Meet Kevin Rivard, the horn behind Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 3, 2011
When it’s time for the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon in Richard Wagner’s third Ring of the Nibelung opera, Siegfried, it is Kevin Rivard’s hypnotic long horn call in Act II that draws Fafner out of his cave and ushers in the action. That two-minute French horn solo, echoed in shorter motifs throughout the Ring, is one of the cycle’s musical highpoints. It’s also the longest instrumental solo in the Ring. At 28, Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Principal Horn of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, is the youngest member of both brass sections. This is Rivard’s first Ring and he was eager to talk about this demanding solo which he plays backstage, in order to create the illusion that Siegfried himself is playing the horn. Wagner was one of first composers to write extensively for the valved horn and the Siegfried long call, his most famous horn composition, set the bar for all future horn solos in terms of its difficulty and haunting beauty. Rivard plays this horn call for the 4th and last time, next Friday, July 1 in San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 of the Ring.
Would you describe your instrument and tell us if you use only one horn throughout the Ring?
Kevin Rivard: There’s only one horn that I play—it’s a factory Conn 8D horn. It’s the instrument that is known for the American horn sound—that big, broad, full, dark, beautiful sound that you hear in all of the movies. It’s the horn most closely matches the sound that I hear in my head for the ideal horn sound. It fits perfectly with the type of writing that Wagner did for the horn in the Ring Cycle, which is very heroic most of the time… This horn belonged to Julie Landsman, my Juilliard teacher and longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She always raved about how spectacular this horn is, so when she retired, I talked her into selling it to me.
Which leitmotifs in The Ring are played by the French horn?
Kevin Rivard: When I think about all 17 hours of this, I am pretty sure the horn section plays all or most of the scenes and leitmotifs. The Valhalla motif, which is heard for the first time in the first Ring opera Das Rheingold, at beginning of Scene 2, is handled by the Wagner tuba section, part of the horn section. The spear motive, also originating in Das Rheingold, is handled by the horn section. Siegfried’s long and short calls are played a cappella [without accompaniment] by a solo French horn in Act II, Scene 2, of Siegfried.
The big thing about the motifs we play in this Ring cycle is the variation in their complexity. There’s such a great span of time between when Wagner composed Das Rheingold and then began Götterdämmerung that it’s completely different music and you can see and hear it. The orchestral score of Siegfried is so dense and interesting and what I love in particular is that you could listen to this entire opera and have no clue about any of the text and know exactly what’s going on. It’s so cleverly written with the leitmotifs and altering them slightly that you know what’s going on even before the characters themselves know.
The horn is almost always used by classical composers to signify hunting or at least a kind of hearty, masculine, rural sensibility. What does the horn signify in the Ring?
Kevin Rivard: In addition to its use historically for hunting calls, the horn is also the voice of the hero, Siegfried, which is what we most notice. Siegfried lives and hunts in the woods. Also, because of the way the instrument is made and shaped, and its sound, it works very well with other instruments in blending and creating great sonorities throughout the orchestra. Composers will write for the horn in a partnering role, using it to join the sound of different instruments together. If they are writing for the strings and woodwinds, they will stick the horn in there to kind of blend the sounds together. With woodwinds and brass, the horns will be the middle ground to help blend the two together. I’ll play some concerts where we’ll be playing almost the entire concert in these supporting roles and when I finish, people will tell me that I was hardly playing at all. I’m thinking no, I was playing the entire time but in a supporting role.
Aside from its length, what makes the long call in Siegfried special?
Kevin Rivard: This is the biggest, hardest, longest horn solo in any rep–orchestral or opera–that there is, period, because of the way it’s structured. It’s the way Wagner wrote it–the entire orchestra cuts out and it’s just one solo for over two minutes and it keeps building and goes on and on and on and then ends on that spectacular high C. With the French horn, there are a couple of things at issue. The instrument requires an incredible amount of endurance in the lips. You are requiring just the center of your lips to create all of this sound that’s coming through the instrument and the endurance of having to play a solo in that register for that long is a huge factor in its difficulty.
In addition, the register in which this call is written is the extreme upper register of the horn and the partials for the notes are very close together, with a half step of each other.. If my lips are inaccurate by the smallest degree, it’s not a matter of being slightly out of tune; it means the note is missed, completely missed. When a horn player misses a note, it sounds like a dying goat. Everyone knows and no one forgets.
How did you approach and prepare for this great solo?
Kevin Rivard: Since endurance and stamina are such an issue, I looked at my schedule a year ago and I found all of the holes where I would have time to practice and I started preparing, a little here and a little there. A lot of this was mental, knowing in my head exactly what I wanted it to sound like. As an artist, if I have the technique down and I know how I want it to sound, then I can put those two things together. Wagner wrote that the call was to start with moderate tempo and then accelerando [become faster] throughout. Out of respect to that comment and to add to the drama of the scene, I begin very slowly and let the accelerando build and roll it forward and I really try to give it plenty of room. The speed of the accelerando and that crescendo [increase in volume] is based solely on one thing –how much air I can take in and how much music I can make in one breath. I set my tempo and I take the biggest breath that I can and based on that, I start to build. That’s a lot of notes to get into one breath.
Were there any particular horn players’ renditions you listened to? YouTube has lots of fabulous examples for us to hear and compare as does Wagneropera.net.
Kevin Rivard: Julie Landsman has a recording of this in which she plays principal throughout the Ring and she does the long call. This is the best I’ve ever heard, period. I feel pretty strongly that as an artist and individual I want to make every effort not to just try to sound like everyone else. I want to go out there and sound the way I want to sound. Throughout my entire preparation period, I tried not to listen to any recordings, but rather to just study the score and decide what this character means to me and what this horn solo means and how I want to present it. I think this approach has led to something that is similar to what my teacher did but that my call does sound considerably different than any of the recordings out there as a result. I appreciate that because I wanted to step away and see what it meant to me to be Siegfried.
What’s going on physically for you during this solo? Does it help that you are back stage and not actually seen, just heard?
Kevin Rivard: I might not be seen but I have to return to the pit afterward and see all my colleagues so being out of sight doesn’t have much benefit for me. What I think it is, and I read this from other principal horn players too, is that a lot of horn players are adrenaline junkies. The nature of the instrument, the harmonic series, and the extreme accuracy that is required to do our job on a daily basis requires this. Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) once said ‘You never want to look a horn player in the eye before he plays a solo– it’s like looking a tightrope walker in the eye before he grapples with death.’ There’s this huge adrenaline rush you get when you do these big solos—the Siegfried long call and the solo in Handel’s Julius Caesar. You walk back there and you are nervous and your heart is racing and the next thing you know…you’ve jumped and landed. I think ‘wow!’ that was the best thing in the world and I have to do it again.
When you leave the pit, where exactly are you playing and how do you get your cues?
Kevin Rivard: The idea is to position the horn very close to Siegfried so that it sounds like he is playing. My chair is onstage, just behind the curtain, on the rake [upward slope] of the stage. I am sitting tilted back at an angle with my horn in hand and I am facing off to the side of the stage, looking in the opposite direction of Siegfried. Initially, I had to turn around and look at him for my cue which is when he takes this big breath. When I did this, there was this huge spotlight on him from the opposite side of the stage that nearly blinded me. I could barely see him and the light was so strong that I couldn’t see anything on my music stand either. He also took his breath very quickly and I whipped my head around and tried to play very quickly. When I finished the first phrase, I turned back around and was blinded again and then whipped my head back around again and it was an incredible experience. I was like ‘this is just too crazy,’ so I went and found an extra conductor that they have and it’s now his job to stare into that light and catch the cues from Siegfried’s breath and then cue me.
The pace of the four long performances comprising each Ring Cycle, essentially back to back, must be grueling. How do you handle that?
Kevin Rivard: It’s an incredibly difficult work load, without question. The way we have it structured in the horn section is that we have two co-principal horns and this is to purposefully lighten the work load on these long things. Before we started the Ring, I got in touch with principal horn players at all the major opera companies—the Met, Munich, Berlin, and so forth– and starting asking them how they handle the Ring Cycle. Do the same people play or what? Unanimously, all of them have relief players. They would have different horn sections come in half way through an opera to play the last two acts of Götterdämmerung or the last two acts of Siegfried. The horn section that did Die Walküre would not have to play Das Rheingold the night before. They all had some relief. But the way we’re doing it is that we have the same horn section and the same Wagner tuba section and everyone is playing everything for all three cycles.
The standard approach for the Siegfried long call is that whoever plays that solo, that’s all they have to do. If they don’t do it that way, in consideration of the huge work load, you might play Act I and then the horn solo and that’s it. I play Act I, the horn solo and the rest of the opera.
After working on this for a solid year, how do you get this out of your head? What do you do?
Kevin Rivard: Funny you would ask because the other day Bill Klingelhoffer, the other co-principal horn, and I were sitting in the locker room before our final orchestra rehearsal of the season discussing what music we were going to present at an upcoming horn seminar. On stage, they were doing the final piano dress rehearsal for Siegfried and it was coming through on the monitors. The piano was playing literally at about a minute right before the big horn solo. I said to Bill, ‘Hey, they’re playing Siegfried,’ and my heart was pounding like crazy. It stays with you and rings through your head along with the energy and emotion that you feel playing it. It just doesn’t leave.
What is it like working with conductor Runnicles (longtime San Francisco Opera music director)?
Kevin Rivard: It’s going very well. The first time I played the long call was when we were out rehearsing at the Presidio. I half jokingly asked him if he wanted to hear it, thinking he’d tell me to wait until we were at the opera house to hear the whole solo. He, of course, said “Why don’t you play it here and show off for your colleagues.” I thought, ‘Great!’
This is my first Ring Cycle but in talking with Julie Landsman I became aware of the physical, emotional and mental toll this takes. With Runnicles, it’s like this music is in his blood and it’s so natural for him and so in his bones that when he conducts it, he makes it seem easy. The way he prepares and will give a cue for something makes it as easy as it can possibly be and that has a remarkable effect on us. It’s also the energy he breathes into a particular piece of music that makes it come to life.
During this long rehearsal period you must have thought a lot about Wagner. What intrigues you most?
Kevin Rivard: I often consider the great challenges of Wagner’s horn writing and wonder what the premiere performances sounded like. It’s interesting to note that the Principal Horn of the Munich Court Orchestra, the orchestra that premiered the Ring Operas and most of Wagner’s other works, was none other than Franz Strauss. He was the father of the famous composer Richard Strauss, and was known as one of the finest hornists of his day. It’s also interesting to note that Franz Strauss and Wagner did not care for each other. Wagner is quoted as saying: ‘Strauss is an unbearable, curmudgeonly fellow, but when he plays his horn one can say nothing, for it is so beautiful.’
ARThound would like to thank opera dramaturg Cori Ellison, who worked with Francesa Zambello on the conception for this Ring cycle, for assistance in editing this interview. David Marsten, of Calistoga, too provided valuable background information on Wagner and Siegfried.
Details: Single tickets for next Friday’s (July 1, 2011) final performance of Siegfried are still available. Tickets for San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3) are individually priced from $95 to $360. All tickets are available online at www.sfopera.com , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.