Behind The Ring: Part Two - Die Walküre

Behind The Ring: Part Two - Die Walküre

Stepping behind the curtain of Opera Australia's Ring Cycle. 

Behind The Ring: Part Two - Die Walküre

Stepping behind the curtain of Opera Australia's Ring Cycle. 

Auf der Erde Rücken wuchtet der Riesen Geschlecht

On the Earth’s surface dwells the race of Giants

 - Wotan, Act 1 – Siegfried

The first time working for any company is a bit intimidating - make sure you get signed in, get a pass, meet a thousand people and try to remember exactly who does what. I’ve arrived in Sydney for the first month (!) of rehearsals, which will take place in The Opera Centre studios in Surry Hills. In London, I’m used to everything taking place in the flash of an eye (a week for a revival of Tosca, 10 days to get together a Traviata, perhaps 3 weeks for a new production of Così) so I’m looking forward to a process that will span 6 weeks in rehearsal studios, then a further 6 weeks on stage before opening night. 

I’m waiting in reception to meet Roger Press, the Sydney-based associate director who I’ve been in contact with regarding schedules and rehearsal breakdowns. For this revival of The Ring there will be 2 assistants working alongside Roger - myself and another freelance director Tama Matheson. The others have worked at the company before – I’m the only new kid on the block and I’m hoping that my knowledge of the operas will make up for my ignorance about the structures and processes of the company. 

A dishevelled pair of assistant directors - Greg (L) and Tama Matheson (R), on a rare moment allowed out of rehearsal Photo: Jacqui Dark

A dishevelled pair of assistant directors - Greg (L) and Tama Matheson (R), on a rare moment allowed out of rehearsal

Photo: Jacqui Dark

Every theatre and every company has its own ways of doing things – in London, schedules for the next week must be handed into the office in hard copy with red pen alterations ready for publication each Friday morning, while Opera Australia prefers emailed corrections to draft schedules that are made public each Thursday. It may not seem like a huge difference, but for a production that involves 20 principal singers, a full chorus as well as extra choristers, actors, dancers and around 70 volunteers (not to mention music staff that have to be distributed to appropriate rehearsal rooms, and allowances made for coachings and understudies) and then balanced around the needs of other shows that are rehearsing at the same time, I’m keen to make sure I have everything written down so that I get everything in on time and to the right person!

Denk’ich dann Wunder zu wirken

So I plan wonders to accomplish

Alberich – Scene 3 Das Rheingold

This first week of ‘rehearsals’ is just for the directing team. In a large meeting room in the OA headquarters, the three of us sit down and watch the archival recordings of the 2013 performances. We are watching different video recordings to the ones I had been sent in London and based my notation on, and so it is interesting to see how the show developed from the dress rehearsal (which I had been watching) to the second performance (which we were now going through). Shows must be allowed to live and to breathe and to grow, and so it’s heartening to see that the performers seem to have been allowed to follow their instincts and ‘play’ on the stage, rather than slavishly following ‘blocking’ that may have been set earlier. There are many ways to put on a show, and in parts of the commercial theatre world (and, indeed, in parts of European opera practice) there is a school of directing that demands total rigidity in revivals - ‘Yes, I agree that it might feel better to embrace the other character on the stage-right side of the stage, but in the book it says you’re a foot further to stage-left, so please can you move there instead’. While of course there has to be some allowance for factors like lighting (it’s no good reacting ‘truthfully’ if you’re in the dark!) and safety (‘perhaps you could consider making that speech a touch further downstage so you don’t get hit by the moving scenery’), my experience has been that performers are likely to achieve a much greater level of spontaneity, energy and intimacy if encouraged to work within a framework and develop their own reactions to a scene. Pleasantly, it looks like this will be the case with this revival.

Greg in rehearsal with Lise Lindstrom at the Opera Centre in Sydney Photo: Tanja Binggeli

Greg in rehearsal with Lise Lindstrom at the Opera Centre in Sydney

Photo: Tanja Binggeli

As we work through each opera, we take time to compare notes and review technical documents to ensure that we’re all on top of the problems that were encountered in the original run, the solutions that were found, and the ways that those decisions will impact the revival. It is inevitable that concepts and effects that were conceived years in advance in the vacuum of a design studio will be subject to several iterations as they are experimented with on the stage. ‘The original idea was for more pyrotechnics to be involved here,’ says Roger as we look at a scene from Siegfried, ‘but when we got to the stage we found it didn’t quite look as we’d expected. So they got cut.’ Having previously directed shows in bigger theatres, I know the feeling of having to compromise on an idea that I’ve grown very fond of when it suddenly runs into logistical (or, in some cases, physical) hurdles. In an undertaking as grand as The Ring, I’m sure there have been several big concepts that didn’t make it past the design presentation phase.

It takes us three days to get through the material for the production. Already, there is a growing sense of camaraderie among the assistant team, and this is further reinforced by time spent together during that most necessary of all theatrical occasions – the coffee break. Roger and I have several friends in common, including some from London who have travelled to Australia to revive shows that Opera Australia has imported from Covent Garden. Tama, it turns out, is a kindred spirit who shares my love of words and literature and altogether it seems like we’ll be able to complement each others’ skills and temperaments. Next step: the start of rehearsals with singers…

Gäste kamen und Gäste gingen…

Guests came and guests went…

 - Sieglinde, Act 1 – Die Walküre

Neil Armfield, the original director, arrives at the start of the ‘proper’ rehearsal period. I had known his name, of course, from his years of work in Australia and had been an admirer of his work since having seen his production of Exit The King at the Belvoir St Theatre. He had also recently directed the film version of Holding The Man, which I thought was a deeply moving adaptation of a play I loved. I was interested to see what his rehearsal style would be.

I have worked with directors who span the gamut of leadership styles. Quiet collaborators, beneficent dictators, egomaniacal despots … each able to create wonderful works of art, despite using completely opposite means in their creation. It becomes clear from the first that Neil is a contemplative director, happy to let the performers follow an instinct and then set about exploring options that navigate them closer to the original stage shapes. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Neil is juggling his Ring Cycle revival with his co-stewardship of the Adelaide Festival, whilst also planning his next production in America. I have seen directors balance such heavy workloads before, of course, but not with Neil’s constant sense of calm. 

The international artists are due to join us at different points in the rehearsal process. Amber Wagner (Sieglinde) joins us ten days into the rehearsal period, followed by Lise Lindstrom (Brunnhilde) who arrives shortly after her. We won’t get to see Siegfried (played again by Stefan Vinke) until we get to the stage rehearsals. It’s not unusual to have singers join late in the process, although it can make it difficult for relationships to form. There can be a big difference, for example, between having a couple of lovers rehearse together every day for a month as opposed to only meeting each other at the dress rehearsal, although with a tally of Ring Cycles in the double-digits the experience Stefan will bring to the production will surely outweigh his late arrival. 

It is, however, impossible to rehearse a Ring Cycle without a Siegfried, and so David Hamilton has been engaged by the company as a ‘rehearsal cover’. He will learn the role (all 7 hours of it!) and rehearse with the other principals all through the 6 weeks of studio rehearsals until Stefan arrives to take over once we get to the stage. It’s a tremendously difficult job to learn every note, every word, every interaction, every bit of blocking and every intention with the knowledge that you’ll never get to perform the role. Without him, however, we’d be unable to adequately rehearse the other principals and would be in real danger of not being ready come stage time. The rehearsal cover is therefore one of the most important – and unsung – parts of the rehearsal process and is to be gratefully acknowledged.

These first few rehearsals are a little bit humbling – I remember as an opera-goer in Melbourne (before I had really decided that I wanted to follow the Arts as a career) being struck by the Opera Australia performers, and here I am a decade later working one-to-one with them. I may have worked with some major international names – Kaufmann, Terfel, Netrebko, Gheorghiu – but there’s a strange flurry of butterflies as I enter a rehearsal room with Fiebig, Arthur, Youl, Hislop and Fyfe. Obviously that teenage me hasn’t been as completely buried as I thought!

Under normal circumstances, a production might be expected to rehearse for 11 sessions a week – 2 3-hour blocks each weekday and a single session on a Saturday. For a project of this size, however, that won’t be sufficient and so we’ve had several 3-session days worked into each week’s schedule, as well as having 2 sessions on a Saturday. This leaves us with Sunday to snatch what rest we can in between planning and preparation for the rehearsals to come in the following week. I’m enjoying the freedom to spend a Sunday morning wandering around Sydney – a city I don’t know particularly well – but I can tell that this gruelling schedule will soon start to wear us down. Illness and exhaustion are going to be big factors in this rehearsal period unless we can find the right balance for the singers.

The least glamorous part of working internationally is the accommodation. Destined as we are to be spending 10 – 14 hours a day in rehearsal, the hotel room becomes a sterile home-away-from-home with half-unpacked suitcases and unfamiliar furnishings the only comforts to stumble back to. There is a great joy, therefore, when Tama and I are able to walk back together, discussing the day and planning the weeks ahead, and then retire to our rooms to have a cup of tea and talk about something completely different – philosophy, Restoration poetry, Tinder … it’s all up for discussion and helps to provide a break from the onslaught of never-ending rehearsals.

Was ist’s mit den ewigen Göttern?

What is it with these eternal Gods?

 - Brunnhilde, Act 1 – Gotterdammerung

I have worked on relatively few Wagner operas; a Ring Cycle in the UK, a production of Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera and now this Ring in Australia. What has struck me about them all, however, is the personality that seems to be an integral part of the Wagnerian singer. In the Longborough Ring it was Rachel Nicholls, Jason Howard and Mati Turi, in the ROH Tristan it was Nina Stemme, Stephen Gould and Sir John Tomlinson, and now in rehearsal here it is Lise Lindstrom, Amber Wagner and James Johnson. 

Greg's Gotterdammerung Score ... complete with lighting cues, diagrams, highlighting and multicoloured tabs!

Greg's Gotterdammerung Score ... complete with lighting cues, diagrams, highlighting and multicoloured tabs!

There’s something about these singers that makes it a joy to be in the room with them. Perhaps it is that they spend their working lives recreating the most epic stories in existence, perhaps it is that they play character arcs that transcend ordinary human experience and (often) end in either physical or philosophical death – whatever it may be, there’s no question that these helden singers are the most lovely people to work with. Forever approachable, always charming, gracious and humble, they seem to like amiable mirrors of the often conflicted characters they portray on the stage. Whether it’s receiving a naughty smile in rehearsal, or sharing a joke while waiting for the revolve to be spun back to its preset position, there’s an energy and an intellect in the room that makes coming to rehearsal a thing to be looked forward to. 

It will be an exciting thing to see the transfer of the show from studio rehearsal to the stage and to watch how these high-spirited artists transform themselves into the tragic, complex and driven characters of the piece.