Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” in a Detroit Parking Garage

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In the psychogeography of modern life, parking garages are sites of anxiety and subtle terror. The doctor’s appointment is minutes away, and yet you are still frantically circling. The space you find is so torturously narrow that it could have been designed only in consultation with auto-body shops. Afterward, desperation rises as you wander acres of concrete, listening for your faintly beeping vehicle. The lighting is sepulchral, the air dank. Few soothing scenes in movies are set in garages: shady deals are done, witnesses are offed, Deep Throat speaks.

It made sense, then, that Yuval Sharon, the new artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre, chose a Detroit parking garage as the impromptu set for an abridged production of “Götterdämmerung.” The final installment of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle ostensibly addresses the twilight of the gods, but no gods appear onstage: according to the libretto, we glimpse them only in the far distance, at the climax, as fire consumes Valhalla. Instead, the opera is dominated by a compromised array of human beings, who move through a darkening, decaying world. In the prologue, we are told that Wotan, the chief of the gods, fatally wounded the World Ash Tree when he tore a branch from it to make his spear of power. The death of the tree stands in for the ruination of the earth by capitalism and industrialization. A multistory parking garage is as good a spot as any for the Wagnerian apocalypse.

The site was chosen out of pandemic-era necessity. When Michigan Opera Theatre began looking for a way to present socially distanced performances, it smartly reached out to Sharon, who, as the leader of the Los Angeles company the Industry, has made his name staging opera in unusual settings: warehouses, parks, city streets, limousines, train stations. Lyric Opera of Chicago became a partner in the Detroit production, and will host it in the spring. Some of the costumes and props were borrowed from Lyric Opera’s “Ring” cycle, which was on the verge of a full presentation when the shutdown began.

The basic scheme of Sharon’s “Götterdämmerung”—retitled “Twilight: Gods”—recalls that of the Industry’s 2015 project “Hopscotch,” in which limousines conveyed audience members to locations around Los Angeles. In Detroit, convoys of eight cars drove up the ramps of the Detroit Opera House garage, allowing passengers to witness scenes on six levels; each day of the run, the process was repeated twelve times. The performers were miked, and the audio was piped into the cars on dedicated FM stations.

“Götterdämmerung” usually lasts six hours, including intermissions. Sharon’s version, which used chamber-sized arrangements by Edward Windels and incorporated several prerecorded Wagner-based pieces by Lewis Pesacov, lasted just over an hour. The sequence included the Valkyrie Waltraute’s narration of the gods in decline; the magnificently menacing dialogue between the half-human Hagen and his dwarf father, Alberich, as they plot to seize the ring of power; the hero Siegfried’s exchange with the Rhinemaidens, who plead for the return of the ring; Siegfried’s death at Hagen’s hands; and the final monologue of the banished Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who rides onto Siegfried’s pyre with the ring, thereby redeeming the world.

The task of summarizing the plot fell to the Detroit-born poet, historian, and activist Marsha Music. She assumed the guise of the earth mother Erda, who appears in earlier stages of the “Ring” but not in “Götterdämmerung.” Music’s condensation of the story was elegant, sly, and at times politically pointed. Before the finale, she put the fall of the gods in contemporary terms: “To pandemic and plague, the world has succumbed / The end of days—it now has come / Jealousy, envy and skies fire red / And discarding and lying and defiling the bed / And courting then ghosting and boldfaced lies / And bragging and boasting, and making hearts cry.”

With accompaniments ranging from a single player to an ensemble of nine, the grandiose thunder of “Götterdämmerung” was absent, but the performance had considerable musical impact nonetheless—underscoring Nietzsche’s counterintuitive, half-sardonic remark that Wagner was “our greatest miniaturist in music.” During Waltraute’s monologue, a solo cello conveyed much of the spacious sorrow of the drama. The Hagen-Alberich scene, a festival of abyssal timbres, featured a superbly clammy trio of electric bass, bass clarinet, and accordion. A quintet of violin, harp, marimba, and vibraphones evoked the shimmering waters of the Rhine. Pesacov contributed some moody, Kraftwerk-like fantasias on Wagnerian material and an unexpectedly funky version of Siegfried’s Funeral Music—adding a taste of Motown to the mix.

Similar economy and ingenuity governed the scenic elements, which were designed by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras. A blue drop cloth was rolled out for the Rhine; Alberich and Hagen sat in armchairs or glared at each other through chicken-wire fencing, which was built into the grim décor of the garage. As you drove up one ramp, you saw black-clad figures scrawling the names of some deceased “Ring” characters—Siegmund, Sieglinde, Hunding, Mime—in chalk on the walls. The ultimate coup was Brünnhilde’s entrance in the passenger seat of a Ford Mustang—a locally manufactured steed that took the place of the horse Grane. Guides held up a sign reading “Follow the Mustang”; the spectators drove up onto the rooftop level, where Brünnhilde got out of her vehicle and sang her closing monologue amid an assemblage of burned-out cars, with the Detroit skyline looming in the background.

For opera-starved audiences who have endured months of glitchy live streams, the greatest joy of “Twilight: Gods” was the chance to hear first-rate singers live. Christine Goerke, in the role of Brünnhilde, summoned all the vocal heft and emotional force that she has brought to conventional stage outings, and she showed an extra glint of glee as she jumped into the Mustang to ride onto the metaphorical pyre. Morris Robinson and Donnie Ray Albert contributed nuances of familial resentment to their secure characterizations of Hagen and Alberich. Catherine Martin, Avery Boettcher, Olivia Johnson, and Kaswanna Kanyinda gave lyric warmth to Waltraute and the Rhinemaidens. Sean Panikkar, a onetime lyric tenor whose voice has lately taken on commanding power and weight, proved thrilling in his brief appearance as Siegfried: I only wish that the abridgment had given him more to do.

Singers of color were in the majority in the cast of “Twilight: Gods,” which made me think about the project’s political resonance. Marsha Music’s narration pitched the piece against Trumpian politics, and the imminent Presidential election shadowed videotaped messages that were played in an outdoor lot before the show: Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, who was recently the target of a failed right-wing terrorist plot, praised Sharon for “reimagining the boundaries of opera.” The idea of attaching Wagner to a progressive agenda may seem strange at first glance. The composer was, after all, a ferocious racist who became a symbol of Nazi propaganda. On the other hand, leftists from George Bernard Shaw to Vsevolod Meyerhold saw Wagner as a kindred spirit, and several major African-American intellectuals—W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Shirley Graham, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes—took inspiration from his music. Whatever the outcome of the eternal debate over Wagner, Sharon has every right to yoke the malleable allegory of the “Ring” to the demands of the hour.

“Götterdämmerung” ends with a gloriously vague vision of a better future, in the form of a stately melody that unfurls slowly in the violins. Audience members heard this music as they descended the garage ramps. The sound design for “Twilight: Gods,” which was supervised by the composer Mark Grey, functioned perfectly throughout, but by intention the radio signal grew weak in those final moments: bursts of static obscured Wagner’s promise of redemption. I tried not to hear it as an omen. ♦

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