She’s Got That Ring Thing

Maria Goodavage on May 9, 2011
Verna Parino | Credit: Maria Goodavage

When Verna Parino talks about the main man in her life, she grasps her coffee mug tightly and sits up tall in her living room chair, her cheeks aglow, her crystal blue eyes twinkling in morning sunlight.

“He may be eccentric, but he inspires passion on so many levels.”“And what’s more,” the beaming Mill Valley resident says, “He keeps me young!”

Parino, at age 94, has a Facebook page, stays up into the wee hours some nights surfing the Internet, and saw the action movie Thor on opening night last week. (“I had to clap my hand over my mouth to prevent the outburst of eeeeeeeeking,” she says.)

She credits her youthful, inquisitive spirit to a man who has been dead for 128 years: Richard Wagner. “I like new things, and there’s always something new with him,” she says. Not that she would have wanted to be intimately acquainted with Wagner in real life: The 19th-century composer was far from a beloved figure in his time. It’s really his music she’s wild about — especially The Nibelung's Ring, a four-part, 16-hour opera extravaganza.

Closing in on 1,000 Ring Hours

Parino has seen the Ring cycle an astounding 58 times. Do the math. Fifty-eight cycles times about 16 hours per cycle. That’s 928 hours of Ring. That’s a whole lot of Wagner. And after she sees all three cycles of the San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of The Ring (she has her tickets ready), Parino will be up to 61 cycles, 976 Ring hours.

That doesn’t count all the ancillary ring programs she has attended, or the amount of time she’s spent coordinating programs, hosting opera stars, and doing behind-the-scenes work on behalf of the Wagner Society of Northern California, of which she is a founding member and former president.

The great wall of Wagner in Parino's home

Parino’s passion for Wagner’s music started when she was about 16, while listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturdays in her family’s Minneapolis duplex. It stayed with her through college, her marriage, the birth of her daughter (Cat Taylor, who plays electric violin in the Celtic folk rock group Avalon Rising), the sudden death of her husband when Cat was only 11, and the subsequent jobs Parino would work to make ends meet.

She didn’t see the opera in person until 1971, when she needed something to fill in for lonely weekends without her husband. There was no turning back.

Parino is such a well-versed and impassioned Ring fan that it would take at least a cycle’s worth of hours to explain her lifelong interest. Here are a few top reasons for her fandom, in her own words:
• “The music is just so sensational.”
• “Everything relates to the Ring. It’s full of myths and archetypes, and you can easily connect it to real people in the world today. Look at the leaders of the big corporations who evaded the law. That’s exactly what Wotan did. You see it in everything.”
• “If there were ever a dysfunctional family, it’s Wotan’s. What a story!”

She’s Got the World on her Ring Finger

The music and storyline are just part of the fountain-of-youth effect for Parino. She also thrives on connecting with other fans around the world. Equally important is the traveling she does to see different opera companies’ versions of The Ring. She has been to 30 cities in 18 countries in pursuit of Ring magic.

“I love the anticipation of going to another Ring, making the arrangements myself to get to it, to find the hotel nearby, all the planning. The adrenaline of the preparations is so exciting,” she says.

Last year she went to Shanghai for her 58th cycle of The Ring. She traveled there alone, but met up with a friend. She was instantly the focus of local media coverage. “They really respect older people there,” she says.

She doesn’t shy from adventure. In 2006, the petite “5-foot-tall-minus-3-inches-now” Parino traveled by herself to Munich. She rented a car and drove 150 miles to Bayreuth, where she had tickets for The Ring and other operas. “I love going fast on the Autobahn,” she says. Her only wish is that she’d gotten an automatic car. “I’m not used to stick shifts.”

Parino is a sport. She once paid $770 to see a Ring performance for opening night at La Scala, in Milan. She was in the third tier, and her seat turned out to be on a bench that didn’t really face most of the stage. “So I got up and stood behind a man (not blocking anyone). He offered me his seat but I didn’t mind standing. What a performance it was!” she says.

She doesn’t have the same level of enthusiasm for the 2010 Ring production in Los Angeles. Already not a fan of “directors’ Rings,” Parino was aghast at the “avant-garde mess.” She says she sneaked out before the lights came on. She later started her review for the magazine of the Finnish Wagner Society thus:

When a ‘nice little old lady’ has to stop at a nearby sports bar for a double cognac and loud rock music to recover from a performance of Das Rheingold, you know something is wrong.

Did she really go drinking at a sports bar? “I had to, to get the music out of my head,” she says matter-of-factly.

Parino’s health has taken a few hits lately. But that hasn’t stopped her from setting her sights on the future. She has places to go, Rings to see: Frankfurt in 2012? Melbourne in 2013?

“There’s no telling where I’ll go next!” she says.