There are many ways a 21 year old can spend their holiday time. Out of the many options that probably went through your head on this statement, I doubt that “Watch 16.5 hours of Opera” was on that list. However, when we found out that Opera Australia was opening up a new season of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, my friends and I knew that we had to attend this event. How often does the Ring Cycle come to Australia?
I have tried to begin this blog several times but find it difficult to put it into so few words. I guess this is possibly how Wagner felt when he tried to write this story (but on a much more extreme level)! The Ring Cycle is a BIG (monstrous) work that tells the stories of the gods and their quest for the Ring, which was stolen by the dwarf Alberich from the Rhinemaidens. The cycle consists of four operas; Das Rheingold, Die Wälkure, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung that last over the course of a week. I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with opera choristers Ryan Sharp and Dean Bassett about their experiences in the Ring, and I also wrote down a few of my own thoughts whilst experiencing Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the first time.
It takes A LOT of work to stage the Ring Cycle. A LOT.
From the get go you can tell that this show is no small feat for an opera company. Das Rheingold begins with the most exquisite use of the 135 piece orchestra. The curtain then opens to reveal chorus and extras making up the first scene. As more characters walk on, the show becomes more extravagant, creating a contrast between humans and gods, giants and dwarfs. From scene to scene, opera to opera, the extravagant creation gets bigger and bigger until the final Immolation scene in Götterdämmerung (“It’s all fun and games until someone immolates themselves!”). At this point, the set is lit with fire whilst cast members sit on a staircase, watching on as Brunnhilde stands with her dead beloved Siegfried, preparing to burn Valhalla and die.
Ryan Sharp: It’s a long tour. A normal tour goes for only a six week period but because the Ring Cycle is such a massive undertaking, we’re here for ten weeks. We have the principal singers and then 80 volunteers, 30 dancing actors and then the Opera Australia chorus, which is about 40 members.
Dean Bassett: They have three big rehearsal studios in Sydney Opera Centre and we utilise all three rehearsing the four operas. One opera would take a break and then 3 different operas would be rehearsed simultaneously.
Ryan Sharp: … Also, because of this shows revolving stage, it’s too big for our little studios in Melbourne. We had to rehearse down in Docklands in a much bigger space.
This show requires KILLER voices who can act!
If there was one thing I noticed from watching this week’s Ring Cycle, it was the death of ‘Stand and Sing’. These opera singers were not only taking on major vocal challenges, but were playing the stakes dramatically too. To see the drama taking such precedence and power on stage, whilst still hearing amazing singing, was incredibly rewarding and interesting to watch. Lise Lindstrom as Brunnhilde was absolutely stunning, and Jake Johnson as Wotan held the stage with such grandeur. Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich was brilliant and Jacqueline Dark as Fricka was a tour de force. Each performer of the Ring Cycle walked on stage and immediately took us to this mythical world of gods, allowing us to see their emotions, their fears (or in the case of Siegfried, lack of!) and their greatest desires and needs.
Which brings me to my next point… Covering/Understudying a Wagner role is HARD.
Like, that is a LOT of music to learn for something that you might not even get to perform… That does comes with the job though! However, whilst watching the second opera of the week Die Wälkure, singer Bradley Daley, who was playing Siegmund, was unwell. As the second act began, an announcement was made to say that Daley had a throat infection and that his cover, Dean Bassett, would be singing his music from side stage as Daley acted it out.
Dean Bassett: This particular role is pretty big. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done so it’s been a challenge but it’s also very rewarding. I was asked to cover the role about two years ago and when they dangle that in front of you, you just jump at the opportunity! Then I got off phone and just thought “What have I done?!” I love being a chorister and I love singing in the chorus so I had in my mindset that I wanted to show them just what choristers can do. I was told the day before that Siegmund wasn’t feeling well and that he’d woken up with a sore throat. The next morning at 11:30, I get the call telling me I’m on standby for that night. I went in at 3 o’clock to have a talk with the Head of Music. After being called up a few times, the last time was to ask me if I was alright to sing Act 2. We figured out where I’d be standing, showed the maestro and then went from there…! Brad had already sung the first act so it just made sense for me to sing it from side stage while he acted.
Finishing it was awesome. I snuck up stairs for a cheeky couple of drinks between my final sing and bows. When I went back down to get dressed, I saw my mates sitting side stage waiting for me to go take my bow with Brad. Having such supportive mates meant a lot. I was just on Cloud 9 from the support that I got and the well wishes.
Talking about Siegmund… What is with this family’s family tree?
Okay, so whilst I can kind of get on board with Wotan having several children through different mothers etc. There is a lot of incest in this show. From Siegmund and Sieglinde (twins!) hooking up and having a child called Siegfried… Who then shacks up with Brunnhilde. Since Wotan is Brunnhilde, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s father… that would make Siegfried and Brunnhilde aunt and nephew… Like, the Baratheon’s have nothing on this family!
All of this doesn’t really matter though once the epic music begins… And there’s a LOT of epic music!
There is a reason we all know Wagner’s name and even if you’re not an opera goer, you would’ve heard Ride of the Valkyries in use either in an ad or a movie/tv show. When hearing the entire Ring Cycle, you can hear the birth and creation of the film score. This music is so clever and precise with the emotions and actions it portrays. Wagner is giving you plot and feelings on a silver platter… and it is just so difficult to refuse!
Dean Bassett: Wagner’s music is special for me because it’s like nothing else. I like his use of motifs. In the immolation scene all of them are there. As Brunnhilde prepares to set fire to her and Valhalla. I love it when Loge’s motif returns because it’s not used nearly as much as Wotan and Valkyrie.
Ryan Sharp: Last time we did the Ring Cycle, it was my first full time gig with Opera Australia. Doing it again now, I made a conscious effort to watch it a lot more when I had the time. The music that Wagner writes is phenomenal and it’s almost like you don’t have to act. It tells a story and every emotion is played in that score. I also love the story that he chose for the Ring Cycle! As opposed to watching a Bellini opera, which constantly repeats text, with Wagner it just keeps on going! It’s like reading a book: You constantly have new information and it’s just a story evolving right in front of you. It’s just watching a play which is amazing.
Opera is not a dying art form… and it’s also fun.
The Ring Cycle, for me, was like binge watching a good TV show on Netflix. You’re not sure what to expect when you first begin it, then you find yourself hours later transfixed in this interesting plot line. You’re sitting on the edge of your seat wishing there were tissues nearby as you blubber over these characters and their tragic stories… Characters whom, hours before, you knew nothing about and now you’re scratching to find the outcome of their story.
You hear this music and can see how music developed due to Wagner’s influence. Despite it’s length, this music isn’t at all daunting once you get into the theatre. It’s like listening to Star Wars or watching Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. This is a true epic tale. This Ring Cycle attracted nearly a full audience every night we were there, and each show was greeted with at least 10-15 minutes of applause for the performers curtain call. The audience was young and old, male and female. Some people only came for one opera, others returned to the same seat each night of the cycle. On the final night, I happened to run into Australian actor Geoffrey Rush. Gaining up the courage to speak to him, I asked if he’d enjoyed the opera and he said “Very much so. What great music!”
One thing I did notice whilst going around the Ring Cycle, was not just these performers abilities to put on a show, but just how genuinely nice they all were. I stayed around to meet cast after the final show and was met with smiles from singers who were willing to stand and have a chat about their journey, sign programs and take photos. The Ring Cycle was a very special experience and with student tickets at $260 for all four operas, it was an experience I couldn’t miss… and am so glad I didn’t!
I asked Ryan and Dean how it felt to be finishing the cycle and, after 10 weeks on tour, they were super keen to see their family again and go home. Dean Bassett finished the interview saying: “The Ring Cycle is so epic and each time you finish a cycle it’s like closing a good book. But it’s too big to do over and over again. It’s like a really good whiskey. You can’t drink a whole bottle, but a really nice whiskey every now and then is great.”
Thanks so much to Ryan Sharp and Dean Bassett for giving up their spare time before Götterdämmerung to answer questions on the Ring Cycle! You guys rock!
Written by Katherine Goyder