Why do people keep putting on Wagner's Ring? I asked myself this question recently because I knew nothing about it besides the bare basics: it's long, it's about some fable-like characters, there's this golden ring, there are tons of fans around the world who travel to see the next performance of the cycle like it's the next tour of The Grateful Dead (RIP), and it's full of loud singers with a full orchestra. One piece of advice people love to give a young tenor is: "Stay away from Wagner! People are going to ask you to sing it too early, and you won't have a voice left after!" This was, to say the least, a deterrent from me wanting to look into Wagner any further. But, then as a second-year Adler Fellow, I found myself in the unique position of covering the small lyric role of Froh in Das Rheingold; the first of the four operas in the Ring cycle.
At first I was scared, after having been warned by so many to stay away, but I was reassured to find out that many young lyric tenors have sung the role in other major houses around the world. I started to ask more about the Ring
. Some of my Adler sponsors happen to be major Ring-Heads! (Another term I've found relative to the old "Dead-Heads") They were so excited about it! The next thing you know I'm sitting with Craig Henderson, a long-time supporter of SFO, listening to Anna Russell recordings where she runs through the entire Ring in 20 minutes of comedic rambling. I'm laughing and thinking, "Ok, this could be fun." I still didn't buy into it fully until rehearsals began in earnest.
The music really overwhelms you when you hear everything all together. I find myself loving scenes like those in Rheingold with the Giants, which of course makes me feel like a big kid. There is no question why stories similar to this, like the Tolkein exploits, are so popular. Stories of magic, and power with betrayal and romance all wrapped up in it. What's not to like? It's fun, and you find yourself on an adventure, along with the Gold and with those it ensnares. You kind of become possessed by it until it's laid to rest again in Götterdämmerung
. Wagner found a way to give each character its own music and to keep it all flowing.
[Above: A scene from 2008's Das Rheingold: Fafner and Loge discuss Valhalla while the family of gods (Donner, Fricka, Froh and Wotan) look on. Photo by Terrence McCarthy]
The role that I am covering, Froh in Das Rheingold, is played by a tenor who is no stranger to the San Francisco Opera—Brandon Jovanovich. He will, of course, also be singing his first Siegmund in the second opera of the cycle, Die Walküre, which is quite exciting. Because of the intense schedule of having four operas simultaneously being staged and worked on, I have already had the pleasure of stepping in for Brandon a couple of times. It has been a lot of fun. It was quite hard to give it back to Brandon after having had a taste of the role, because you invest yourself every time you step onto the stage to do something. Still, I was happy to help out when they needed me to and I will be ready should they need me again.
I have learned a lot about the role and about the Ring by watching other rehearsals. I sat in on a Die Walküre rehearsal the other night, with Heidi Melton (Sieglinde) and Jovanovich working on the opening scene. I gained so much respect for them, seeing them act while singing incredibly challenging music. I know what it is like to do this, and so do most of my colleagues, but Wagner is especially difficult. There are a lot of really long musical phrases where they didn't always have words to sing. There are long pregnant pauses that they are forced to act through with extreme intensity. One of the hardest things to do on stage is stand still and to keep the focus where it has to be. I think they are really going to pull it off!