Paul Heise's review of " 'Diggin the Ring': An American Folk Opera," a talk presented by Ryan Smith (Univ. of South Carolina) at the Wagner Worldwide 2013 bicentennial symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina in the winter of 2013:
Smith notes that Wagner's "Ring" is one of the most parodied of artworks. A classic example is "Das Barbecu" [PH: if memory serves this takes place in Texas].
"Diggin the Ring" was written (Anthony Buttita, librettist) in South Carolina in the 1940's. It was an all-negro production, a spoof of the master-race.
Valley Hall, Mississippi, is the location. The music is taken from the chain gangs in the South, which express their helplessness and bitterness against the white masters.
Buttita co-edited a major leftist literary magazine, which had contributions from such authors as William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "The Cradle Will Rock" was published in it, as well as negro theater works.
Lawrence Gellert collected black protest and chain gang songs. The lyrics were generally complaints directed against the white chain gang captain. His collection was used in a ballet "How long, Brethren?"
Models for this folk opera were "Porgy and Bess," "Carmen Jones," etc.
White Southern writers were haunted by Fascist Italy and Germany. It was felt that racism and Wagner go together. Buttita believed that the master-race idea was Wagnerian. One could see a parallel between Germany, with its dictator Hitler, and the South, with Huey Long, as dramatized by Sinclair Lewis in "All the King's Men," and also in "It Can Happen Here."
Gellert's collection of negro songs was used by Leftists for wider purposes.
In "Diggin the Ring," The Alberich-based character Scruff sings "Done sold my soul." Valking is a hero who likes little men like Scruff.
Spirituals conveyed hope, but these protest songs were hopeless and desperate. Scruff is waiting for a hero, how long? Too long. But Valking never rescues Scruff.
How did Wagnerism apply in America?
Question: How about the politics of two white guys writing an all-negro opera?
Answer: Gellert lived with blacks and shared their life. And of course, Orson Welles produced an all black "Macbeth."
Question: Did any black figures like Richard Wright or Langston Hughes support these theatrical efforts?
Answer: I found "Diggin the Ring" by accident in the Univ. of South Carolina Library. Hughes published in 'Contempo.' The perception of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" among black literary figures was not supportive.
Question: Will "Diggin the Ring" be performed?
Answer: Most of the music has been preserved, but most of the piano accompaniment is lost. The libretto is complete. But a performance would require editing and additional music.
PH: This talk was a nice complement to Alex Ross's keynote talk on Wagnerism in black America.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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