Preparing for ‘The Ring’ with ‘Wagner’s Dream’

Susan Froeme’s documentary “Wagner’s Dream” poses the question: Does one stick with tradition or attempt to develop new concepts? In undertaking Wagner’s Ring Cycle, director Robert Lepage attempted to create new staging with a basically otherwise traditional approach. Even seeing this documentary, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of Lepage’s “Ring.”

I’m not one of those people who believes in strict tradition. Like the chorus of the older generation in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” you can just hear a chorus of critics and opera fans singing “Tradition.” There’s something to be said for a traditional version, particularly of Wagner’s Ring Cycle since the image of a fat lady in a horned helmet and armor singing has become the stereotypical opera image people refer to in every day life. Yet can any art retain subscribers without moving forward and taking risks?

When Wagner was visualizing these myths, what did he see? We know, as the experts tell us in the documentary, that he wasn’t satisfied, but he was only able to produce one Ring Cycle.

Artists aren’t supposed to settle with status quo. Richard Wagner took  new and different approaches and deeply influenced not only opera, but emotional expression and concepts related to harmony and melodic themes (leitmotiv) in music, the art of conducting, the 20th century philosophy with men like Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust heavily influenced by him and some such as Nietzsche existing in opposition to him (in his apparent alignment with the German Reich and Christian tendencies). Wagner is even considered to have influenced psychology and psychoanalysis. Wagner certainly didn’t play it safe–not in his romantic life or his financial dealings (fleeing from his creditors).

The documentary doesn’t cover such aspects of Wagner, but it gives us expert Wagner scholars as talking heads, giving their take on what Wagner would have done with today’s technology and some articulate Wagner fans, also have their say both before the actual performances of Lepage’s Ring Cycle and after.

While Wagner wasn’t a financial whiz, someone has to think about the bottom line. In this documentary, Peter Gelb comments that when he came on as the Metropolitan’s general manager in 2004, the Met was in  “gentle decline” with a dwindling subscriber base and trouble getting the best singers in the world scheduled. “Opera can’t survive by playing it safe,” he notes.

Some opera fans express trepidation. While the Los Angeles Ring Cycle isn’t mention, it would fit well with these criticisms of wacky attempts to update Wagner’s operas. It was the first Ring cycle for the Los Angeles Opera. German artist and director Achim Freyer provided a vision that seemed hopeful during “Gotterdammerung” with its portrayal of alien-like gods and giants that finally leave the earth to the humans. The gods were like comic book characters from German Expressionism or like simple graffiti characters drawn with a spray can. I liked the representation of the Valkyries’ horses. It was steampunky. However, I couldn’t get over Fafner’s dragon form which seems more like a tap-dancing alligator from a kids cartoon program. It was my first Ring experience and it was disappointing. I understand the fears of the Wagner fans. I consoled myself by watching Bugs Bunny’s opera shorts.

Lepage himself was at first puzzled on how to approach Wagner. He already had a reputation for innovation. This is the man who choreographed Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show, “Ka.” If you haven’t seen that show, it has a moving set that slides and tilts to become many things. Of course, the circus, particularly the Cirque du Soleil’s type, is all about bodies flying and challenging gravity. Opera is about singing and few opera singers if any are contortionists.

By chance, LePage went to Iceland soon after he was contracted to produce 16 hours of Wagner (four separate operas). Attending a museum exhibit, he saw the early editions of the epic poems known as Edda. The term refers to both the Old Norse Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda which were both written in Iceland in the 13th century. These books are the source materials for Icelandic and Norse mythology.  In Iceland, Lepage says, to find a “fresh new ring,” he want back  “to the very, very root of it.” Digging deep into Icelandic myths and considering how Iceland is a land that always moves with glaciers and lava.  The glaciers and lava coming out of the ice,  “It’s the gods expressing themselves,” Lepage explains.

Lepage makes the jump from Teutonic (Teutons refers to the Germanic peoples or people in Scandinavia, North Germany, the Baltic states, East Prussia, North Poland, North Russia, Britain, Ireland and parts of Central and Southern Europe) to tectonic plates that caused the continental drifts (no not the acorn and the prehistoric squirrel) and the formation of the continents. Thus the stage is constructed in what seems like a simple oversized child’s toy: Twenty-four side-by-side wooden planks rise and fall and align separately. Lepage explains, “It’s a sculpture that sculpts itself, colors itself, paints itself.”

Wagner’s opera has imagery that has always been problematic. How does one show the Rhinemaidens, swimming under and above water? How do you show the gods crossing a rainbow? How do you show a flying horse? How do you show two different worlds?  The first part of the documentary shows French Canadian Lepage and his multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina constructing their set “machine” to deal with that problem. Carl Fillion, Ex Machina technical director, discussing the problems and throughout, even during the actual performances, we see the technical glitches.

The “machine” weighs more than the original estimate (resulting in an unplanned reinforcement of the Met’s stage) and requires sophisticated computer programming. As anyone who works with computers knows, technology is a wonderful thing but when something goes wrong you can’t just fix it with a screwdriver. You need crews for the mechanical aspects as well as the programming. The control room isn’t just a guy with headphones; it’s a crew of people on computers who program not only the “machine” but also the imagery and lighting.  It looks like a cross between the control room in the Nebuchadnezzar of the Matrix movies. It’s high tech but a little messy for NASA with people in weird grungy outfits walking around.

The opera singers must also contend with the shifting set, and for some that means being suspended in harnesses and the costumes must be designed so that the harnesses can fit under them.  To some extent, this isn’t so new. Wagner himself forced poor women into contraptions to help simulate swimming. He was constrained by limited technology and the morality of the time. Consider how much harder it is to portray women swimming when the moral dictates of the time required the women to be covered with so much fabric and a corset. Don’t worry. These women of the water aren’t nude, but they are meant to swim with bubbles coming up and out of them. For some more complicated scenes such as when the gods walk into Valhalla acrobatic doubles are used.

Things can go wrong. Some are technical glitches. Some are less high tech such as when a singer falls after stepping on her dress. Other times, illness requires replacements. Yet consider that even among opera singers, not everyone is up to the challenge and demands of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. So when the woman who is portraying Brunnhilde, Deborah Voigt, is not only doing it for the first time, but falls during a performance that should make you more than a little bit nervous. Likewise, although Brunnhilde’s true love Siegfried is a man without fear, most tenors fear the part and few are up to the physical challenge on an ordinary production. So when the original tenor Gary Lehman becomes ill, the Met is lucky to find Jay Hunter Morris  as his last-minute replacement who has less than a week to learn the blocking for the production.  The Hunter-Voigt chemistry on-stage is exciting, something that Voigt alludes to in the documentary. At about the same time, the project’s conductor, James Levine, also needs to be replaced due to back problems. The operas are long and require stamina. He’s replaced by Fabio Luisi.

While not totally traditional, there is plenty of glamour and surprises in this Ring Cycle. Lepage has made what seems to be a streamlined, almost minimalist set that required the Met’s crew to learn new skills, changing the way things had been done at the Met for the last two decades. Watching the documentary, you can see how Lepage has dreamed wildly and ambitiously. He has sculpted with light and used 3D to bring sensuousness and a cinematic sensibility to opera.

We’ll have to wait and see if the Met’s gamble changes the future of opera and even the future of theater. Susan Froeme’s documentary not only helps you appreciate the amazing engineering behind the Met’s Ring Cycle, but also helps prepare you for watching each opera by summing up the plot in a few sentences. This documentary is a fascinating record of how Lepage has fused the poetry of opera and the poetry of cinema in his one-set concept for the Met’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” It’s a must watch for anyone interested in stage productions of any kind and for opera lovers everywhere.

Great Performances at the Met: “Wagner’s Dream” will broadcast on September 10, 2012. Check local listings.

 Wagner’s Dream

A documentary by Susan Froemke
Air date: September 10, 2012
The stakes could not be higher as visionary director Robert Lepage, some of the world’s greatest operatic artists, and the Metropolitan Opera tackle Wagner’s Ring cycle. An intimate look at the enormous theatrical and musical challenges of staging opera’s most monumental work, the film chronicles the quest to fulfill Wagner’s dream of a perfect Ring.

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