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Monday, December 30, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Opera's Jenkins' Personal Tour Of The `Ring'

Seattle Times Music Critic

"Enjoying Wagner's `Ring' " By Speight Jenkins (HighBridge Audio). Set of four audiocassettes ($34.95) or CDs ($44.95), in local bookstores or at (800) 755-8532.

These days, it's not enough to be an artistic director.

You also have to be a media meister - one who knows how to take advantage of the many opportunities presented by television, radio, interviews, recordings and various other aspects of communications.

Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, a seasoned media pro who formerly hosted the TV series "Live From the Met," knows precisely how to get his message out to the multitudes. It was as a lecturer on the "Ring" that Jenkins first came to Seattle in the early 1980s; his lectures and his enthusiasm were so well-received that Seattle Opera's board asked him to become the company's next general director.

No wonder Jenkins, who also is an experienced music critic and writer, is the ideal commentator to explain Wagner's 17 1/2-hour, four-opera masterpiece to those who find the "Ring" daunting and mysterious, as well as to the opera fan who already knows the music. The commentary is liberally laced with recorded excerpts from one of the great classic "Ring" casts - a live 1953 performance from Bayreuth, with such legendary singers as Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen and Regina Resnik.

Jenkins plays some of the big trump cards right up front (the "Ride of the Valkyries," Siegfried's "Forging Song") in introducing the "dysfunctional family" which stars in Wagner's "soap opera of cosmic proportions." Bringing the story down to its easily understood essentials, from rebellious youths and wayward daughters to straying husbands and suspicious wives, Jenkins wipes away some of the high-culture mystique that often makes the uninitiated feel the "Ring" is not for them.

A big help in this process is the 44-page listener's guide, with all the relevant texts in both German and English (the translation by noted English critic Andrew Porter).

Since the mid-`70s, Seattle has been famed as a "Ring" city, and in the Jenkins era (which began in 1983) there have been four complete presentations of the epic (most recently in 1995). A new "Ring" production is planned for 2001, and music lovers couldn't do better than to prepare by listening to Jenkins' recordings. With his personal views on the operas, his experience, his voice (with its Texas underlay, its New York cadences and its unflagging enthusiasm) and his choice of musical excerpts to underscore every point, Jenkins may inspire you to enjoy the "Ring" as never before.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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