the arts.
Ring Festival LA intends to do the same. Through a variety of special exhibitions, performances, symposia and special events at venues throughout Southern California this spring, the festival will encourage local residents and cultural tourists from around the world to experience the first-ever presentation of the Ring cycle in Los Angeles.
“LA Opera’s presentation of the Ring cycle, a mammoth undertaking, will in a sense be the Company’s coming-of-age celebration,” said Plácido Domingo, LA Opera’s Eli and Edythe Broad General Director. “But we also wanted it to become a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles.”
Sharing this enthusiasm for the city-wide festival, Kincaid crafted a new spring semester course, “Opera, Culture, History and Thought,” around the Ring for the Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program, housed in the College, as well as a continuing education, four-session series open to the public. The continuing education series will begin in June and will cover highlights from the MLS course. With these and other MLS program activities, the College became an inaugural “Official Ring Festival LA Partner.”
“I teach a course on Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and they’re wonderful, but many students have already read them and know how to read novels,” said Kincaid, who chairs the MLS program board. “So, it’s hard to get students off balance. With Wagner and opera, they’re off balance to begin with, or almost all of them will be. I’ll try to approach the Ring from enough different angles that I can find something to interest any student and try to get under their skin with the music — try to let it seep in.”
Through both the class and series, Kincaid hopes to explore how the 20th century and the one in which we live have been shaped. While some may claim nothing could be more irrelevant to our contemporary lives than Wagnerian opera, Kincaid points out that the Ring provides a provocative springboard by which to investigate ideas of the hero, fascism, the unconscious, gender, and the allure of death, to name just a few.
“Wagner is so central to how the 19th century turned into the 20th and certainly how the 20th turned into the 21st,” Kincaid said. “He’s a great vehicle for raising enormous central questions whether you like music or not.”
One issue Kincaid intends to address head-on is Wagner’s ties to anti-Semitism and show how this, too, provides for compelling discussion. While Wagner did not have a direct relationship with the Nazis, they nevertheless appropriated the Ring into a showcase for Nazi propaganda. By separating out the question of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, both as a historical phenomenon and Wagner’s own writings on it, Kincaid will encourage students to examine whether anti-Semitism has any connection to the experience of Wagner’s operas.
In addition to a wide range of texts, from Wagner’s own to Scandinavian myth and German philosophy as well as diverse music selections, Kincaid’s MLS course will draw on an eclectic group of College faculty to further illuminate the Ring’s transcendence across disciplines. Members of the College’s English, comparative literature, gender studies, Spanish and Portuguese, history, philosophy, American studies and ethnicity, political science, and art history departments will join experts from LA Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Museum of Tolerance as guest lecturers throughout the semester.
For one speaker, John Nuckols, this will be an especially welcomed return to the classroom. Nuckols, who earned his M.A. in English in 1995 and did his doctoral work in the College, was a subscriber to LA Opera throughout his graduate career. A passion that grew from his Balcony B seat eventually led Nuckols to fundraising and to his current position as LA Opera’s vice president of advancement.
When Kincaid, his dissertation adviser and mentor, approached Nuckols about his participation in the course he was delighted not only to share his knowledge on the subject, but to grant MLS students access to LA Opera’s production process, including early rehearsals.
“Part of my mission is finding new ways to get people more engaged in this art form,” Nuckols said. “Opera has a stereotype of being elitist but when individuals are properly introduced to it, especially younger people, they begin to see how powerful and beautiful it is. And that opera is really something that is very visceral and accessible.”
Nuckols views opera itself as a liberal arts education and the Ring as particularly indicative of this. “Opera is in many ways the most complete art form and the most collaborative,” he said “It’s music, it’s narrative, it’s theatre, it’s dance, it’s visual art.”
Continuing education students enrolled in the four-session series, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Meaning, Sources and Influences,” will also have the opportunity for a backstage tour. With area residents and visitors from around the world flocking to L.A. to watch the Ring, the MLS program hopes to enhance attendees’ appreciation of the production with such behind-the-scenes access and expert-led sessions.
As part of the pre-festival “Road to the Ring” activities, USC College and the MLS program will present “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: 101,” on USC’s campus on Jan. 21 with the USC Alumni Association and the USC Thornton School of Music. Kincaid will join Kenneth Cazan, resident stage director for USC Thornton Opera and associate professor of vocal arts and opera in USC Thornton School of Music, for a point-counterpoint discussion of the Ring’s significance in 20th-century history, philosophy and culture, and the controversies that surround it.
Then on April 15, the MLS program officially kicks off its participation in Ring Festival LA with a panel discussion, “From Nietzsche to Star Wars: The Wagnerian Power of the Ring,” at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring Kincaid, Nuckols, University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English Leo S. Braudy, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and Comparative Literature Roberto Ignacio Diáz, and USC Associates Chair in Humanities and Professor of English, and American Studies and Ethnicity John Carlos Rowe. The panel will delve into how the Ring’s themes and symbols have permeated literature, philosophy, psychology, and even films and cartoons.
This interdisciplinary inquiry into issues of relevance to today’s world is at the heart of the MLS program, which intends to offer similar events and courses in conjunction with future LA Opera productions. “We are working to connect the expertise of USC College faculty teaching in the MLS program with the communities of other regional cultural institutions,” said Susan Kamei, associate dean for advanced and professional programs, and director of the MLS program.
Through its Ring Festival LA-inspired programming, Kincaid and the MLS program invite individuals of all backgrounds to consider how we hear our world and relate to it — through its myths and political and intellectual foundations. There will be plenty of listening; but don’t worry, singing won’t be required.
Register for USC College’s continuing education course “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Meanings, Sources and Influences” at college.usc.edu/registration-ll.
Register for "Wagner’s Ring Cycle: 101" at www.alumniconnections.com.