Up on the half-built stage, a short, gray-haired man with a puffed-out chest and an odd, shuffling gait is giving orders to his stage crew. Dressed in camel-colored polyester pants, a red-and-white-striped short-sleeve shirt and a narrow plaid tie, he follows his chief carpenter around a revolving, ringlike stage and discusses building one end higher than the other so characters can peer over the edge of Brnnhilde's rock.

With his eyes covered by the kind of two-tone sunglasses John Gotti favored, Glynn Ross is Arizona's godfather of opera. Everything runs on his word. After he finishes with the stage crew, it's on to the telephone, where he buys music stands for his orchestra from an obscure company he unearthed in Davenport, Iowa.

"They're the best," he says in all seriousness, "because they're built to nest together. So much easier to pack and store."
Before the afternoon is up, Ross will have auditioned and hired a young soprano, gulped a quick lunch of cabbage rolls and beer and tracked down a man in Oregon who specializes in making magic swords for the climactic scene in Siegfried. The signs are unmistakable: Glynn Ross is hot on the trail of another Ring of the Nibelungen.

Based on Norse legends and a medieval German poem called the Nibelungenlied, Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen is the most sprawling and expansive epic in all of opera. The Ring consists of four separate works: Das Rheingold (The Rheingold), Die Walkre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Gtterdmmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Completed in 1874 and first performed in its entirety at Bayreuth, Germany, two years later, it is the story of destruction and redemption among the gods. Set in the pine forests and windswept crags of a fairy-tale Germany, the Ring is filled with rainbow bridges, magic rings and funeral pyres--and much of Wagner's most memorable vocal and orchestral work. One of the crown jewels of western civilization, the Ring opened new horizons in philosophy and music. In its scope and ambition, it changed the language of opera forever.

The Ring has also entered popular culture as the archetypal opera--Amazonian blond women in Viking helmets and braids carrying spears and shrieking at the top of their lungs. One of its melodies, the stirring "Ride of the Valkyries," has become a modern anthem, appearing in both film soundtracks like Apocalypse Now and in an unending string of television commercials--the latest of which has gray squirrels parachuting into bowls of breakfast cereal. The ability to pull together the massive orchestral, vocal and dramatic forces needed to make a Ring cycle work has become the benchmark of a truly great opera company. In the United States, only the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the San Francisco Opera and the Seattle Opera--under the direction of Glynn Ross--have been able to pull it off.

For the Arizona Opera, a company that rarely stages anything outside the Puccini-Verdi-Rossini axis of Italian opera, mounting the difficult and enormously expensive Ring seems like a pipe dream. The trump card in the deck, however, is Glynn Ross.

@body:When Ross first proposed bringing Valhalla to Puget Sound, critics said he'd be "sitting in the hall by himself." But in 1974, Ross, then general director of the Seattle Opera, convinced the opera's board of directors, Boeing and several other large corporations in the Northwest to go along with his ambitious plans to stage North America's first in-sequence performance of Wagner's entire 18-hour, four-opera Ring.

Unlike the annual Ring at Germany's then-98-year-old Bayreuth Festival, the Seattle Ring was done in two cycles, one in the original German and one in an English translation by New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter.

Staged in the Seattle Opera House as a summer-festival event, the Seattle Ring attracted attention all over the world. The Washington Post reviewer called the production "the most audacious and widely publicized event in American regional opera." Six Japanese newspapers sent reviewers. And nearly every German newspaper flocked in, expecting a turkey shoot--the idea that Americans, let alone those in the provinces, could stage Wagner's opus. Harrumph! What they found, however, was a Ring that was well-played and sensitively conducted. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "topnotch." New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg called it "the Ring, more or less, as Wagner conceived it," and concluded his review with, "Glynn Ross and his summer festival, operating out of a city of only some 500,000, are doing something that no American opera house has ever attempted, and doing it quite handsomely." Although the Ring lost $40,000 in its first year, it received unstinting praise from fans and critics alike, and by the second year, word of its quality and vitality had spread. Once described by English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as a "cultural dustbin," Seattle caught the world's eye. Operagoers made an annual summer pilgrimage to Ross' Ring. It wasn't long before the city began trumpeting statistics showing it had the highest operagoing population per capita in the world. Ross' Seattle Ring put American regional opera on the map and poured millions of dollars into the local economy. The good press culminated with a 1978 profile of Ross himself in the New Yorker. Afterward, he remarked that "even Moses didn't get as many pages in the Bible."