Go Big by Going Small

Back to Notes From Valhalla

By Stacey Tappan (Woglinde & Forest Bird)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Every time I do a Ring cycle I am continually astounded by just how big it is.
Every piece of it is big: the sweeping, epic, lush music that not only accompanies the story but comments on it through musical leitmotifs; the mythological storyline spanning generations and sprawling over four operas; the dozens of very human characters whose intense emotional journeys clearly reflect our own struggles and dreams; the dense symbology and alliterative poetry of the libretto; the huge technical demands of portraying onstage swimming mermaids, giant dragons, and the cataclysmic fire and flood that brings about the end of the world; the vocal power necessary for the singers to carry their voices expressively over an enormous orchestra; not to mention the logistical nightmare of scheduling rehearsals for the thing.
It seriously takes a village—and years of dedicated work by passionate people—to get it conceived, funded, cast, built, brought to musical and dramatic life, and put onstage.
As a singer playing Woglinde and the Forest Bird, I'm a tiny piece of this vast machine of music, drama and stagecraft. I'm awed and proud to be a part of it, but when you sit down to put it together, it can be easy to feel overwhemed by the hugeness of it all. [Right: The three Rhinemaidens rehearse a scene from Götterdämmerung with Ian Storey (Siegfried)]
So how do you work on something this huge? By going small.
Before we began staging each scene, we'd sit down together and read our lines out loud, translating them in our own words. We discussed the meaning of certain words and what they revealed about our characters and their relationships. We all talked about the arc of the story and our specific parts in it, what we wanted, how we felt, and how we moved the story forward. We pointed out leitmotifs in the orchestra that added extra meanings to our words. All this before we even set foot on the rehearsal stage.
During the stagings, we talk over shifts in mood and body language, fine-tuning little moments to keep them sharp and important to us, finding parallels in our own lives to the experiences of the characters we play. For instance, Flosshilde, the bossy killjoy of the Rhinemaidens, gained more resonance to us when we realized she is the Hermione Granger of the group. Once the Rhinemaidens are deprived of the gold, they become harder and more desperate as their river turns polluted, so we talked about drug addicts, being exhausted to the point of mania, wild animals and how they stalk their prey, the zombies in 28 Days Later, our connection to nature, and the impact of pollution on our lives. We heard Siegfried's horn and compared it to hearing a ship when you're stranded on a desert island. We discovered little moments of comedy and humanity in the relationship between Siegfried and the bird who gives him advice, tapping into our inner teenagers. [Left: the Rheinmaidens rehearse the death of Hagen with Daniel Sumegi]
This level of detail work is a huge luxury for a lot of opera companies today because of financial and time constraints. But it's vital to work this way. Every character in an opera is the protagonist of their own story, and the intersections of these stories make up the story of the opera. Relating to our characters and clarifying who they are in the language of our own modern lives makes their journeys more immediate for the audience, pulling them into our story and allowing them to relate to us on a personal level.
For a big piece like this, so sprawling and dense with meaning and humanity, going small is the best way to truly make it live.
[Above: The Rhinemaidens are a team both on and off the stage. Renee Tatum (Flossilde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde) and Stacey Tappan (Woglinde) at the finish line of San Francisco's legendary Bay to Breakers race. The three runners proudly wore their Rhinemaiden Track Team shirts]