Behind the Curtain of Grand Opera

Bryn Terfel as Wotan. Photo by Clive Barda.

Bryn Terfel as Wotan. Photo by Clive Barda.

Call me crazy but I have seen Richard Wagner’s 17-hour cycle of four Ring operas five times over the last 25 years or so. I have had the good fortune of living near Seattle Opera, which has earned a worldwide reputation for its Ring productions.

The Ring is for many the ultimate aesthetic prize and, for opera companies, the greatest challenge. Kasper Holten, Director of Opera at London’s Royal Opera House, has said, “When an opera company wants to measure itself, to find out if it’s good enough, you put on the Ring cycle. It’s the Olympics of opera.”

This week I added another 80 minutes of Ring-viewing onto to my 85 or so hours of watching Wagner’s gods and mortals make a glorious mess of things as they sing about greed, power, love and death. But these 80 minutes were unique from anything I’d seen before, thanks to the artistry and technical wizardry of London’s Royal Opera House (ROH). A friend had tipped me off about a technical adventure the ROH undertook during its 2012 Ring cycle.

The ROH captured the third and final act of Walkure, the Ring’s second opera, by deploying 17 cameras, mostly positioned behind the scenes. It then put all this video and sound up on the Web for anyone to experience. But first it organized the footage so that the production can be experienced in real time from any of the 17 camera angles and three different sound mixes.

The two main characters in Walkure’s Act Three are Wotan (Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in this production) and Brunnhilde (British soprano Susan Bullock). However this video production reveals that the true heroes are Stage Manager Adam Lawley and Deputy Stage Manager Sarah Woodward. They are the masters behind the curtain who pull the strings, as well as control trap doors, lightning and thunder, a two-ton spinning wall and a flaming helix that feature in this Act.

I found all this fascinating. Unless you are professionally situated on the inside of the theatre business, it can be hard to know what all the people do backstage to produce the performance that we in the audience see. This program casts light on those mysteries.

The scale of effort required to produce grand opera is remarkable (which explains why opera tickets are not cheap). A few numbers will bear that out. One hundred and eighty-nine people were working on this opera the day of filming. They included 90 musicians in the orchestra, eight dressers, ten makeup artists, and one spear-tender. That’s right; a key element in the Ring story is Wotan’s spear. In this production there are actually nine versions of that spear, so someone on the props staff has the job of getting the right spear into Wotan’s hands at the right moments.

One of the most enigmatic positions in theatre is that of director. Few directors today or anyone else for that matter realize that it was Richard Wagner who invented the job of theatrical director. Before his reign singers would more or less organize themselves and when it was their time for an aria they stepped downstage and let loose. Once it was seen how a director could improve an opera production, the concept was adapted for nonmusical stage plays.

The ROH program includes a ten-minute introductory film in which Director of Opera Kasper Holten and this production’s director, Keith Warner are interviewed. Warner explains his overriding vision behind this production and how he worked with the design team to turn that concept into reality. I don’t expect many of my readers will want to watch all 80 minutes of Act Three but if you are intrigued about what goes on behind the proverbial curtain, I might suggest watching this introductory piece and then skipping around other parts of the video to get a feel for the overall experience.

If you’re game for seeing all of Act Three, the easiest way is to select the “video director’s cut,” which shifts between the various camera feeds at points that are especially dramatic or revealing. One video feed is of the prompt book, which is the score annotated with the lighting, sound and special effects cues, all ably called out by the Deputy Stage Manager.

A little background may be helpful for those unfamiliar with the Ring story. (It is based on the same ancient myths that J.R.R. Tolkien drew on for his Lord of the Ring books.) At the top of Act Three the Valkyries (daughters of Wotan, the top god) return to Valhalla on their flying steeds, bearing the bodies of fallen heroes. They are amazed to see a strange woman with fellow-Valkyrie Brunnhilde. She is Sieglinde, Brunnhilde tells them, and she needs asylum from Wotan who had intended her to die. Brunnhilde foretells that Sieglinde is to bear a son, Siegfried, who will become the greatest of heroes. Sieglinde departs, determined to save her child. Wotan arrives in a fury and declares that Brunnhilde’s punishment for defying him will be the loss of her godhood. She will be cast asleep on a rock and the first man who comes upon her can have her. Wotan dismisses the other eight Valkyries, warning them not to dare help their disobedient sister. Brunnhilde begs her father to surround her sleeping body with fire so that only a hero could wake her. Wotan agrees and sadly kisses her godhead away. As flames leap up and surround Brunnhilde, a tormented Wotan proclaims that only a hero unafraid of Wotan’s spear can claim Brunnhilde.

Got all that? I hope you’ll find a few minutes to check out this remarkable video production. And kudos to the Royal Opera House for producing this and making it widely available.

P.S. My longtime affair with the Ring has produced a child. Last year I completed a play about Wagner and the Ring, titled May the Music Never End. And I do confess that there can be moments in the operas, particularly as the hour approaches midnight, when one wonders if the music is ever going to end.

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