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The Media Cafe - The Ring Disc - Reviews


Project Background:

The RingDisc, a CDROM-based interactive guide to Wagner's Ring Cycle, features the Vienna Philharmonic recording (Sir Georg Solti conducting). All 14.5 hours of digitized sound - captured by The Media Cafe's audio compression technology - are synchronized to the full piano-vocal score, the German libretto with English translation, and a running analytical commentary. This product was reviewed by numerous publications such as the New York Times (a full spread on the front page Sunday Art section), NewsWeek, The Chicago Tribune, and many more. It was also named one of PC World's Top 100 CDROMs.

Reviews and Articles

Boston Globe; personal [sunday paper spread]
Boston Globe; product review
Billboard Magazine; product review
Newsweek; product review
The New York Times [full page sunday paper spread]; product review
The Chicago Tribune; product review
BBC Magazine; personal and product review
Fanfare Magazine; product review
Opera Journal; product review
Classical Net Review; product review
Computer Games Online; product review

Access Ring Cycle On Your Computer
The Boston Sunday Globe, June 1, 1997

Lexington native Juhan Sonin has helped produce a computer disc of an operatic masterpiece that is designed for people who want to do more than just listen to the music.

Sonin served as the director of production for "The Ring Disc," which features all four operas in composer Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle - "Das Rheingold," "Die Walkurie," "Sigfried" and "Die Gotterdammerung."

Besides the Vienna Philharmonic recording of the operas, the CD-ROM disc includes printed versions of the complete piano-vocal score, a running commentary on the musical themes, the German libretto with an English translation, more than 100 descriptive essays, full-color pictures, explanations of characters and themes, and other details. The commentary, score and libretto are all synchronized to the music as it is being played.

The operas themselves usually fill 14 CDs, according to Sonin. Using their disc- compression technique, The Media Cafe Publishing, producers of the disc, were able to squeeze the operas and all the information onto just one disc.

The New York Times has called The Ring Disc "the most complete, accessible and sophisticated guide to [Wagner's Ring Cycle] ever created." The disc also had drawn raves from Sir Georg Solti, the conductor for the recording.

"As a tool for education, it's pretty cool." Sonin said. A graduate of Lexington High School, the 24-year-old Sonin went on to get degrees in engineering and art from the University of Illinois in 1994. He worked for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications before joining The Media Cafe a year ago. He's based in Illinois and New York.

A violinist with a symphony orchestra in Illinois, Sonin shares his love of music with the company's two founders. One is a concert pianist, the other has a doctorate in musicology and recording.

Now that the intensive work of The Ring Disc is behind them, Sonin and his colleagues are involved in another project that combines music and technology. They're working on a computer game in which the music changes constantly, depending on what's happening to the main character.

'Ring Disc' among best of best; wait and pay    |  top  |
The Boston Globe, Monday, July 14, 1997

"Hot" and "cool" are merely lukewarm descriptions of exceptional software, especially the rare artful pieces of design and coding that transcend the mundane and achieve elegance.

An elegant bit of software is sleek and efficient, as fast as a sprinter charging off the line but with a tempered power that doesn't devour system resources. Elegance also implies a certain amount of complexity; well-written software that doesn't do much is merely simple.

Size matters, but only up to a point. There's a definite point of diminishing return when a program's added functions and features start to become cumbersome. Hard-drive-based applications are notoriously elephantine, especially on Windows PCs (check how much space is occupied by Windows 95 and related apps). Most games are rife with coding cheese that was never trimmed during the rush to market the product.

Some of the best examples of elegance can be found on enhanced CD-ROMs, where the finite space - about 650 megabytes per disc - forces programmers to economize.

One of the best of the best is "The Ring Disc," a single CD-ROM containing Richard Wagner's entire "Ring of the Nibelungen" opera. That's 14 _ hours of music compressed into one disc, a fact bound to raise interest among most techheads. Disc publisher the Media Cafe used proprietary compression coding to accomplish the task.

Technical wow-factor aside, most eye-opening about "The Ring Disc" are the sensory frills; the running commentary and detailed explanations of the onstage action and musical nuances, musical notation of the piano and vocal score, and the full libretto in German and English. Each of these features is synchronized with the music and scrolls up the screen in separate frames. It installs easily and leaves no annoying residue on your task bar. (It runs only on Win 95 and Windows NT.)

The music is top-notch, the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, considered one of the definitive recordings of the Ring Cycle. Video eats up disc space, so most graphics are small pictures of important characters and scenes of a San Francisco Opera production from several years ago.

"The Ring Disc" was released in mid-April and is available for $100 from www.ringdisc.com. It's one of the first of its kind, but not the last: It's likely that other disc publishers will be interested in the technical aspects that enable so much data to be squeezed into one disc. '

Billboard Magazine, August 2, 1997    |  top  |

Everything you wanted to know about Richard Wagner's entire "Ring Of The Nibelungen" can be found on this expansive disc, which is easily the most comprehensive single source of a musical masterpiece. The sheer amount of content available on this interactive disc is nothing short of overwhelming. Over 14 hours of audio is contained on this single CD, including the full piano- vocal score and the complete Vienna Philharmonic recording, which is conducted by Sir Georg Solti. A running text commentary accompanies the music as it plays. More than 100 essays add further analysis. An amazing disc.

Wagnerian Treasure    |  top  |
Newsweek Magazine, May 19, 1997

The Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York just ended, but Wagner fans aren't as devastated as usual. Why? It's now possible to have Valhalla on your desktop with the Media Cafe's The Ring Disc, a single CD-ROM containing all 14.5 hours of the four-opera cycle ($99.99; 888-746-4347). On the screen, a running commentary, a piano-vocal score and a German libretto with English translation can appear simultaneously. The late-'60s recording of Sir Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic provides rich sound, with glorious singing from such stars as Birgit Nilsson. (A warning: the singers and their roles aren't listed anywhere on the CD, a decision that will perplex most opera lovers.) The database of characters, symbols and leitmotifs is as vast as the search engine is fast. More than 100 essays, most by singer and voice teacher Monte Stone, clarify plots and who's who, but the still-photo images are disappointing - except for a 19th- century Brunnhilde who's shown in a bustle as well as battle armor. Hoyotoho!

Lost in the 'Ring"? Click on Wotan    |  top  |
The New York Times, Sunday, March 23, 1997

Mythic it may be in its subject matter, but Wagner's "Ring" cycle has always demanded more of technology than technology was prepared to give, from rainbow bridges to magic fire, and baritones transmogrified into toads. Now technology has caught up, at least on the home front.

The "Ring," with its triangle of gods, heroes, magic and recurring leitmotifs, has always demanded explication; now the most complete, accessible and sophisticated guide to it ever created is about to land in stores, almost in time for the Metropolitan Opera's spring round of "Ring" fever, which begins with "Das Rheingold" on Wednesday evening.

"The Ring Disk: An Interactive Guide to Wagner's 'Ring' Cycle," from the Media Cafe, manages the seemingly impossible: on a single CD-ROM, it combines the entire Decca/London recording of the cycle by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, almost 15 hours long, with a running piano- vocal score, commentary on the action and leitmotifs as they occur, and a scrolling German- English libretto, all of them synchronized. Along with a synopsis, there are also original essays on the characters, mythology and symbols; an "image bank" with pictures of everything from old set designs to the current Met production, and an extensive bibliography.

Want to follow the Ring motif, from its beginnings near the start of "Das Rheingold" to its last appearance in "Gotterdammerung"? No problem. just go to "Leitmotifs" (with 119 possibilities), click on "Ring," and listen to some or all of 15 examples by clicking on the images of 16th- notes that stud the accompanying text.

Confused by the relationships between assorted gods, giants, dwarfs and men? The "Characters" page organizes them into groups and offers links to explanatory essays. Not only that, it's easy to use, with no installation required and functions that are as computer wizards say, intuitive. The sound quality is not as good as that of a regular CD, but it is better than that found on a cassette tape and good enough for most computer setups. "The Ring Disk" is an amazing tool, sure to send Wagnerites scurrying to the nearest software emporium when it is released next week at a suggested price of $100.

There's just one catch: it works only on Pentium computers running Windows 95 or Windows NT. While some software with such specifications will function on other setups, "The Ring Disk" requires Pentium's extra power to do the work. Some Wagnerites may even conclude that the time has come to buy a new computer.

"The Ring Disk" was the idea of Monte Stone, a Connecticut-based singer, voice teacher and self- described Wagner fanatic, who studied the heldentenor repertory with James King. He put aside his original plan to write a book on the "Ring," when he heard about CD-ROM's.

"Learning about music from books, struggling to cue up the examples on a record or CD, is cumbersome," he said. "A CD-ROM, with the music examples and commentary shown on the screen while the music is heard, seemed like a great idea, and I decided we needed one for the Ring."

Because swapping CD-ROM's back and forth would also be cumbersome, Yaz Shehab, the president of the Media Cafe, and his partner, Camille Goudeseune, developed a method to fit the entire "Ring" and its accouterments onto a single disk.

"Our goal was to keep it as simple as possible," said Mr. Shehab, a composer, ethnomusicologist and techie who has, perforce, become a Wagner expert since the project began in 1994. "We had to remember that our end user might have no background with computers. There is no manual. There's no confusing installation procedure. Our designers were unhappy with us. They kept saying, 'This could be fancier.' But that would have meant more things that could go wrong. Our intention was to build a tool to take you through the 'Ring' as easily as possible."

"The Ring Disk" is appearing a year after it was originally scheduled because of the time spent securing rights from Mr. Solti and Decca/London, G. Schirmer (the publisher of the vocal score) and the owners of photographs, and because of fundraising difficulties.

The realization that the project might die for lack of money caused soul-searching within the four- year-old Media Cafe, whose usual clients are companies and whose products include corporate web sites, soundtracks for video games, and high-end solutions to technical problems, projects with a six-week turnaround.

"We had to ask ourselves, 'How do we save this?'" Mr. Shehab said. "This project means a lot to us, its our first real consumer product."

The decision to produce "The Ring Disk" to coincide with the Met's 1997 cycle gave the company a natural marketing opening but also imposed a tight deadline on the final assembly. An unforeseen difficulty arose recently when Decca executives raised obstacles. Mr. Shehab said the company plans to release the disk in any case.

Despite his current weariness with Wagner's cycle, Mr. Shehab anticipates working on overseas versions in coming months, tentatively scheduled to coincide with Decca's celebration of Mr. Solti's 50th anniversary with the company, and on another audio remastering of his "Ring" recording, due this fall. A version of "The Ring Disk" for the Macintosh is also under consideration.

"I had no idea how much work I was getting into," said Mr. Stone, the project's originator. "I worked from a lot of sources. I wanted to take what these people had done and make it more accessible and easier to navigate."

Mr. Stone added that he would like to do similar projects in the future, and he sees great potential for CD-ROM technology as a teaching tool. "The surface has barely been scratched in multimedia," he said. "This is one area where a computer can be a lot better than a book."

'RING' CD-ROM    |  top  |
Branagh, Chicago Tribune Newspaper, August 24, 1997

The Ring Disc: An Interactive Guide to Wagner's "Ring" Cycle (Media Caf¹)

Welcome to the Cyber Age, Brunnhilde.

With London Decca preparing to reissue Georg Solti's classic audio recording of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" this fall to herald the maestro's 85th birthday, a company called The Media Cafe has gone ahead and stolen their Wagnerian thunder by releasing the entire Solti "Ring" - all 15 hours of it - on a single CD-ROM.

But that's not all. Because "The Ring Disc" is designed to help the average listener make it alive through the convoluted saga of gods, giants, dwarfs and superheroes, anyone with the right computer equipment can access a wealth of visual information along with the music. Synchronized (more or less) to the music is a running commentary, piano-vocal score and German-English libretto.

More, upper and lower toolbars on your screen make it easy to navigate through hundreds of essays, pictures, leitmotifs and other musical examples. The upper toolbar allows you to jump between any act or scene in the tetralogy, rewind or fast-forward. All that's missing is a continuous video performance - and don't think some computer genius isn't working on that possibility for the millennium.

Drawbacks? The CD-ROM is designed to work only on Pentium computers running Windows 95 or Windows NT; the staggering amount of aural and visual data compressed on the disc demands the extra power. Also, on the disc submitted for review the audio track was not always in absolute synch with the commentary, score and libretto. An engineer at Media Cafe said the degree of synchronization will vary from computer to computer, depending on the size of your screen, the power output of your system and other factors.

All things considered, however, "The Ring Disc" is a brilliant, endlessly informative means of digging below the surface of one of the great landmarks of Western music drama. It will afford Wagnerites many, many hours of happy exploration: the "Ring" as home theater and classroom combined. Wagner's epic never had it so good. The disc retails for $99.99 and may be purchased at local software stores or by phoning1-888-746-4347.

John von Rhein

My Month    |  top  |
Finding a way round Wagner's 'Ring' with the help of a computer

Valerie Solti , BBC MUSIC Magazine, June 1997

During our recent trip to Chicago we received an invitation from an organization called the Media Cafe, to experience 'an interactive guide to Wagner's Ring cycle in New York on 16 April.' Now I have to mention that I don't know ROM from RAM, and to give proof of my technological dyslexia, when I first read the card I thought it was an invitation to some sort of all-night fancy dress party in a New York tea room where guests were expected to take part in a Ring singalong to the Vienna Philharmonic/Solti recording of Wagner's opera cycle. I then read the small print, which said that this was 'a revolutionary resource, 14.5 hours of digitalized sound captured on one CD- ROM by audio compression technology'.

The publicity coordinator, Stacy Forsythe, told us that the president of Media Cafe, Dr. Yaz Shehab, and his team would be pleased to come to Chicago and give us a demonstration. I had expected a team of whiskery old boffins, instead of which three beautiful young people turned up, whom I could easily compare to Freia, Donner and Thor, the only difference being that the trio from Media Cafe were infinitely brighter and didn't take hours to tell us about themselves. They had all been students together at the University of Illinois, and, on a trip to New York, had met singing teacher and musicologist Monte Stone, who was planning a book on the Ring. Yaz suggested that it would be a much better idea to create a CD-ROM with musical examples. This created problems: there wasn't the technology available to put the entire Ring onto one CD- ROM, so the techno wizard of the team, Camille Goudeseune, went off, and three years later invented it.

The tiny little gold disc has everything any passionate Wagnerite could wish for - the full piano score, German words, English translation, and the sounds of Nilsson, Hotter, Windgassen and Frick from the Culshaw/Solti Ring of the Sixties. If you want to leap from the low E flat at the beginning of Das Rheingold to the end of Gotterdammerung, just click on the mouse and you're there. It can give you instant access to all the leitmotifs or the sections employing Wagner tubas, together with the relevant passages of the score. There is a synopsis of the plot, over a hundred essays by Monte Stone and his collaborators, and still pictures from the current Ring production at the Met. No wonder that an article in the New York Times was headed 'Lost in The Ring? Click on Wotan'.

It's compelling, brilliant, and I look forward to its release. What a quantum leap from the four minutes' playing time per side of those early 78s! I predict that these young gods of the Media Cafe are building a rainbow bridge to a completely new focus in the recording industry. I'm off to study musical form on Pentium processors, and find out how to access the project's website, www.ringdisc.com. If nothing else, I now know the difference between Ring, RAM and ROM.

CD-ROMing Around Wagner's Ring    |  top  |
Fanfare Magazine, July/August 1997

I disagree with the belief that Richard Wagner's Ring operas present significantly more difficulties related to content for at-home listeners than many other operas do. The problem with this meal, if you will, is not its taste but its size. Alban Berg's Lulu, for example, is harder to digest, even though it's bite-sized compared to Wagner's tetralogy. Nevertheless, a mythology has accreted around The Ring, and this mythology warns everyone but the most hard-bitten Wagnerians that they cannot really appreciate the operas until they have "done their homework," so to speak, and have come to understand the dramatic, textual, and musical interconnections that support and hold the cycle together like scaffolding. To my mind, an understanding of these interconnections will come naturally with time. In today's accelerated world, however, people want to be experts tomorrow on topics with which they had no experience yesterday. Crash courses in foreign languages, income tax preparation, and good sex are common today (look at the sequences of the "for Dummies" series), and so it's no surprise that people want to conquer The Ring right away, presumably leaving them free for other pursuits.

Many books, some scholarly, others less so, help listeners to roam through the Wagnerian forest. Other media have attempted it as well. Prominent among the latter is Deryck Cooke's spoken explication, accompanied by musical examples from the recordings by Sir Georg Solti. This project was released on LPs approximately a decade after the Solti discs were released, and it is now available on CDs (London 443 581-2). It's a sane and safe choice, but perhaps not a terribly exciting one. More recently, Speight Jenkins recorded a more detailed roam through The Ring for the Highbridge company (HBP 39263); the musical examples on that set came from the 1953 Beyreuth Festival, and so the sound is less good.

It was only a matter of time, though, before computer technology stepped in and changed the rules. A tenor named Monte Stone, who had planned to write yet another book about The Ring, was captivated by his early experiences with CD-ROM technology. Stone's imagination let him to consider how the CD-ROM could be applied to an efficient, user-friendly explication of the cycle. Scrabbling between a CD player, a libretto, and a scholarly text could be obviated with an integrative approach. Audio of the complete operas (or relevant musical examples) could be combined with on-screen displays of the German texts and translations, and also with scholarly, written commentaries about what the user was hearing and seeing. And that was only the beginning of the vision.

Stone eventually got in touch with The Media Cafe, a company with offices in Washington, DC, New York, and Illinois. Stone's idea captivated Dr. Yaz Shehab, President of The Media Cafe, who saw the project as a potentially interesting departure from creating corporate Web sites, one of the company's usual activities. There were some obstacles to overcome, however. For maximum user-friendliness and consumer economy, the product had to be limited to a single disc. Through its proprietary compression technology, the Media Cafe has been able to fit the entire Ring (about fifteen hours of music) onto one CD-ROM. And, in keeping with Stone's original version, the disc still has room for texts, translations, commentary, and more (as will be explained below). Another obstacle to overcome was obtaining rights from London/Decca to include the complete Solti/Vienna Philharmonic recordings of the four operas. Suffice it to say that it pays to get the best, but it also costs a lot.

Times to coincide with the Metropolitan Opera's 1997 production of the tetralogy, The Ring Disc is on the market in spite of the above obstacles . . . almost. The copy of The Ring Disc that The Media Caf¹ submitted to Fanfare is not quite the final version. Refinements in both presentation and content are under way, and there's little doubt in my mind that some of the shortcomings that I noted while reviewing the CD-ROM will be corrected by the time that the final product reaches the market.

So how does it work? Well, first you should know that The Media Cafe's Ring Disc is finicky about the machinery that runs it; even if you already have a CD-ROM drive, a high-resolution monitor (800x600, with 16-bit color), and a good sound card/speaker system, you might not be able to run The Ring Disc if your computer is more than a few years old. Specifically, you need to have an IBM- compatible PC (a Macintosh version is under discussion) outfitted with a Pentium processor, eight megabytes of RAM, and either Windows 95 or Windows NT. Beyond that, The Media Caf¹ has taken care of everything else. Just pop the CD-ROM into your drive and the disc sets itself up - you don't even need to run an installation program. After a "title page" (the disc's white logo on a stark black background, accompanied by an excerpt from Siegfried's Funeral Music - CD- ROM designers take themselves very seriously, I am finding), you're just a click away from simultaneously hearing music and seeing the piano-vocal score, German text, English translation, and a running commentary, plus images and an assortment of other interesting bells and whistles.

After the disc is loaded via the CR-ROM drive (this happens automatically - again, there's no need for you to do anything special), the monitor automatically displays the opening bars of the piano- vocal score of Das Rheingold as the audio of the Solti recording plays synchronously. As the music moves along, so does the piano-vocal score, a few bars at a time. A toolbar at the top left of the display identifies the opera, the act, and the scene; you can move within and between operas by clicking on this portion of the toolbar. To the right, the elapsed time in the current scene and in the entire tetralogy is displayed. Additional buttons allow you pause, or to fast-forward, or rewind through the audio, through the score, or through the running written commentary, which is displayed directly underneath the toolbar. This well-written commentary identifies leitmotifs and other relevant musicological information in synchrony with the portion of the music that is being heard and the score that is being displayed. AS will be familiar to Web users, some terms in the running commentary are underlined; this is to indicate that more information can be obtained by clicking on them (so-called "hypertext links"). For example, when the "Rhine Motif" appears in the music, the commentary alerts us to its presence. If you click on the actual words "Rhine Motif," the music pauses, and a window on the monitor opens to display the basic version of the motif in score. An arrow marked "more" allows you to view a thorough discussion about the motif. This discussion includes a listing of other places in the operas where the motif appears, and in what contexts. After the listing, a sixteenth-note icon gives the user access to musical examples of each of those appearances. The listings also include other highlighted terms, motifs, and character names to follow if you wish. The discussions (there are more than one hundred essays) are written by Monte Stone, with additional essays by Wagner scholar J. K. Holman. Holman, in particular, writes his character essays with an enjoyable and light touch, imparting information to users at all levels of expertise without condescension, and sometimes even with gentle humor.

As with many Web pages, it is possible to click so frequently that you end up forgetting what you were trying to research in the first place - sort of a Minotaur's maze effect. However, the tool bar on the bottom includes a button marked "return to music," so all the lost user has to do is to click on it, and he/she is back at the departure point.

There are other options, and these are made available through that same tool bar on the bottom of the display; its buttons are marked "go to," "back," "search," "history," "view," and "help." Clicking "go to" opens up seven choices. "Synopsis" give you just that, for whichever scene of whatever opera you click upon - extensive hypertext links are included here too. There are descriptions or identifications of all The Ring's "characters," complete with photos of different singers (unidentified, unfortunately) in that role. (Their small size makes them look a bit like mugshots.) A list of the characters' appearances in the operas is also included. By clicking on that word, a comprehensive collection of leitmotifs can be accessed, both in score and in soundbytyes taken from the recordings. Several "symbols" are identified and hypertext-linked, and there are bout seventy color "images". Most of these images are taken from the San Francisco Opera productions, but the singers, again, are not identified. (It's clear, though, that even though you were just hearing Birgit Nilsson, you're not seeing her when you click on "Brunnhilde.") A bibliography lists dozens of scholarly and not-so scholarly books to follow-up on, and there are production credits and acknowledgments for The Ring Disc. (Curiously, and also insultingly, at no point in this CD-ROM did I find a listing for the singers on the London/Decca recording.)

Continuing along the bottom toolbar, "back" and "history" work just the way that these buttons do on the average Web page: the former moves you back to the previously viewed screen, and the latter tells you where you already have been during the current journey through The Ring. The "search" option also will be familiar to computer addicts, since many major programs, from word processing packages to data spreadsheets, offer a similar feature. For example, if you want to learn all there is to know about Loge, you enter the word "Loge" into the query box, after clicking on "search" (A phrase such as "Ride of the Valkyries" can also be entered into the query box, and any or all of the words in that phrase can be used in the search.) References to Loge within the character, image, leitmotif, running commentary, symbol, and synopsis databases (alone or together) are then displayed in a window, and you can click on any of these to view the information or hear the associated audio clip.

Although the main display consists of the running commentary over the piano-vocal score, clicking on "view" allows you to add a display of the German text with a side-by-side English translation, or to see any combination of the above three features, all in synchrony with the audio. Even when all three are displayed simultaneously, the words and notes remain large enough to be legible (something that cannot be said of other classical music-related CD-ROMs that I've reviewed).

There's also a "help" button for those who are having technical difficulties, or for those who simply want to learn how to use all the options that are available on The Ring Disc (although most of them will be fairly self-explanatory, even for the semi-computer literate). The first few sections guide users on starting and stopping the CD-ROM, and navigating within and between the operas and the instructional screens. There is a FAQ section (that's computer talk for Frequently Asked Questions), but it includes only two FAQs: "Will The Ring Disc play on my audio CD player?" and "Will The Ring Disc run on my Macintosh?" -the answer to both, unfortunately, is "No." There's also a troubleshooting guide that addresses six likely complaints ("The colors look ugly," "Help! It won't let me quit!"). Registration and software support are offered via a dedicated Web site (www.ringdisc.com), e-mail (support@ringdisc.com), or the old-fashioned telephone. Not perfect (not yet, anyway) The Ring Disc is a great companion to admirers and students, either formal or informal, of Wagner's tetralogy. I was not able to identify any major problems with it. No one can seriously cavil about the recordings themselves, and their compression onto a single CD seems to have caused only a minor decrement in sound quality. The commentaries are accurate and entertaining, the images are handsome (apart from my reservations about the "characters" database), and the presentation is extremely user-friendly. Is this how I want to educate myself about The Ring? No, I prefer to lie in front of the stereo and let it wash over me, but The Media Caf¹ has done right by users who can be more cerebral about this operatic behemoth.

The retail price for The Ring Disc is $99.99, and it is distributed by The Media Caf¹ and JEM Music Corporation. With luck, a final version should be in the stores as you read this.

The Opera Journal, June 1997    |  top  |
Carol Kimball, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The Ring Disc: An Interactive Guide to Wagner's Ring Cycle Distributed by Media Cafe Publishing and JEM Music Corporation One CD-ROM disc, $99.99. ISBN: 0-9657357-0-2.

Computer requirements for THE RING DISC are a Pentium processor PC, Windows 95 or Windows NT, 8 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM Drive, 800x600 screen resolution with 16-bit color, and a 16-bit sound card and speakers. The Media Caf¹ is a multimedia group with offices in Illinois, New York, and Washington, D. C. Media Caf¹: 217-239-9400

The Ring on ROM! Using an innovative audio compression technology process, Media Caf¹ Publishing presents an extensive tour of Wagner's complete Ring of the Nibelungen, contained on a single CD-ROM disc. The disc features recordings of all four operas by Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, the full piano-vocal score, the German libretto with English translation, and a running analytical commentary---all synchronized to the 14.5 hours of digitized sound.

Media Cafe timed the release of the software perfectly, beginning with preliminary ads in Opera News and on the Internet. The Ring Disc became available April 10, synchronized to coincide with the Metropolitan Opera's April performances of the Ring cycle. The disc lives up to it pre- release hype. It is, as the publicity announcements proclaim, "a Gesamtkunstswerk for the computer age." The New York Times calls it "the most complete, accessible and sophisticated guide to [Wagner's Ring Cycle] ever created." The Wagner Society of New York praises its as "an invaluable resource for the study of Wagner's masterwork."

It is a brilliant educational and entertainment package. If you merely want to listen with the score, you can watch as the musical score, synchronized with the music, unfolds for you on screen. Another click of the mouse, and you have the German text and English translation on the bottom of the screen, to accompany your listening. Should you wish to stop enroute, an on-screen menu allows you to pause mid-measure and digress to peripheral matters. Have you forgotten who a character was? Can't remember a leitmotif? Just click, and motifs and character identifications appear isolated in windows or you can stop and take a more extensive side trip to find out more about each, then return to the music.

You may find it interesting to begin by accessing one of the following" Synopsis, Characters, Leitmotifs, Symbols, or Images. Each category provides lists of names, roles, motives, or symbols found in the operas. An adequate (but by no means exhaustive) bibliography is also provided. Click on any of these lists as a preface to your listening, or access them during the listening---for example, use the extensive list of al the motifs to hear them first, or find them later, scattered throughout the narrative samples which introduce and explain characters and link dramatic events from opera to opera. "Images" lists all the characters in the cycle and the illustrations for example, Brunnhilde (armor-clad, in mourning, with Wotan, with Wotan's spear, etc.). It's all there, and can be accessed by a number of different paths, which accommodate users with many differing approaches to listening and learning from the armchair Wagnerite, the student referencing specific information, to the professor presenting a particular slice of the work.

Two onscreen toolbar ribbons---top and bottom---help you on your journey. The top ribbon allows access to any of the four operas and scenes, gives elapsed times, allows pause, rewind, and fast forward much in the manner of a cassette or CD player. A powerful search feature allows you to search a word or phrase: for example, write in "Wintersturme" and the search yields all the instances of the motif throughout the cycle.

The "help" function explains the upper and lower toolbars and how to use them. The upper toolbar allows you to select opera, act, and scene. Time buttons allow you to specify the number of minutes and seconds into the current scene, or hours, minutes and seconds into the cycle. You can listen to the music watching and score or the translation, or both; a running commentary can also be added. The commentary, with brief explanations of what is happening musically, is a no-nonsense approach to the musical score, designed for the first-time listener, and will not yield much for the seasoned Wagnerite. (Example: "Sieglinde soars to her highest note. The cadence ends with the Wintersturme melody. Siegmund introduces the Bliss motif"). Succinct identifications of characters help jog the memory: Wellgund, Woglinde, and Flosshilde are described as "water nymphs charged by Father Rhine to guard the Rhinegold. They do a rather poor job." If you care to stop and see what the underlined words mean and where they lead you, you have only to click on the words to uncover new information.

The lower toolbar allows you to choose instructional topics; revisit the last topic; search for a word or phrase; toggle display running commentary, score and libretto; or get help you find the path back should you stray too far. The fun, however, is in the interaction. Although there are interactive CD ROM's available for other musical works, this one must be termed unique for the amount of music and information compressed on one disc.

Since 1965 (the first commercial audio recording of the Ring), the work has been made available on long playing disks, some commercial audio cassettes, compact discs, laser discs and VHS television formats. There are not complete recordings of the work in all of these media. Media Cafe's powerful audio compression system has not only gotten the whole cycle on one disc, but the musical quality is surprisingly good. The hypertext links, analyses and search functions only increase the user's access to this multi-dimensional resource. There is a full-color image database which includes some rare and unpublished archival photos, and more than 100 original essays by Monte Stone and J. K. Holman. This CD disc will not play in an audio CD player, but is designed only as a CD ROM application for your computer. It is customized for a Pentium chip, so Mac users are out of luck. There is registration for the purchase and software support. Media Caf¹ maintains a Web site (http:///www.ringdisc.com) where you can find the most recent information about The Ring Disc, latest help and updated information. E-mail and telephone service is also available.

Although much of the music of the Ring can be pleasurable simply as music, the more one knows about the work, the more layers of meaning can be uncovered. In his classic reference to the Ring cycle, An Introduction to Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, author William O. Cord states that "one can fully appreciate the drama of the Ring only if one thoroughly understands its argument, and an individual can greatly increase enjoyment of its music by becoming familiar with the themes at Wagner conceived and developed in the musical dramatization of the poem." (139)

As Wagner himself wrote in 1851: "The Absolute, that is, the unconditioned art work, which exists only in thought, is not naturally bound to time or to place, and neither yet to definite circumstance." If he could only have seen his monumental work compressed onto a four and three quarter inch circular disc he might have applauded. This sophisticated learning/reference tool should be a valuable addition to personal libraries of teachers, students, and opera fans. So go ahead. Surf the Ring. It's quite a ride.

Classical Net Review: The Ring Disc    |  top  |
by Steve Schwartz, 1997

An amazing CD-ROM. Imagine, if you will, a single CD that gives you the entire Ring des Nibelüngen in Solti's classic Decca performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as plot synopsis, piano-vocal score, German libretto with English translation, a list of Leitmotivs, character explications, and so on. I have no idea how they did this. The price lists at $99.99 (US). It requires at least:

  • A Pentium PC running Windows 95 or Windows NT
  • 8 MB RAM
  • 4x CD-ROM drive
  • 16-bit color with 800x600 screen resolution
  • 16-bit sound card and speakers.

The PC investment isn't cheap, but if you have this minimum configuration already, you might look into this CD.

One way that the authors of this software could give you so much was to give you less than top-notch sound. This is not a substitute for commercial CDs of the Ring. Solti's version consists of fifteen discs, just to give you some idea of the loss of sound quality. On the other hand, my computer speakers and sound card can't reproduce CD sound as well as my CD player, pre-amp, amplifier, subwoofer, and speakers, so there's really no need for that level of sonic grandeur. We have here a "study guide," not a performance.

The number of different audiences, at different levels of musical sophistication, addressed by the CD impresses me the most. You can be a duffer, someone familiar with the cycle, a music reader or non-reader, and the guide will give you help. I would think the best way to start would be with the music itself. While it plays, you can view the German-English libretto, with a running description of the music in words which points out salient features as they occur. If you happen to read music, and you click on a hyperlink to a motiv to see the notes that comprise the motiv. You can also follow along with the piano-vocal score. About the only musical aspect of the Ring the CD does not address fully is the orchestration, although the running commentary does give you highlights.

The glory and the problem of the Ring is its huge cast of characters and its even larger number of musical cells, or leading motives (Leitmotiven). Wagner begins with little musical bits and builds mighty scena. Wagner wrote to Liszt a letter expressing his amazement (he was probably his own biggest fan) that his entire opera grew out of an E-flat major triad. You can just about watch this unfold through the guide in Das Rheingold's prelude and opening scene, as one Leitmotiv after another bubbles out of the increasingly complex counterpoint. However, Wagner's method of composition in the Ring is to take these bits and recombine them and vary them throughout the opera, in such a way that they almost always comment dramatically upon the action. How he kept it all straight is almost unfathomable, since apparently he never explicitly charted these things. Even the Ring enthusiast can learn something by tracing the development and new contexts of these motives throughout all four operas. The Leitmotiv list allows you to do so easily. In fact, it's fairly easy to navigate through the entire program. The instruction booklet is slim and sufficiently helpful.

The commentary is clearly written, if not world-beatingly penetrating in its insight, but real books are probably the best way to get deeper into the cycle. This CD will give you a very solid foundation to continue your acquaintance with this mind-boggling monument of Romanticism.

I should also mention, however, the great musicologist Deryck Cooke's "An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen," available on two London CDs (443 582-2). Decca originally released these as a "companion" to Solti's cycle. It has 193 musical examples, a complete list of the motives used, and Cooke's brilliant organizing mind which takes you through the cycle practically motive by motive, without losing his (or your) bearings. He also constructs elegant mini-arguments about several issues in the Ring. This may still be available from BMG Record Club.

In all, the CD-ROM is a noteworthy achievement, and I recommend it to novices and old operatic hands alike.

Steve Schwartz

Copyright © Steve Schwartz, 1997.

The Ring Disc. One Ring to rule them all.    |  top  |
Computer Games Online, 2.98, by Robert Mayer

Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen isn't precisely light entertainment, though Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd once performed the German's great work with more than a little panache. And though one was once planned, it seems there isn't likely to be a computer game covering the epic saga of Germanic gods, conniving dwarves, and vainglorious mortals anytime soon. Still, the four operas that compose the Ring cycle touch on themes that role-playing game fans at least should relish: a cursed, ancient treasure; oaths (to gods and men) betrayed; magic swords and fierce dragons; Valkeries and magic potions. Not to mention incest, murder, greed, infidelity, and oh yes, the twilight of the gods. Quite a handful, especially for a body of work composed well over a century ago. It would make a hell of a game, though, wouldn't it?

With The Ring Disc, The Media Caf¹ has produced a fabulous piece of work, even if it isn't anything close to a game. Using proprietary techniques, the Urbana, Illinois-based publishing company has managed to compress all 14.5 hours of the excellent Sir George Solti, Vienna Philarmonic recordings of Das Rheingold, Die Walk™re, Siegfried, and GðtterdØmmerung onto one CD-ROM. Not bad, considering the operas normally take well over a dozen CDs to record. The music is joined by a complete piano score, running commentary, libretto (English and German), extensive notes (on motifs, characters, and the like), and a gallery of pictures from full-dress productions of the operas. As the music plays (controlled by a VCR-like tool bar), the score and libretto advance in sync, though there are a multitude of views that can be adjusted to highlight or exclude however much of the instructional material is desired. Numerous hypertext links are scattered throughout the material, leading to still more educational and entertaining tidbits; a search function is also supported.

Running under Windows 95 or NT 4.0 on a Pentium, The Ring Disc delivers remarkably good sound; how good will depend on your sound card and speakers of course. Also remarkably, the software runs entirely from the CD, requiring no installation beyond a simple configuration file; while a quad-speed CD is the minimum required, a faster drive wouldn't hurt. The interface is relatively clean and simple, and the program remembers where you left off in your perusal of the operas the next time you listen. Though optimized for 800 by 600 resolution at 16-bit color depth, The Ring Disc handles higher resolutions with aplomb. There really are no technical glitches here, nothing to get between the audience and the performance, but a Pentium really is required, as the technology that makes this disc possible taxes the CPU something fierce.

The Ring Disc won't substitute for the nearly $200 set of CDs (available on the London label, and well worth the price). It can't be played in a normal CD player, nor is the sound quality 1000f a true audio disc; more like 75It's close enough, though, and with a good sound card and quality speakers, it holds up very well, as well as some low-budget regular audio discs. As entertainment, it's also a winner. No, it won't give you the chance to take Siegfried's place and turn the tables on Hagen, nor will it allow you to battle dragons or defy the gods, but The Ring Disc will certainly put you in the mood for a good RPG or a session of 3D demon-bashing. After all, this is the stuff of real myths, of real legends, and who doesn't dream of Valhalla at least once in a while? At a suggested retail price of $100, this isn't an impulse purchase, but for Wagnerians, it's a deal Loki himself wouldn't sneer at.


  • Pentium
  • Windows 95 or NT 4.0
  • 8 MB RAM
  • 4x CD-ROM
  • 800 by 600 16-bit graphics
  • 16-bit sound card and speakers

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