The Inner Circle Fans Follow Wagner's Epic Opera All over the World. Why Do They Do It?

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Byline: Scott C. Morgan Daily Herald Staff Writer

"The Ring of the Nibelung"

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 S. Wacker Drive, Chicago

When: March 28, 29, 30, April 2; April 4, 5, 7, 9; April 11, 12, 14, 16

Tickets: $180 to $800 for the entire cycle; $40 to $170 for performances of individual operas. For the entire cycle, most tickets are sold out, only scattered seats remained at press time Wednesday. Tickets remain for single performances of individual operas. Turned back tickets might be available for the entire cycle; call ahead to find out.

For info: (312) 332-2244 Ext. 5600 or www.lyricopera.org

Watch out Chicago. The Ringheads are coming! The Ringheads are coming!

Well, "Ringheads" is the unofficial term that the Lyric Opera of Chicago is jokingly calling ticket-holders to its revival of Richard Wagner's monumental four-opera drama "Der Ring des Nibelungen," otherwise known as the "Ring" cycle.

"We're just having a little fun," said Susan Mathieson Mayer, director of marketing and communications for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As a variation on the term "Deadheads" that once described groupies of the band The Grateful Dead, Mayer explains "sometimes people who travel around the world to see 'Ring' cycles call themselves 'Ringheads.'"

Hoping to cash in on the phrase, the Lyric has branded souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs and baseball caps with the expression "Ringhead." And no, none of the merchandise comes in tie-dye.

"Ring" fans might not have a stereotypical look akin to Volkswagen bus-driving Deadheads, but they can be as equally fanatical in their devotion to Wagner's 1876 masterpiece that premiered at a specially built theater in Bayreuth, Germany. Wagner fans (or fanatics, if you will) have been known to travel around the world multiple times to see different "Ring" casts and productions, while a pilgrimage to Bayreuth's Festspielhaus is almost sacrosanct.

For the Lyric's three complete "Ring" cycles, scheduled between March 28 and April 16, Mayer reports that "Ring" fans from all 50 states and nearly 30 different countries as far away as the Philippines and Argentina are converging upon Chicago. Of course, all those out-of-town visitors will have an economic impact.

The last time the Lyric staged a series of complete "Rings" in 1996, Mayer cited a study by the Federal Reserve Bank and the University of Illinois estimating that $34.7 million was pumped into the local economy. According to the Seattle Opera, an estimated $38 million flooded Seattle's economy when it staged its new "Ring" in 2001.

The "Ring" is extremely expensive and difficult to stage, not to mention long - it runs around 15 1/2 hours over four evenings in a week. Wagner's operas also call for seemingly impossible stage effects like a sword fight with a dragon and gods crossing a rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

Despite the difficulties, stature-seeking opera companies great and small are willing to take a chance on the "Ring."

"It's the arts equivalent of having a winning sports franchise in your hometown," said Boone Brackett, an orthopedic surgeon living in unincorporated Lake County who has seen almost 20 complete "Ring" cycles in his lifetime. "Producing a 'Ring' gives a city a certain cachet and puts it on the map."

And thanks to the world's many "Ring" fans, almost all "Ring" cycle production become virtual sell-outs.

So why do they do it? Why do "Ring" fans plan entire vacations around four operas that many have already seen before?

"It's an addiction, I guess," said Brackett.

"It's a disease," joked Helga Strasser, a German ex-patriot living in Rochester, N.Y., who estimates she has seen 25 "Ring" cycles in her lifetime. Strasser will be attending Chicago's "Ring" for a second time and already has tickets to the Canadian Opera Company's new "Ring" opening a new Toronto opera house in 2006. …