A Journey Through the Fire

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By Paul Ziller (Production Super Captain and Graphic Designer)

Monday, June 6, 2011

When the audition notice was posted seeking 11 male Supernumeraries for Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, I heeded the call of my Wagnerian destiny (cue Schicksalsfrage', the fate leitmotif). Hang up my singing and dancing for a time to be a voiceless, nameless "extra"? You bet! My Ring journey comes full circle this month.
Packaging the Ring
Two years ago I began a collaboration on the design of the brand identity and image for San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle, with the fantastic studio Mission-Minded. It was an ideal pairing. I'd become an official Wagner-phile in '99, when I witnessed my first cycle, the swan song of SFO’s previous production.
The creative process began by discussing the production with Francesca Zambello and David Gockley. The goal: to highlight the concepts of destruction and salvation via a feminine ethos. The image evolved to include a tragic nod to 9/11, with the burning and fall of city skyscrapers showing the destruction of a civilization, paralleled with environmental destruction. Perched atop this, a heroic Brünnhilde. The photo-illustration integrates almost 15 separate images.
Rare Opportunities
Last year, my journey continued as I had the opportunity to be a supernumerary in Die Walküre. Now, I'm again attempting to wrestle down Sieglinde (this time, a resplendent Heidi Melton) in a bit of crafty fight choreography, as Hunding's feral kinsman...acting as the spirit of a fallen war hero during "Siegmund! Sieh auf mich!" some of the most moving music in the Ring...and engaging in a breathless stand-off with Hagen, after he stabs Siegfried, and moments before his last breath.
I'll never forget, at our first Götterdämmerung rehearsal in Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, "Cesca" walked us through the plot in her own words, while referencing a wall of impressive production photos. Inspired storytelling by a world-renowned opera and Broadway director. Priceless.
She and the staff have referenced several movies to set the production tone for the Supers: The Matrix, Mad Max, Deliverance, and The Terminator. Pop culture and opera aren't so far apart, after all. Hear that younger generation?!
"The Few, The Proud, The Supers"
We're here for different reasons: some hooked on opera, others eager for a new kind of experience; and at different phases in our lives: one, on summer break from studying performance at a midwest college...another, an independent lawyer, discovered the opportunity when his wife heard the NPR interview and shared the scoop...and one Bay Area native wanted to do one of the last things he hadn't experienced before likely moving away.
But the differences melt away when it comes to our onstage camaraderie and break-room pastimes. During a rehearsal break, a no-rules game of ping-pong broke out. Any surface was fair game, and ceiling and wall rebounds were encouraged. We invited Gerd Grochowski (Gunther) to join us. He claimed to not have played for decades, but then showed-off some impressive spin on the ball! Also, several rounds of Texas Hold-Em with Equal and Nutrasweet packets as our betting chips kept us well entertained. [Left: The Götterdämmerung supernumeraries, Paul Ziller at right. Photo by Mike Harvey]
After all, we honorary Wagnerians could well benefit from some "team building" for the challenges that lie ahead onstage!
The Spell of the Ring
Why does the Ring weave such a spell for me? Besides the music, it's because the character archetypes and stories have such relevance to people in our world and time. In the final scene of Götterdämmerung (or Glitterdämmerung, as I fondly call it), after Brünnhilde sets the pyre aflame, the Rhinemaidens and Gibichung women respond rapturously to the feel rain on their faces for the first time. It inspires in me the wish that our own world could be similarly cleansed by that purifying, redemptive Rhine water, washing away war, conflict and suffering.