In Cirque du Soleil’s new “Totem,” Mankind’s Evolution Unfolds…Aided by Crystal Man and a Giant Turtle
With “Totem,” Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil again prove they are a match made in heaven. Lepage’s endless imagination and Cirque’s deep pockets have led to a stunning new production that opened in San Francisco last Friday under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) in Cirque’s Village on Wheels near AT&T Park. Even if you’ve seen a Cirque production lately, this is a show worth seeing with lots that’s new, especially in Lepage’s signature area of technical wizardry. Inspired by many founding myths, “Totem” loosely traces the human evolutionary journey through a series of mind-blowing specially choreographed acrobatic acts performed by elite athletes in gorgeous costumes. A backdrop of stunning video projections bring a new dimension to the stage. “Totem,” explains Lepage, “is inspired by the foundation narratives of the first peoples and explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel. The word suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living beings, even the Thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the Totem.”
“Totem” is Lepage’s second Cirque du Soleil show. It follows the immensely successful jaw-dropping “KÀ,” which took a whopping $165 million to launch and has been running in an enormous 1,951-seat theatre at the MGM Grand since late 2004. “KÀ” traces the epic journey of Imperial twins who embark on an adventurous journey to fulfill their destinies and is the most technologically sophisticated show I have ever seen. It features a giant rectangular 150 ton stage that floats and rotates in the air and can pivot from horizontal to vertical and transform into several landscapes, making things like battle scenes come alive as actors scale and rappel a vertical battlefield.
For San Francisco audiences, “Totem” also falls right on the heels of Lepage’s highly publicized and controversial production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera where some of his ingenious and expensive technology failed to perform as expected. In the Ring’s first installment, Das Rheingold (September, 2010), the video technology, which was supposed to project imagery on 24 planks operated by a hydraulic system—the 45 ton “Valhalla machine”–failed during the climactic scene in which the Gods walk across a rainbow into Valhalla. That problem was resolved but others emerged in Die Walküre (April, 2011), the second installment, including leading ladies Deborah Voight and Stephanie Blythe both slipping on the planks of the $16 million machinery. “Totem” is not as spectacular as “KÀ,” nor does it carry the weight of Valhalla, but it makes for a wonderfully entertaining afternoon or evening and it is perfect for kids.
Where “Totem” really excels is in the use of video projection and special effects, all masterminded by Pedro Pires, Image Content designer, in conjunction with Set and Props designer Carl Fillion and Lighting Designer Etienne Boucher. In “Totem,” the projection screen is a virtual marsh at the rear of the stage. The images projected are all drawn from nature and Pires shot most of them himself on travels to Iceland, Hawaii and Guatemala. Throughout the show, these evolve in long mixes or morph to create an ever-changing tableau of gorgeous eye-popping color. Way way cool factor—infra-red tracking cameras positioned above the stage and around the marsh detect movement and produce kinetic effects that interact with the artists’ movements in real time. The results are poetic—water flows across beaches, molten lava streams, projected swimmers swim across the stage while real time swimmers emerge at the side. As performers wade across projected water, projected ripples swell out from under their feet.
Kym Barrett’s creative costumes have ingenious attention to detail and look fabulous on these well-toned athletes. Barrett explained in the press kit that, in brainstorming with Lepage, the idea was to create a real world that evolved into a fantastical world─from a documentary style to fantasy, keeping the human body and its possible transformations in mind at all times. Her designs emphasize themes of evolution, nature itself and
changes of the seasons, traditional cultural and tribal designs and sophisticated surface treatment of fabric to achieve costumes that constantly interact with and adapt to the show’s ever-changing lighting.
Most striking is Crystal man—a recurring character—who represents the life force. He descends from space and sparks life early in the show and dives into a lagoon at the close. His dazzling costume is covered with about 4,500 crystals and reflective mirrors and when he twirls and drops down from the sky, he glistens like a falling star. The ten performers in the Russian bars act also stand out in their vibrant op art unitards—each is different but collectively these costumes have a harlequin meets the lost civilizations of South America vibe. Humans, scaly fishes, clowns, a toreador, cosmonauts—whatever the costume, Barrett has designed it to accentuate the bodies and all the possible movements of these outstanding performers.
For all its wizardry and outright coolness and camp, “Totem” doesn’t really present any clear-cut thesis or timeline about where mankind has come from or is going—the approach was to throw in everything and anything and mix it all up in a series of vignettes with great stunts. It’s an environment where Planet of the Apes chimps, Darwinesque explorers, Native Americans, clowns, businessmen, Cosmonauts, and Bollywood players all meet up. At the end of it all, my favorite act was a male female trapeze duo cleverly enacting a romance─from an innocent game of seduction to gradually intertwined bodies enthralled in a vertical dance of unusual movements and lifts.
Cirque Facts: The cast of “Totem” comprises 51 artists from 17 countries.
The “Totem” hybrid show is the first Cirque du Soleil show to be created in such a way that it can be adapted to the reality of arenas and other venues from the very outset.
As part of the celebration festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Quebec City in 2008, Robert Lepage created Le Moulin á images─the largest architectural projection ever produced─on the walls of the Bunge, a massive grain silo.
In January 2012, “Totem” will travel to London to the Royal Albert Hall.
Details: Cirque du Soleil’s ”Totem” takes place under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top), AT&T Park, Parking Lot A, 74 Mission Rock Street, San Francisco. Tuesdays and-Wednesdays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and 1 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Closes: December 11, 2011.
Tickets: $55 to $360 Information and to purchase tickets: www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem
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.
Standing for Valhalla: the passion, endurance and strategy it takes to stand through the Ring at SF Opera
Those attending the full Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera will spend 17 hours just watching the 4 performances but for those who choose the standing room ticket option, the hours multiply. One hundred and fifty standing room tickets for last night’s opening performance of Das Rheingold went on sale at 10 a.m. yesterday morning at the War Memorial Opera House. An additional 50 tickets went on sale at 5 p.m. and all 200 were sold. Charlise Tiee, of Alameda, arrived “before 7 a.m.” and stood for 3 hours to buy the coveted #1 standing room ticket. That allowed her to stand again–at the side of opera house– and enter 70 minutes before the performance and select her place to stand for the two hour and 40 minute performance. Her standing-in-line to standing-in-performance ratio: roughly 2 to 1. “It will get better with the 4 and 5 hour performances.”
This is Tiee’s 6th Ring cycle and the 34 year old, who studied viola and piano, started her ring thing when she was 26. Tiee was a stand-out in last night’s line because she came dressed in a green satin brocade gown as Erda, the goddess of earth and mother of the three Norns. It is Erda who warns Wotan to give up the ring after taking it from Alberich. It is Erda who sees into the future and possesses great wisdom. “I’ve been planning this,” she said.
At 7:30 a.m., there were 4 people in line for the $10 standing room tickets. By 10 a.m., there were 40 people, and the line was growing. Tiee is an SF Opera subscriber but also enjoys the thrill of nabbing the first standing room ticket and the flexibility of standing “I can move around more.” Her strategy for the special evening was simple—she was going to stand on the orchestra level, on the right side by the pillar “to enhance the contrast with my outfit.” Tiee is also well known for her lively blog– The Opera Tattler—that tracks her experiences attending opera performances as a standee in San Francisco and beyond. Her writing is not limited to the performance but to what she sees and hears and “tattles” about the audience as a standee. Tiee also presides over the Opera Standees Association, a social club for people in the Bay Area who love opera and met in standing room. OSA meets and also financially sponsors a Merola Opera Program summer participant.
This really isn’t about saving money, it’s about experiencing opera,” said Tiee. “A lot of people who attend are in it for the social experience, which is fine. It’s not easy to keep standing and the people in standing room tend to be more serious and very well-informed about the performances. I have attended most of the dress rehearsals and will go to all three cycles. I am interested in how it all evolves–you hear and see things at one performance that you won’t experience again because it’s live art.”
Members of the standing group consider themselves “exceedingly lucky” because the SF Opera Company is so good and because the people in the box office are friendly and supportive of standees. This is not the case at other opera venues where standees are valued “at about the price they pay for their tickets.”
Lauren Knoblauch drove straight from Seattle on Monday evening, leaving right after work, and took a chance on standing room tickets, “Oh, I knew I could get them—they’ve got 200.” She decided to nap some but still managed to snag standing room ticket #119. Knoblauch has been to Rings all over the world and likes to travel light. Wotan has his spear and Siegfried has Nothung and she has her special ergonomic shoes—with separate toes—that make standing easy. “I haven’t heard too much about the production itself or Zambello,” said Knoblauch. “I know it goes from different ages—starting in one period and ending in another. I try not to let the production bother me. I go for the music and the singing and the acting and let the director do whatever he or she is going to do. Afterwards, I’ll tell you what I think.”
After securing her place inside the opera house on the orchestra level, Knoblauch began texting and lo and behold, Charlise Tiee, standing next to her was the recipient. As it turns out, the two have tweeted and texted each other about the performance for some time and met in person that evening. When asked about Das Rheingold’s opening video projection scenes, by Jan Hartley, of billowing clouds and waves of water, Tiee responded “I do like an interesting production. To me it looks like a video game and I’ve played a lot of video games and seen a lot of movies that feature CGI (computer generated imagery). That stuff is competing in the opera for our attention but it’s a much better match with the music than what they used in 2008.”
Ring Schedule Cycle 1: last night (June 15, 2011), Das Rheingold (2 hours, 35 minutes, no intermission); tonight, Die Walküre (4 hours, 30 minutes with two intermissions); Friday Siegfried (4 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions); Sunday Götterdämmerung(5 hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions). The cycle repeats two more times, June 21-26 and June 28-July 3, 2011.
Standing Room for the Ring: There are 200 standing room tickets for each performance in the Ring cycle, and 150 of these go on sale at 10 a.m. the day of the performance at the War Memorial Opera House. The remaining 50 are sold 2 hours before the performance. Tickets are $10, cash only, and each person may buy 2 tickets. Standees may enter on the south side of the opera house, across the street from Davies Symphony on Grove Street, 70 minutes before the curtain time. The tickets are numbered and sold in order. One enters the opera house by number, and there is a numbered line painted on the ground outside. The standing room areas are on the orchestra level and the back of the balcony. For availability, call the Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330
Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild readies for the Ring…Cori Ellison speaks Thursday at Kenwood Depot
This Thursday, June 9, 2011, the Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild will host Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, who will offer an in-depth look at Wagner’s Ring cycle operas. Ms. Ellison will speak at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot in Kenwood, CA. San Francisco Opera Guild preview lectures bring renowned musicologists to the greater Bay Area for an in-depth look at the season’s operas. Cori Ellison was a consultant to Francesca Zambello in the new production of the San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle which is beginning next Tuesday, June 14 and running through July 3, 2011. Ellison is also speaking this week at the Marin, San Jose, Peninsula, San Francisco, and East Bay Chapters of the San Francisco Opera Guild. She will also talk about female protagonists in the Ring in an all day Ring Symposium (“Wagner’s Ring: The Love of Power, the Power of Love—Cycle 1 Symposium.”) sponsored by the Wagner Society of Northern California on Saturday, June 18, 2011.
Ellison’s talk in Kenwood will establish why Wagner’s Ring is so popular and important. She will situate the 4 operas contextually in Wagner’s career, in European history, and in philosophical thought, also discussing his source materials. She will introduce Wagner’s idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art” that aims to make use of all or many forms of art. She will also give signposts that the audience can grab onto throughout the production to help them get the most out of their experience, with emphasis on leitmotifs. She will also share special details about the production based on her experience as part of Francesca Zambello’s core creative team.
“One of the wonderful things about Wagner and the Ring is that it really sparks deep thought and conversation in a way that other operas don’t,” said Ellison. “One of the biggest challenges in talking about Wagner, which I’ve done all over the country for a number of years, is that you are pretty much in a little red school house situation where some of the people are themselves experts and the others are novices. Bridging this divide is tricky—I’ll try to find thoughts that will be of help to both groups.”
“What interests me most about Francesca’s production in San Francisco is that she has so wisely revealed the threads that speak to the American experience in particular. Of course, every character speaks to forces within each of us, but she’s managed to make us see America too. That’s why she’s a visionary–no one sees the big picture the way she does.”
“And without Wagner’s even realizing it, this is so much a story about women and the way they are treated by society and how what’s unique in the feminine can save the world,” added Ellison. ”This is not superimposed by Francesca–it’s organic in the work, but it took Francesca to see that and tease it out in this remarkable way. It’s like looking at a vast tapestry where there are millions of details and she finds one of those details that she feels is a basic. She shines a light on it and, of course, that leads to what she’s know for–some very psychologically probing interpretations.”
The Sonoma guild has roughly 1,500 members, 250 of whom are active participants. ”We’ll have a turn-out for this lecture because of the group’s interest in Wagner,” said Neva Turer, who’s been running the group for several years now. The guild’s educational component is one of its most important functions. “We host 6 annual music education lectures for our members and the community with experts selected by the San Francisco Opera,” said Turer. “Even if people don’t make it in to the operas themselves, they will get a lot out of these wonderful talks. We also do education programs in about 25 local schools to provide the important foundation that they can’t anymore with all the cuts they’ve had.”
It was Turer who worked with Ky Boyd to bring the very popular Met Opera: Live in HD opera broadcasts to the (former) Rialto Lakeside Cinemas. The series, now in its 5th season, is currently held at the Jackson Theatre at Sonoma Country Day School and is a program of the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas. “I had to plead with Ky to get them to bring this here and I promised that we’d fill the seats,” explained Turer. “Now, it’s become a phenomenon with a life of its own.” Attendees have had their Wagner appetites whetted this season with two ambitious Robert Lepage productions in the Met’s new Ring Cycle. Das Rheingold, which opened the 2010-11 Met Opera: Live in HD season and Die Walküre, which it closed with in May.
“We have members in our group who live for Wagner and some new ones who are excited to get into it,” explained Turer. “We are all looking forward to this SF Opera production. Several saw Zambello’s 2008 production of Das Rheingold in San Francisco and we’re waiting to see how it all comes off.
David Marsten of Calistoga is one member of Sonoma group who has seen the Ring over 20 times and has a passion and breadth of knowledge that is inspirational. When I called him, he was just running off to St. Helena with books and recordings to share with a member who was new to the cycle. Marsten tries to catch all the major performances and has found camaraderie in the group. In 2009, when his granddaughter was being born, he suddenly found himself with a spare ticket to a Ring cycle in Seattle, so he persuaded another member, who he didn’t know at the time, to spontaneously travel with him to see the performance. He also went to the Los Angeles Opera’s cycle in 2010.
“When you’ve done this for awhile, and needless to say, you have recordings of all the major performances—you find that there’s an enormous breadth of interpretation, different versions of the same opera, and that’s exciting. It’s amazing that Götterdämmerung, for example, can be as short as 5 ½ hours and as long as 6 ½ hours and that’s without intermission, just straight musically. You come to the realization that this breadth can encompass very slow conducting to more rapid versions—and generally it’s all valid. And what makes it work is that concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—a unity of the arts–when it all comes together poetically.”
“Wagner was one of the few operatic conductors who really did it all,” said Marsten. ”He wrote the story and then he put the text into a very curious verse form of the archaic German ‘stabreim’ (alliteration) which had the effect of liberating him from normal rhyme patterns. Then, he wrote the music and created all sorts of incredible effects with a huge orchestra that he could only imagine. In fact, in the case of the brass section, he invented three completely new instruments that didn’t exist previously—the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and bass trombone. The most amazing thing about this was that he imagined the sound he needed to complete the tonal range and it was written on paper and lived inside of his head for 25 years until he actually heard it in the rehearsals in 1876. He was just a remarkable visionary…. It’s not so easy, but step by step, you enter and you begin to see that beyond the genius of the music itself, it’s all a gigantic metaphor, like a Tibetan sand mandala, that operates on many levels that you can work your way around and into.”
Marsten’s recommendation: buy and read William Cord’s An Introduction to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Cord is a former music professor at Sonoma State University and has written extensively and insightfully on Wagner and the Ring.
Enjoying Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung with Speight Jenkins is a 2 CD set, one per opera, of the 1954 Bayreuth performance, with each playing about an hour that presents some of the major themes and leitmotifs in the Ring.
M. Owen Lee’s (University of Toronto) Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, an excellent introduction to the Ring cycle.
Details: Cori Ellison will speak Thursday, June 9, 2011, at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.
Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.
I am a musical layman but I wouldn’t miss the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which starts later today with a new production premiere of Siegfried and continues into July with three complete cycles of the four-opera cycle. Wagner is one of the crucial 19th-century theatrical innovators, a composer-poet who set out to understand opera as drama and in turn expanded the frontiers of both art forms. The Ring is a 15 hour masterpiece that people have devoted their lives to interpreting and have flocked to for over 140 years. The story, reduced to its pure essence pits the love of power (here power is gold) against the power of love. In its 88 year history, the San Francisco Opera Company has presented the complete cycle just 5 times–1935, 1972, 1985, 1990, and 1999.
Acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello is directing the new production at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and co-staging it with the Washington National Opera. In an era of ever-inventive Ring interpretations, whose visual imagery may go so far as to override the basic story, Zambello has been rather tight-lipped about the details in store for eager fans. She has promised a creative production that is not tied to the 19th century and will be influenced by American history, environmental issues, and feminism. She has also disclosed that Fafner, the dragon that Siegfried slays, is a large furnace-like device reminiscent of a locomotive engine. One thing is certain, Ring fans are extremely opinionated and a tough skin is a prerequisite for any adventurous director who is trying to balance the desire to innovate with maintaining enough of the traditional elements to satisfy Wagnerian purists.
Maestro Donald Runnicles, former music director and principal conductor of San Francisco Opera from 1992-2009, began his association with the SF Opera by directing two Ring cycles in 1990. He will conduct an orchestra of over 100 in this $24 million production. When a company delivers performances as demanding as the Ring–four operas over the course of a week–it can be grueling for the musicians. Nevertheless. they are not going to be pulling overtime–they are paid an hourly rate as stipulated by their contracts. Overtime kicks in if they exceed 7 hours in a day and/or 24 hours in a week. The Ring cycle schedule does not meet either of these thresholds, so straight time pay is in effect.
The Ring has led to some pit changes in effect with Siegfried: co-principal horn players William Klingelhoffer and Kevin Rivard are splitting up their horn duties: Klingelhoffer is playing Principal Wagner tuba for the whole Ring cycle, while Rivard is playing Principal horn. This is Rivard’s first Ring and he will be playing Siegfried’s rigorous horn call in Act II, a French horn solo which many consider the magical musical highpoint of Siegfried. Rivard will have an assistant in the pit for the whole cycle, who will cover principal horn, when Rivard is out of the pit playing backstage for Siegfried and Gotterdamerung.
The four operas in the Ring unfold chronologically in the following order—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. They may be seen individually, or as the composer originally intended, in a complete cycle over the course of one week.
Siegfried: 4 hours 50 minutes, includes two intermissions, German with English supertitles
Cast Change Lead Role: On April 20, 2011, it was announced that Wagnerian tenor Ian Storey, slated to play the title role of Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, had been ill and that tenor Jay Hunter Morris would replace him in all performances of Siegfried. Morris has played Siegfried lead role before at the Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera. Storey will play Siegfried in Götterdämmerung which premieres next Sunday, June 5, 2011.
History: Premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 16 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of The Ring. This part of the opera is primarily inspired by the story of the legendary hero Sigurd in Norse mythology in the Volsunga Saga.
Siegfried is the third opera in the Ring. Wagner composed the dramatic texts with Götterdämmerung first (in 1848) and then kept embellishing the story, following with Siegfried, Die Walküre, and then Das Reingold. The musical compositions followed much later beginning with Das Reingold in 1854, then Die Walküre, Siegfried and ending with Götterdämmerung in 1874. Wagner worked on the orchestral score for Siegfried off and from October 1856 to February 1871, a total of 15 years.
Important Moments: Act 1: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) has grown up into a young man without fear. Siegfried forges “Nothung,” his sword (“Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!”) from pieces that have been saved by his foster father Mime (David Cangelosi), the Nibelung dwarf, who got the shards from Siegfried’s birthmother, Sieglinde ( (Anja Kampe/Heidi Melton), upon her death in childbirth.
Identity/parentage: Siegfried senses that he is not the son of Mime, and wonders who his mother is.
Riddles: Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan, King of the Gods, in disguise) (David Delavan) ask each other three riddles, wagering their heads on the answers.
Act II: Siegfried plays a melodic horn tune that draws the dragon, Fafner, out from his cave and slays him with a stab to the heart with Nothung, his magic sword. Siegfried tastes the blood of the dragon and is thus empowered with the ability to understand the language of birds.
Forrest bird scene: following the instruction of a woodbird, Siegfried takes the Ring and the Tamhlem from the dragon’s hoard and he learns of a woman sleeping on a rock surrounded by magic fire. Siegfried learns his true parentage, that Mime is not his birthfather.
Act III: Siegfried passes through the magic ring of fire and discovers sleeping Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), the first woman he has ever encountered. He utters his famous line “Das is Kein Mann!” (“That’s no man!”) and then awakens Brünnhilde. Not only a woman, she is the feminine in himself. Brünnhilde embraces her mortal life “Ewig was ich.”
Ring Educational events: An array of cultural and educational institutions have partnered with San Francisco Opera to present lectures, symposia, exhibits, musical performances and film screenings throughout the Bay Area for audiences who want to connect with Wagner and the Ring cycle in new and compelling ways. Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.
Wagner and his music can be explored in from angles as diverse as the intersection of science and the environment in the Ring (California Academy of Sciences); psychological, political and spiritual parallels found in the Ring (New School Commonweal); and Buddhist influences evident in the Ring (Asian Art Museum). Upcoming musical performances range from an orchestral concert of music from the Ring (San Francisco Conservatory) and organ transcriptions of Wagner’s music (St. Mary’s Cathedral) to the lighthearted operetta The Merry Nibelungs by Oscar Straus (Opera Frontier). The San Francisco Opera is also partnering with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum to explore the Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the political impact of his music throughout history.
Half-day Ring Symposiums: San Francisco Opera offers a half-day Ring Symposium on the Tuesday of each Cycle that includes a general introduction to Wagner and the Ring’s story, characters and music, and an exploration of the unique aspects of this new production’s distinctly American setting and its approach to issues relating to feminism and environmentalism. Members of San Francisco Opera’s music staff will discuss Wagner’s music and explore this production. Members of the creative team and production staff will share images of the sets, costumes, video projections and lighting and discuss how they collaborated with director Zambello. June 14, 21 and 28, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Herbst Theatre, Veterans Building. 401 Van Ness Ave.
Ring Preview Lecture: Sonoma Chapter SF Opera Guild: The Sonoma Opera Guild’s Ring Preview Lectures will feature Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, offering an in-depth look into the Ring cycle operas. Thursday, June 9, 2011, 10:30am, Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door. For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.
Details: Single tickets for today’s performance of Siegfried are still available. Siegfried also plays: June 6, June 17, June 24 and July 1, 2011. San Francisco Opera’s May 29 to July 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are priced from $95 to $360. Symposia tickets are $40 (plus a $9 registration fee). 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.
Schedule: The Ring of the Nibelung
Premiere of new productions for “Siegfried,” May 29, 2011 “Götterdämmerung,” June 5, 2011
Cycle 1: June 14, June 15, June 17, June 19
Cycle 2: June 21, June 22, June 24, June 26
Cycle 3: June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3