BEHIND THE SCENES with Jad Abumrad

Telling the story of a 20-hour opera, as well as the myth and mania behind it, was such an ambitious project. How did you condense that into 60 minutes, and were you tempted to spend more time on the mania

First of all, this was a team effort. Elena Park, Dean Capello, George Preston, and especially Aaron Cohen contributed mightily

But yes, the bigness of the Ring drove me nuts. At the start of the project, I argued for doing exactly what you suggest, skimming over the "what is it?" question and spending more time on "why is it STILL such a big deal," which I hoped would take us to lots of Wagner parties and Wagner classes and comic book stores and psychiatrist offices and maybe even backstage at the Met. We all had our own set of concerns. Aaron's was about music, Elena's about tone, Dean about striking the right balance between fans and non-fans. Mine in particular was that this documentary should live in the world, always be moving through physical space, location to location. Thankfully, we all got our way

In any case, the plot was the hard part. The thing just resisted summary at ever turn, mainly because Wagner didn't do summary. "Everything" is what he was aiming for. So our solution was to be ambitious too, use the plot as architecture, and the music as a sea to sail on. And that turned out to be the right decision, because the music is great and each opera within the cycle has scenes which encapsulate all the things we wanted to address (the passion, the myth, the mania). The trick came in selecting the right places to zoom out and the right place to zoom in

*So are you a huge opera fan? If not, was your newness to opera an advantage/disadvantage in making The Ring and I ?

I find everything about opera fascinating except for the actual experience of watching it. That hasn't really changed, but I was and am genuinely interested in knowing more opera, particularly with a work likeThe Ring *which continues to have this almost religious hold on people. So I wanted that genuine curiosity to come through. At the same time, I understood the limitations of being on the outside, so I wanted to make sure we didn't oversimplify or condescend just for the sake of drawing in new listeners. Where my newness turned to a disadvantage was again with the plot. In the second opera in particular, I tried to make certain creative "jumps" over whole characters and scenes, which earned me concerned looks early in the editing process.

**Were you concerned, as you produced this doc, that general audiences wouldn't be interested in a doc about an opera?***

*Absolutely. But that's the fun of it - taking the big heavy hippopotamus, strapping it with ballet shoes, and then watching it do a pirouette. It was like fuel in the tank every time a station program director said "An hour on opera? Are you crazy?" Plus, at Radiolab* , we often talk about big heavy topics that look dreadful on paper, so I was sort of used to it.***

**There is music throughout the hour-long documentary, complementing the storyline. What was your method in scoring this documentary?***

**Props go to Aaron for the scoring. I'd hand off chunks of script to him during the day and then he'd scour the score for music. Then we iterated back and forth until we were both happy. His insistence that the music follow the storyline was crucial.***

At any point did you imitate Wagner and play with the concept ofleitmotif **?***

*Interesting question. The short answer is no. But I'm totally fascinated by Wagner's use of leitmotifs, how music can very literally become storytelling. At any given moment, if you examine the way Wagner plays with the characters' leitmotifs, you realize that the music knows things that the characters don't, as if the part of the story we see on stage is only a tiny bit of iceberg poking above the water. Only the orchestra has access to what's underneath. I love the idea that music can express the inner life of a story. I sometimes think about that when scoring Radiolab* .***

*How did you find the people you interviewed for The Ring and I* ? Were you looking for the most passionate storytellers?***

**Lots of research. And we tried to find people who were hybrids -- equal parts fan and expert. Having both attributes in the same person (like Fred Plotkin, the food guy, for example) usually meant they could also tell stories well. And we gave preference to interviewees that had a location attached to them.***

**Once you'd finished making the doc, did you find your own appreciation of Wagner work had grown? Do you expect the same happens for listeners?***

**I hope listeners will react that way. We got this great letter from a guy in Texas about how the doc made him think differently about what art can do.***

*Yes, my own Wagner appreciation has certainly grown. But it's an "edited" appreciation. I like him in the one-hour form, and was actually quite surprised when I finally got the chance to see a performance of the second opera, Die Valkerie* . It's beautiful music, but things evolve so glacially. And the theatrics, at least of the Met performance I saw, seem... well... out of balance. Huge plumes of smoke, massive mountain sets, big Viking hats and such—and yet the performers rarely move.***

But I have grown to love certain passages of the music. The immolation scene in Gotterdamerung totally kills me.