August 9, 2009 begins the first of three complete four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs”. Less than a year later (July 31, 2010), Seattle will unveil a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” with Clifton Forbis as Tristan, Annalena Persson (United States debut) as Isolde, Margaret Jane Wray as Brangaene, Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal, and Stephen Milling as King Marke. Peter Kazaras will stage the new production, with costumes and sets by Robert Israel. Maestro Asher Fisch will conduct.
Long recognized by loyal Wagnerians (a militant breed if ever there was!) Seattle Opera has presented full four-opera cycles of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs for more than three decades. Starting in 1975, Seattle Opera’s founding General Director Glynn Ross made it happen and did so for the next nine consecutive summers, adding Tristan und Isolde in 1980 and 1981.
[Below: 321 Mercer Street, the home of the Seattle Opera; photograph by Tom.]
Then in 1983, current General Director Speight Jenkins – an almost equally ardent Wagnerite -succeeded Glynn Ross running Seattle Opera. In 1986 he presented a brand new Ring with the now famed flying horses (full size horses flying across the stage, ridden by shrieking Valkyries!), and that Ring was repeated in 1987, 1991 and 1995.
Meanwhile, Jenkins added all of Wagner’s remaining major operas, starting with Tannhauser in 1984, Flying Dutchman and Die Meistersinger in 1989, Lohengrin in 1994, a reprise of Tristan und Isolde in 1998 and Parsifal in 2003! All of this was in addition to his regular fall-winter seasons and other summer presentations as well, such as this August’s production of Verdi’s Aida.
Excepting the very first in 1975, I have attended the Ring productions each year they were presented, and I have seen all of Seattle’s other Wagner productions, and other Seattle Opera presentations as well. Because work has brought me to Seattle et environs for more than 45 years, my Tom’s Tips for Seattle are based on long experience.
This summer (August 2009) Seattle Opera will present three Ring cycles, of Seattle’s very traditional, very “green” sets which premiered in 2001, returning with many improvements in 2005. These are by far the visually best productions I have seen anywhere – and I have attended Ring cycles at the Met, at San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric, Flagstaff Arizona, the Mariinsky/Kirov production seen in Orange County (and reviewed by your website host, William), and at both Berlin’s major companies, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) and Staatsoper unter den Linden. I also have collected Rings on videotape, laservideodisc (remember those?) and DVDs.
It’s still possible to order tickets for cycles and individual performances of the August 2009 Rings at www.SeattleRing.com or at www.SeattleOpera.org although this year, as in 2001 and 2005 some Ring cycles sold out long before opening night! The audience comes from throughout the United States and at least 18 countries abroad. A great many Seattle patrons come from Germany, where they are underwhelmed with bizarre Eurotrash Rings so often presented there. (In Berlin, I attended a musically sensational DOB Ring, marvelously conducted by the renowned Christian Thielemann, but much of it took place in the grubby Berlin subways just after World War II. It garnered thunderous Booooooos from multitudes (including me).
But Seattle Opera presents a regular fall season as well – this year including three Verdi standards, “La Traviata”, “Il Trovatore” and “Falstaff” and Hagen’s “Amelia” (American premiere).
[Below: a view of the top of the Space Needle from the Seattle Center, home of the Seattle Opera; photograph by Tom.]
Seattle Opera presents their productions at Marion McCaw Hall in the Seattle Center, which includes a playhouse and Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s located at 321 Mercer Street, between 3rd Avenue North and 4th Avenue North.
The Seattle Center is the site of the 1962 World’s Fair (I was there!) for which Seattle’s signature icon – the 607 foot high Space Needle – was built. It peeks over the roof of McCaw Hall.
Also premiered at the World’s Fair was America’s first successful commercial Monorail www.SeattleMonorail.com), which runs from downtown to the Space Needle, from which it’s an easy walk to the opera. (See the ad we have pictured) It’s lots of fun and the way to go if you are staying downtown near its terminus. You board on Pine Street between 4th and 5th in a lovely, open square festooned with flowers.
[Below right: advertisement for the Seattle Monorail.]
The Monorail is by far the best way to get to the opera if you prefer not to drive.
There’s no subway and the buses have long delays late at night – and it’s not fun waiting for a bus in the rain. Cabs are very pricey to and from downtown and almost impossible to find after dark.
There’s one best place to park – the Mercer Street Garage, a multilevel parking structure, with a covered (much needed!) bridge to the Opera House. It’s always available and is safe. If you are coming from downtown, come out north on 5th Avenue and make a half right turn onto 5th Avenue North. You will pass under the Monorail. Keep going, crossing Mercer to Roy Street, turn left and you can enter the structure (on your left) from either 4th Avenue North or 3rd Avenue North.
I don’t recommend other parking – the alternatives are too far away and the area is too dark.
Where to Stay
Seattle Center boasts 74 acres with lots to see for everyone from baseball to kids arcades, but the nearby motels are generally unappealing with one notable exception – the legendary Edgewater (www.EdgewaterHotel.com) where you can fish from your window overlooking Puget Sound. There are great views and the maritime “sound effects”. I have often enjoyed it.
[Below: the Georgian Room within the Fairmont Olympic Hotel; photograph by Tom.]
But the best is downtown within easy walking to the Monorail. The venerable, elegant old Fairmont Olympic Hotel (411 University between 4th and 5th, 206.621.1700, www.Fairmont.com) is superb with all of the amenities, such as you’d expect from New York’s Plaza Hotel or Palace Hotel, San Francisco’s Palace Hotel or Fairmont or St Francis or L.A.’s Biltmore.
The Georgian Room, its very upscale restaurant, is without equal for opulence in the Pacific Northwest. Sunday Brunch there is fabulous, and the Garden Court is unsurpassed for a drink and tidbits after the opera.
The large chains have comfortable properties in the downtown area. I have enjoyed stays at the Seattle Hilton, Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza and Seattle Sheraton. However a small charmer down the street is the Sorrento (900 Madison Street; 206.343.6156), whose Hunt Club dining room is a jewel and whose Fireside Room Bar is delightful for an after-the-opera cognac.
Don’t try to stay across Lake Washington in Kirkland or Bellevue, because getting across the lake in heavy traffic to arrive at the opera on time can be maddening. Seattle does have considerable rush hour traffic, and the streets around Seattle Center will be quite congested. (Downtown they have covered much of the Interstate 5 Freeway with gorgeous parks!)
The Dining Scene
Seattle has all of the restaurant chains represented and is home to the very first Starbucks, but it’s Seafoodies’ Heaven Found! For really top oysters, fresh Dungeness crab and choice salmon, try Shuckers in the Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown (see above). Located on the southwest corner at 4th and Seneca, it’s decorated with olde style, carved wood panels. Order their spectacular Geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) stew, a scrumptuous clam chowder.
Also in the seafood department are several notable McCormick & Schmicks, the best and most formal being at 722 4th Avenue downtown (with valet parking, 206.682.3900). Another winner is Harborside, on the west shore of Lake Union (1200 Westlake Avenue, 206.270.9052), where you watch the seaplanes take off and land, while enjoying top flight (pardon the pun) seafood dining.
There’s no better formal dining in town than in the hyper-elegant, aptly named Georgian Room at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, where you will recognize the opera crowd each time you are there. The pianist at the concert grand Steinway plays Chopin, Mozart, Gershwin and snippets of Phantom of the Opera. It doesn’t get any better in all of the Pacific Northwest.
Westin Hotels operates the Cafe Impromptu inside the Opera House, with an attractive fast menu and a full bar. It’s very popular and always crowded.
[Below left: a view of Canlis Restaurant; courtesy of Canlis.]
The best overall, you ask? My nominee is Canlis at 2576 Aurora Avenue North, overlooking Lake Union and the snowcapped Cascade Mountains (206.283.3313, www.canlis.com) where you are surrounded by the corporate giants Microsoft, Oracle,and Amazon.com. Yuppie zillionaires from these firms come to Canlis to graze on the goodies. The restaurant specializes in very elegant Asian/Pacific Northwest fusion. Bring money!
Action in Town
Don’t miss Pike Place Market at the bottom of Pike Street. Everyone proclaims this as the nation’s best. There are incredibly fresh berries and fruit, and flowers galore, but the seafood is nothing short of spectacular.
[One of many Pike Place merchants displays his wares; photograph by Tom.]
Where else are there professional salmon-slingers when a sale is made, who send the freshest of fresh salmon flying to the wrap counter? There are mountains of huge, fresh Dungeness crab, acres of oysters (some are immense, but should be avoided) and dozens of artisanal craft vendors, accompanied by many eateries of every description.
Parking is tough, but have patience. It’s an easy walk from many of the downtown hotels. This is where Starbucks started.
For terrific (and cheap, though very breezy) fun, go down to the Ferry Terminal and take the Ferry (cars and pedestrians both are welcome) across Elliott Bay west to Bremerton. The vistas are dazzling when it’s sunny. Bring your camera! The ride back to the terminal rewards one with overwhelming views.
For another water event, consider the boat tours of Puget Sound offered by Argosy Cruises (www.ArgosyCruises.com). I recommend the white tablecloth gourmet dinner served aboard the elegant old-time, Royal Argosy (www.RoyalArgosy.com).
The Seattle Art Museum (www.SeattleArtMuseum.org at 100 University, downtown, is excellent, with an especially rich variety of Pacific Northwest artifacts and art. Additionally, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (1400 E Prospect, 206.654.3100) is loaded with East Asian treasures, especially bronzes and porcelain.
If you allow 40 minutes for the drive, one can visit the Seattle area’s wine country. At Woodinville, discover a French-style chateau surrounded by lush grounds where you can enjoy un piquenique with wine. The Saint-Michelle (www.Ste-Michelle.com) and Columbia (www.ColumbiaWinery.com) wineries are neighbors.
What to See Nearby
[Below left: a view of Mount Rainier from a meadow within the Mount Rainier National Park; photograph by Tom.]
When it’s clear you can see Mount Rainier looming majestically to the South. By all means, put this lovely drive on the top of your list of side-trips. You travel through deep forests, past lakes, rivers, flower-spangled meadows and finally the knock-your-socks-off ascent up the mountain.
I recommend going to Paradise Lodge where a fine lunch is available in a quintessentially National Parks-style Lodge.
Just out of the door and above it are the views in every direction, including famed Mount Saint Helens, which still smokes (despite the Surgeon General’s caveats). The best route is to go south to Tacoma on Interstate 5 and then east to Mount Rainier. It’s very well marked, but get an AAA map. It will hugely increase your pleasure.
If a visit to Mount Rainier National Park sounds like too much mountain hiking, why not take the Jet Boat from Pier 69 (just below the Space Needle) on the Victoria Clipper across Puget Sound (www.VictoriaClippers.com)?
The waters inside the Sound are usually calm, and the trip takes two to two-and-a-half hours, depending on the weather. Aboard they serve light snacks and have a fine bar. The arrival into Victoria’s Inner Harbour is worth the super-scenic trip alone. It’s awe-inspiring! (This may be an over-used term, but it really fits this scene.)
[Below left: the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia; photograph by Tom.]
Harborside, one sees the very, very grand old Empress Hotel, surrounded by a bevy of fine porcelain shops, especially on Government Street), vending the best English dishware conceivable. By the bye, Victoria is far more British than England herself! When the Jet-Boat lands and you get through customs (be sure to bring your passport!), make a bee-line straight for the Empress so that you don’t miss High Tea. At the Empress they have raised high tea to an art form – it’s not to be missed.
There’s a Victoria Harbour boat tour (250.708.0201). Caveat: the Canadian dollar has sharply increased in value relative to the U. S. dollar, so things are no longer as cheap as they were. Still, there’s lots of good dining. For lunch, try the Brasserie L’ecole at 1715 Government Street (an easy walk), 250.475.6260. I give’em 2 stars!!
[Below right: the skyline of Vancouver, British Columbia; photograph by Tom.]
If a fast boat trip is not your cup of (English) tea, then drive up Interstate 5 to Vancouver British Columbia, a two hours 15 minute drive through majestic countryside.
To many, Vancouver is the Queen of Cities on the Pacific Coast, offering everything a great city could. You cannot do better than staying at the old, green-copper-crowned, chateau-like Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (900 W Georgia Street; 866.540.4452, www.fairmont.com). It has a grand bar, outstanding dining, exceptional location, and all the amenities.
For lunch it’s the Raincity Grill (1193 Denman Street; 604.685.7337). Alternatively, in gorgeous Stanley Park, surrounded by incredible flowers, consider Seasons in the Park Restaurant (405 W 33rd Avenue at Cambie Street; 604.874.8008) – a real jewel.
As always, our praise and recommendations are from personal experience. I have dined at all these restaurants many times, and stayed at or dined at all of the hotels, taken the trip to Mount Rainier multiple times, ridden the boat to Victoria often and driven to Vancouver frequently. We neither receive nor accept any “consideration”, goodies or tips. All we say is “Enjoy”.