It might as well start with a queue for the Gents: but it starts, when it starts, with a man in a chair. A thick-set man in an armchair, with grey beard and unkempt hair, who’s lowered through a trapdoor before the singing begins. Wry staging, I guess: the House is full for the first opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and, over the coming eight days, many members of tonight’s audience will sink 15 hours or so into the seats they’ve just taken. A man in a chair, sliding into the stage behind three slinky Rhine Maidens in fetching blue merkins: it’s an invitation to an immersion, a Rhine baptism, a cushioned surrender to the music and its world.
But I’ve opted out of this upholstered voyage. My seat’s no seat, it’s a couple of feet in which to stand. I am standing for the Ring. Standing in the gods. Standing while the gods and their sisters screw each other at length. Admittedly, I’m used to listening from up here in the slips, where a ticket costs less than a drink at the bar and I can scope out a seat for after the break. There’s a wooden beam to lean on at about chest height which – when the blood gets heavy, as it does, in the legs – doubles as a sort of barre for creaky demi-pliés and arabesques. The informality is welcome and my fidgeting almost seems licensed.
But this feels different: one of those cultural ordeals as pleasurable, I suspect, in the having had as in the having. A notch on the four-poster at my own private Neuschwanstein. If I stand for the entire Ring Cycle, I’ll have stood for the entire Ring Cycle. (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve taken a swanky delight in flicking away oversized works as though they were earwax.)
Not much further into Das Rheingold, the 150 minute, interval-free ‘preliminary evening’, chairs surface again. The second scene takes place on a mountaintop – in this case, a mountaintop with six chairs strewn around a fireplace in studied disorder. They are high-backed black leather dining chairs – the aesthetic straddles country house hotel and spanking-new bondage dungeon – and they don’t look very comfortable: Wotan’s moroseness seems amplified when he tries to sprawl on one, and a god in a florid dressing gown, Froh or Donner, rejects them to nap on a packing crate at the back of the stage. In the Nibelheim underworld, Alberich (the dwarf who in forging the ring is to blame for the Ring) lashes his brother to one with a red rope, like a dupe in a heist film.
The Ring Cycle comes pre-equipped with a clutter of symbolic furniture. A magical helmet. An important spear engraved with significant runes, which breaks at a pivotal juncture. An important sword made from significant metal, which breaks at a pivotal juncture. An important rope made, presumably, from significant fibres, which breaks at a pivotal juncture. A ring. But these symbols aren’t sufficient for the director of this Cycle, who has conceived the entire production in terms of things people do with chairs; sitting in them, toppling and tossing them – and breaking them at pivotal junctures.
So I’m stood on the terraces for an epic celestial game of musical chairs. About two hours in, a man further down the beam slumps to the floor, presumably to concentrate on the sound above the obstacles to hearing it.
Not sitting through all this Wagner stymies my already brief concentration span. This is a more serious problem when I return two nights later for Die Walküre, an opera best known for a shrill paean to sitting down on a horse. Rushing in from the afternoon for a 5pm start, I nearly crash into a bulky wheelchair in the opera house foyer; I get another view of it as I take my stand and the lights go down in the auditorium. The gods of course are playing tricks: I am opposite Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s most eminent man in a chair.
I’m in a raw mood and my thoughts scarper from the music, back to the office, to editorial chores – and to small rankles and failings that for some reason swell into sadness up here. I try to trick myself out of it, watching the maestro dancing through the score and its unfurling hours, and the musicians, who come and go through the acts from their chairs in the pit; watching six empty chairs that flank the stage behind harps (the harpists, when they appear, include a moustachioed plucker who resembles a Mario brother). Somewhere on stage, the chairs from the mountain have sprouted in a forest, and one gets knocked over at some kind of juncture, when the hero Siegmund clutches fatefully at his sword or his sister. And here is Brünnhilde, hiding behind a chair-leg with not much conviction. I leave the opera house almost six hours later, wishing I’d sat this one out.
I settle in for Siegfried at 3pm on Sunday afternoon. The leitmotif of the props cupboard is the same but different: the leather high-backs are gone, replaced by an ejector seat, a little camping stool, and a set of simple black wooden upright chairs. In the pit, one of the second violinists is heavily pregnant and looks to be in serious discomfort, shrinking back in her seat to clasp at her belly as she counts out the bars; when the brass slip out, she too leaves her place and doesn’t reappear. Someone throws a stool across the stage in the first act and I smile. And then, after some odd alchemical business, Siegfried stomps across Germany to fight the dragon that’s guarding the tarnhelm and ring: its cave is a steep incline cropped with an empty chair.
This is not as irksome as it would have been on Thursday. Today I’m willing to play along, and I let my thoughts drift to other vacant seats: Joseph Beuys’s Fat Chair, slathered in yellow lard, then Gerhard Richter’s Stool in Profile, his photo-realist portrait of a chair not taken. Works that address the aftermath of Bauhaus or some such, no doubt, but for me also functional chairs; everyday objects shown in unlikely ways, questioning what comfort we need when we’re looking at art. On stage there’s a song-battle between voices which seem to be hardening into things – a sword, dragons’ teeth – while I’m up here and my mind is elsewhere; with the body’s unavoidable solidity in the ambit of art; with the way its fatigue hijacks how we see; with the Louvre’s plush divans and a curtained ledge in Urbino; and with Marys on thrones, heavy child on the knee.
The distraction is cleaner today, and the music begins to weave through and pattern it in ways it hasn’t before; the music concentrates on me whenever I start to shirk it.
Wotan, a chair, a revolving platform: a chair thrown off a revolving platform. The earth goddess Erda enters in an armchair, four metres high; a man is visible through its diaphanous fabric, scuttling it downstage like some domestic siege engine.
Götterdämmerung, the gods’ twilight and last stand, starts at 4pm on Tuesday. There’s an hour of prologue, then the Hall of the Gibichungs with its upmarket chairs: a long, thin white sofa, stretching priapically across two-thirds of the set; stage left, an inviting bergère that nobody claims until the scene’s almost exhausted. Hagen fixes himself in it eventually, glowering out at the expensive seats across the pit.
In the interval, I exchange a few words with the elderly Japanese man who has stood on my left for more than 12 hours. He’s too old now, he tells me, to stand at the Proms; but his stillness and patience have embarrassed mine. My thoughts shift to age, and how age will bring sitting; and I now the count the brief pains that are dabbing my shins. And as the hours extend and the gods turn to ruin, I veer between postures too old or too young; a minute bent double for the ache in the coccyx, a minute jutting the belly to help out the legs – as if auditioning far too late for the coy bronze of David. And as Brünnhilde is trundled in, on a pivotal chair that is ringed with barbed wire and a clutch of bergères, I am once more elsewhere; what small time we have for standing, for its human discomfort.