Richard Wagner’s operas are hard work.
Ask the singers, who have to belt out powerful lines for five hours. Ask the musicians, who rise to the 19th-century composer’s demands for blasting resonance and walk out of the pit with aching muscles. Ask the set director, who spends hours making sure harnesses, ladders, caves and trees are safe and steady.
Ask pretty much anyone involved in the “Ring” cycle, Wagner’s four-opera colossus that changed opera forever in 1876 and has fascinated the music world since with its tales of the Norse gods and their demise. Seattle Opera, which has produced “Ring” cycles since 1975 and will open this year’s on Aug. 4, is no exception.
“Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) has at its heart a big story. Gold stolen from the Rhine by a greedy dwarf and forged into a cursed ring; a god (Wotan) who promises his wife’s sister, Freia, as payment to giants for building his castle (Valhalla) and then backs out through trickery; a hero (Siegmund) who pulls a sword out of a tree and marries his twin sister (Sieglinde); a Valkyrie (Wotan’s daughter Brnnhilde) put to sleep behind magical flames; another hero (Siegmund’s son Siegfried) who fixes the sword, fights a dragon and falls in love with Brnnhilde; then trickery, vengeance, suicide, flooding, fire and — well, we won’t spoil the ending. The story takes four operas to tell — “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkre,” “Siegfried” and “Gtterdmmerung” — around 16 hours of singing, playing and special stage effects — all of which will be repeated three times in Seattle.
Then you have all the paraphernalia surrounding each cycle: lectures, Q&As, parties, laser shows, and this year a community sing-along back in May for Wagner’s 200th birthday.
Seattle Opera’s production isn’t new — the world-famous “green Ring” directed by Stephen Wadsworth, with scenery that looks like a mossy Northwest forest, has been performed every four years since 2001, with other productions going back to 1975. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Rehearsing the stunning opening of “Das Rheingold,” with the three Rhine maidens “swimming” via concealed aerial harnesses, begins in January. Singers begin rehearsing in May. Props need daily making, fixing, checking and rechecking. Musicians build up endurance and get together for extra practices.
And during performances, going the distance requires physical pacing. The green room is well-stocked with food and drink; curtain time is set to allow for dinner, so performances end by midnight; shows are spaced so singers get a day’s break. Opera companies have even been known to provide pillows and massage therapists for tired string players.
Whether you sit through the 16 hours of “Ring” cycle operas or not, it’s fascinating to know how the players cope behind the scenes. Here’s a peek into three “Ring” experiences: the singer, the musician and the props master.
Mark Schowalter, tenor
“This is the first time I’ve ever sung the role, and I’m really thrilled,” said Schowalter, a Met veteran who’s making his Seattle Opera (and Wagner) debut as Loge, the fire god who tricks Alberich the dwarf into giving up the ring in the first opera. “Because there’s so much text and subtext in this role, I started learning it a year ago around my other work. We started rehearsing on May 21 — it’s the longest rehearsal period I’ve ever been part of.”
Unlike other roles in the “Ring,” Loge only sings in “Das Rheingold,” and so Schowalter doesn’t have the multi-day stamina issue that Greer Grimsley, Stephanie Blythe and other singers deal with.
“I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “If you’re singing in three shows, you want to take it easy: get plenty of rest, eat well, not much talking or drinking. They have some big sings. They build up stamina through the rehearsals, like a marathon runner.”
Within “Das Rheingold,” Schowalter has one of the longest roles, which includes stunts such as climbing into an on-stage cave with three other actors and trying not to fall into the orchestra pit. But he’s thoroughly enjoying it.
“It’s a great sing,” he said. “I’m always surprised at how much you can get out of the text.”
And, of course, being the fire god has some perks.
“I have these gloves that shoot fire paper out of the wrists, like Spider-Man,” he said. “It’s really amazing and fun. And fire spouts from the stage when I get angry. It’s pretty impressive when you can do that.”
Sandy Burke, assistant properties master
“I’m into week three of working 9 a.m. to midnight,” said Burke, sounding a little tired already one month before opening. Her role includes setting up props before each show and checking that they work, running them backstage during the show, buying new ones (like Freia’s youth-giving apples) between shows, and other duties, such as setting up for the orchestra, running safety checks for singers, cueing the conductor into the pit and more. On performance days, she’s in McCaw Hall at 8:30 a.m. for the technical checks, she stays until the dinner break, then comes back to work the show until it finishes at midnight.
“Once we open, we get days off between shows,” Burke said. “I try to sleep in, get a nice big cup of coffee, run errands and take care of my house by crisis management.”
Her most difficult opera, she says, is “Siegfried,” where the hero has a large collection of props that he has to collect in the forest to make a sword.
“It’s different from just having a sword (to) pull out of a sheath,” Burke explains. “Much harder.”
Part of the props business also happens way before an opera is produced. Burke’s props partner built all the weapons used in the “Ring,” including designing a metal spear and sword that can be destroyed and magically rebuilt on stage. Burke was the person that made the ring itself, back in 2000. It took a while to do, even for someone trained in jewelry making.
“There are actually four different rings that have to glow in the dark, be worn by a dragon and do other things,” she said. “The biggest challenge is, how do you get people sitting way in the back to actually see them? I made them really big; the surface is two by two inches. They’re made of sterling silver and gold plate with all kinds of embellishments like crystals to reflect the light, because that’s what you see on stage — not the ring itself.”
Rodger Burnett, horn and Wagner tuba player
“I’ve done every ‘Ring’ since 1977,” said Burnett proudly. “I love it.”
A horn player who teaches at Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound, Burnett this year is playing the parts that also double on Wagner tuba, an original instrument that Wagner designed to bridge the sonic gap between soft horn and brassy trombone. It’s notoriously difficult to play in tune, and Burnett’s colleagues have developed their own fingering system to deal with it.
Despite knowing the part well, they meet regularly outside of rehearsal and during intermissions to practice as a section, particularly for key moments, such as the unveiling of Valhalla or the nastiness of Alberich.
Before each production — Seattle’s orchestra rehearsals started this month — Burnett gets out his “leitmotif cheat sheet” to study up on what musical theme refers to which character or plot element, a technique Wagner perfected.
And then there’s the sheer stamina of building up the mouth muscles to deal with hours of playing — or not, in some cases.
“The fifth to eighth horns don’t have as much ‘on the face’ time as the first to fourth horns,” explains Burnett. “It’s a very different experience. It’s more the specialty of making the psychological shift between tuba and horn. And there are places where we have a 20-minute break in between entrances — hundreds and hundreds of measures’ rest — where we set the stopwatch. And then we come in with a solo that we have to nail.”
Burnett makes sure he gets to rehearsals and performances at least an hour in advance to warm up. And after the big operas, he says, the brass players go home, put ice on their faces and take a few ibuprofen to get the swelling down.
Despite all that, Burnett loves the “Ring.”
“My favorite part is the immolation scene — there’s nothing that can match that,” he said. “You wait so many hours for it, and all those harmonic changes I always get chills, even after all these years. And the opening of ‘Das Rheingold,’ where the horns play that undulating motif one at a time. Until then, no one had written anything like that for orchestral horns. Wagner was a master. It’s a real privilege to play these important motifs that fit the instrument so well.”
And when you finally reach the end of “Gtterdmmerung,” after 16 hours of opera?
“I love the ending so much, it’s bittersweet,” Burnett said. “You’re tired, but it’s so beautiful. There’s a relief, but also a bit of sadness.” ‘Ring’ cycle by Wagner
Who: Seattle Opera directed by Stephen Wadsworth
When: “Das Rheingold” 7 p.m. Aug. 4, 12, 20; “Die Walkre” 6 p.m. Aug. 5, 13, 21; “Siegfried” 6 p.m. Aug. 7, 15, 23; “Gtterdmmerung” 6 p.m. Aug. 9, 17, 25
Where: McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle
Tickets: $15 standing room day of show; $25 and up for single shows; $300-$1,460 for entire cycle
Related events: Other “Ring” events include “Make Some Noise” free kick-off 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 3; “Inside the ‘Ring’” talks 10 a.m.-1 p.m. each performance day, $30; pre-performance talks, $35 per cycle; “Rheingold Revelry” opening night party, $225/$325; Q&A with Seattle Opera’s general director Speight Jenkins after each performance, excluding “Das Rheingold,” free; “Ring” Symposia 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Aug. 6, 14, 22, $70 each; Speight’s Retrospective 6 p.m. Aug. 6, 14, 22, $50 each; Tech Talks 10 a.m. Aug. 8, 16, 24, $15 each; “Wagner Sketches” comedic shorts at Seattle Repertory Theatre 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8, 16, 24, $30 each; KING-FM “Ring” broadcasts 7 p.m. Aug. 10, 17, 24 and 31, 98.1-FM and king.org; Laser “Ring” at Pacific Science Center 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Aug. 11, $10.
Information: 800-426-1619, seattleopera.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org