Melbourne's multi-million dollar Ring cycle
State Theatre Melbourne
Next year Opera Australia will present its first complete staging of Wagner’s epic opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Arts Centre in Melbourne.
The marathon production consists of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.
Over an eight-day period there will be three performances of the full cycle of four operas, with 12 operas running for a total of 60 hours.
Staging such an event is a huge challenge but for Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini, who is something of an entrepreneur and showman, a $A20 million show seems just another classical gig.
After all, earlier this year he put on a La Traviata in Sydney Harbour with a budget of $A12 million. It attracted a massive audience of more than 50,000 and made a profit of several million dollars.
The Melbourne Ring will be an Australian-led production, with celebrated director Neil Armfield and conductor Richard Mills controlling the huge orchestra.
The international cast will include Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde, Juha Uusitalo as Wotan, Gary Lehman as Siegfried, John Wegner as Alberich and Stuart Skelton as Siegmund.
Following the American fashion of creating major levels of sponsors, Opera Australia created the Ring Leaders programme, which enabled individuals and organisations to donate to the project and get first crack at the tickets.
For donations ranging from Bronze ($1000) through to Platinum ($25,000), preferential tickets were available, along with a host of activities denied the normal Wagner fans, including meeting the show's creatives, meeting the cast, invitations to special events, lectures and other activities associated with the Melbourne Ring Cycle.
The scheme was so successful that the number of Ring Leaders had to be restricted.
The State Theatre seats 2000 and with three cycles of the four operas there were 6000 tickets available.
They were for each complete cycle and ranging from $600 to $2000 for a full four-concert cycle.
To everyone's great surprise, including Opera Australia, the seats virtually sold out by the end of the first day. The entire premium A and B reserve tickets sold and the remainder went within days, generating more than $A6.2 million.
It seems that the only way New Zealand audiences can obtain tickets is through buying packages available through House of Travel (http://www.houseoftravel.co.nz/hot-deals/australia/melbourne/ring-cycle-opera.htm), with nine-day package from $3459, not including air fares.
With a budget of close to $20 million the show needed to have good ticket sales. However, there has been great support from the government, corporates and private philanthropists.
The biggest contributors have been the Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who donated $A5 million. A further $A2 million came from Victorian Major Events, which is part of a Victorian Government initiative to attract international cultural and sporting events that require global state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure.
“This is first time there has been a completely Australian creative team involved with The Ring cycle: director, designer, conductor, costumes, as well as some of the leads," Terracini says.
"We feel that it is important not just to be jingoistic but we believe that if we are going to create the perfect Ring here it will have to have different aesthetic compared to overseas versions.”
“We want to give an Australian stamp to this production so visitors from all around the world will see an idea, or a different idea, of what The Ring means to us here in the Southern hemisphere.
“Opera Australia is using all its resources with its 25 full-time singers, the chorus and the orchestra from Orchestra Victoria.
"The orchestra will be similar to what you would have in Bayreuth (the spiritual home of The Ring). The best musicians will be invited to play in what really are the Olympics of classical music.
“The Melbourne Ring has a huge cast and every one of the leads also has an understudy so that we are covered in thee case of any emergency and that means an even larger group of people.
“Then there is the orchestra. For the first time in Australia the orchestra will have 110 players and the Victorian government has provided additional funding of $A4 million to enlarge the already big orchestra pit at the Victorian Arts Centre.”
Terracini sees this as a valuable asset in the long term as Opera Australia plan to do the Melbourne Ring every three years.
“We will not be staging this production anywhere else in Australia, not even in Sydney. It will always be located in Melbourne so that every three years this will be the place for Wagner fans and opera lovers to come.”
Several of the major roles will be sung by Australians. John Wegner, who will sing Alberich, has just made his debut at Covent Gardens and Stuart Skelton has been singing Siegmund in New York at the Met.
Stuart Skelton's Siegmund, has previously been described as “something special: a clear, dark genuinely lyric heldentenor (if that's not an oxymoron) full of emotional vulnerability – perhaps the finest singer I've heard in this role …,the voice is gorgeous”.
For the major roles Terracini says they wanted to have the best in the world so they are bringing Susan Bullock to sing Brünnhilde and Juha Uusitalo for the part of Wotan.
Production of The Ring over the last few decades have attempted to reinterpret, embellish and modernise the work but often these production lack clarity. The Met’s recent Lepage version was described by the NY Times as “the most frustrating opera production I have ever had to grapple with”.
Terracini is insistent that Melbourne’s production will not be mired in wizardry and confusion.
“The setting will not be like some of the settings that audiences have seen recently in Germany and other places. The reason I chose Neil Armfield to director is that he has ability to articulate narrative in the theatre.
"I think that often with productions of The Ring directors have been a bit silly and the narrative becomes obscure.
“If you as an audience member are not connected to the narrative then it’s very easy to get lost, and we don’t want that. We want the audience to come on the journey with all the characters and be completely and totally absorbed by it.
"Hopefully, it will be for many of the audience, a life-changing experience.
“There will be gimmicks to detract form the story that Wagner constructed. There are some wonderful stage effects and extraordinary images the audience will see but there will be fire that you would expect along with all the traditional narrative.
“I think if you are able to articulate the story you create an extraordinary thing. One becomes so absorbed in the lives of the people you are seeing on stage and you are transported by them.
“The power of the music and the power of what Wagner created is one of the greatest achievements of Western art and culture.
“It's going to be an historic event and with that comes a lot of responsibility to have the talent necessary to sing and join that list of famous singers who have performed here such as Joan Sutherland Pavarotti.
“On the first night I think it will be a pretty emotional event for the cast. It’s extremely difficult to sing something like Siegfried which is six hours long, a huge amount for any singer and then there is the orchestra of over 100 players who you have to sing over.
"For those who can achieve that, there will be a huge ovation at the end of the night and every singer who does it will have a tremendous sense of achievement – like winning gold at the Olympics.”
Der Ring des Nibelungen – the story
In the space of a single, majestic, two and a half hour musical span, we are immersed in a struggle for power that alters the order of the universe and determines the course of the entire saga.
Spurned by the three beautiful Rhinemaidens, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich steals their gold and forges it into a ring that gives unlimited power to its wearer. When Wotan, the lord of the gods, steals the ring, Alberich curses it and all who wear it.
Wotan wants to protect his children but is forced to forsake them. His twin offspring Siegmund and Sieglinde fall passionately in love and his warrior daughter Brünnhilde defies Wotan by trying to protect the twins. Ultimately, she is punished. Wotan strips her of her immortality and puts her to sleep surrounded by a wall of flames that only the greatest hero can brave.
The Ring cycle’s third opera charts the rise of Siegfried into the greatest hero of the age.
Following his mother Sieglinde’s death, Siegfried has been raised by the dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich. Although Mime loathes Siegfried, he hopes Siegfried will kill the dragon Fafner, guardian of the all-powerful ring.
Instead, Siegfried kills both Fafner and Mime, claims the ring for himself and sets off to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. Siegfried braves the flames, wakes her with a kiss and they declare their love in one of the most thrilling duets in all opera.
It is in Götterdämmerung’s tale of treachery and destruction that the Ring cycle reaches its devastating finale.
All seems lost when love is betrayed by naked ambition and villains outsmart heroes. After drinking a magic potion, Siegfried forgets Brünnhilde and falls in love with Gutrune.
Enraged, Brünnhilde joins forces with Hagan to murder Siegfried but then, discovering the truth about his betrayal, leaps into his funeral pyre and returns the ring to its rightful owners.
The Rhinemaidens joyfully reclaim their gold, the old world order is swept away by flood and fire, and the world is redeemed.
John Daly-Peoples travelled to Melbourne courtesy Victoria Tourism, Opera Australia and Sofitel.