The Ring cycle starts; UAO presents 'Das Rheingold'
St. Louis music lovers have a historic opportunity this month and over the next three summers to hear Richard Wagner’s masterpiece “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelungen) at Union Avenue Opera.
This will be fully cycle's first presentation in St. Louis since 1930. By all accounts it is one of Germany’s key cultural achievements, some calling it the best opera cycle ever written.
(The Rhine Gold) the first opera in the cycle
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 17, 18, 24 & 25
Where: Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd.
How much: $30-$50
Information: 314-361-8844 or unionavenueopera.org
Bonus: Scott Stearman will give two free lectures on Wagner’s life and philosophical ideas behind the Ring this Thursday and next in the Union Avenue Church Fellowship Hall. Webster University music professor Glen Bauer will give lectures Aug. 17 and 24 before the Friday night performances. All four talks are at 7 p.m. and free.
Wagner called “Das Rheingold” a prelude because it introduces most characters and the relevant themes of power and its abuse that are developed in the later works. “Das Rheingold” was first presented against the composer’s wishes in 1859 in Rome. The entire cycle debuted on four successive nights in 1876 at the opening of the Festival Hall at Bayreuth, Germany.
This presentation is part of the upcoming bicentennial celebration of Wagner’s birth May 22, 1813. Next summer UAO continues the saga of the magic gold ring with “Die Walkure” (The Valkyrie). In 2014, UAO will tell the story of the anarchist hero “Siegfried.” Then “Gotterdammerung” (Twilight of the Gods) concludes the cycle in 2015.
Union Avenue Opera, which has presented operas in their original language for 19 years, hopes to bring new audiences to Valhalla, the palatial home of the Norse gods.
“The UAO production is a real gift to St. Louis,” said Scott Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church who is passionate student of Wagner’s music.
“It is wonderful that they are doing The Ring, it’s been such a long time since people have heard Wagner in St. Louis,” Katja Heuzeroth said. She is singing the Rhine-maiden Flosshilde for the second time; her first was at New York’s Leiderkranz Opera Theatre. She made her professional debut at the Festival Hall in Bayreuth, Germany.
A Long Standing Request
“Almost from our first year, (in 1995) people would ask us to do Wagner,” said Scott Schoonover, UAO founder and artistic director.
Presenting any Wagner but especially the Ring in a medium size, 650-seat theater is a challenge. Wagner’s score calls for more than 100 musicians and lots of extra brass.
Schoonover never said no and the Wagner requests percolated in Schoonover’s mind until 2003 when he had a eureka! moment. While preparing to see Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ American premiere of British composer Jonathan Dove’s opera “Flight,” he read that Dove had abridged the Ring Cycle for a smaller orchestra. Nearly all modern opera houses tightened operas that run longer than the three-hour limit in most musician union contracts, but Wagner takes more cuts than others. Wagner’s Ring takes 17 hours over four afternoons and evenings.
Dove’ scalpel cut each of the four Ring operas to about two hours, meaning an eight-hour Ring Cycle. Dove trimmed 45 minutes from “Das Rheingold.”
Smaller Theater, More Nuanced Tale
“With Dove’s cuts, all the story remains,” Schoonover said. “All the famous music is there. It just might not repeat, might not go as long. Even the most passionate Wagnerite admits he repeats ideas over and over and over. This is sort of the Reader’s Digest version.”
Dove did more than cut, he pasted, too.
“Wagner’s music is continuous, so, Dove couldn’t just cut,” Schoonover said. To bridge from one section over the deleted section and continue with another section Dove had to add transition music.
“Dove made the transitions seamless,” he said.
Dove did not write new music but patches in with lines of Wagner’s music from elsewhere to make the transition. Dove’s orchestration calls for just 18 players, to which Schoonover added four more strings.
Dove scored his version in English. UAO will only use the Dove orchestration and is using Wagner’s original German. English super titles will be projected onto two screens above the stage.
“I am so happy that we will do it in German,” said Megan Hart, who sings Wellgunde, one of the three Rhine Maidens. It is her UAO debut but St. Louisans heard her in 2005 as an OTSL Gaddes Young Artist in the chorus of Benjamin Britten’s “Gloriana."
With repetitions removed and some pieces shortened or tossed, the Ring saga becomes more focused, Schoonover said. In rehearsals he and director Karen Coe Miller, a regular with Minnesota Opera, and many of the singers are finding the story riveting.
“One reason I wanted to do The Ring, in addition to the grand music and grand orchestration, is that it is a great story,” said Schoonover. “When you get beyond big music and big voices, really start delving into it, the story shines. On our stage singers are not just standing around and singing. Karen is really good at this, they move and tell the story,”
The three Rhine maidens are nimble, even undulating creatures who are nothing like the helmeted fat ladies in Wagner cartoons.
“People should not bring their preconceived ideas of what they are going to see,” said Elizabeth Beers Kataria, who sings Rhine maiden Woglinde. “It won’t be bombastic singers in breastplates, howling … In fact Wagner is very beautiful often very lyrical and that is what they will hear here.”
Heuzeroth, who has sung in Bayreuth 1,800 seat festival hall, said that UAO’s intimate theater enhances Wagner’s lyrical and more nuanced aspects because it puts less strain on their voices. Except in rare contemporary operas, opera singers don’t use microphones.
Heuzeroth would still be singing in Germany were it not for singer she met there who suggested that she move to Manhattan to study with Conrad Osborn. His help was so important to her that she stayed.
“I love America,” she said.
Part of UAO’s success is that the company hires fine singers who enjoy working with Schoonover. The three New York-based singers playing the Rhine maidens knew UAO’s reputation and all had auditioned for Schoonover at least once before. His reputation has held up they said.
“I have never felt so comfortable with a conductor so fast,” Kataria said. “He makes you feel safe you try things out, which is good. And what he wants is very clear.”
“You know that you are never alone up there,” Heuzeroth said. “He’s with you and you can see the passion he has for it, which is very important. ”
“Too many conductors are 'all elbows’,” Kataria and Heuzeroth said with laughter in unison. Elbows don’t do much to guide singers.
“Scott’s directions are very clear,” Heuzeroth said. “I’ve worked with conductors, some very famous, who give this stop signal when you are suppose to start singing,” she said hold her arm up like a traffic cop. “I won’t say which conductor.”
The Wagner factor
More than length has kept Wagner out of favor. The elephant in opera houses for 60 years has been that some companies, especially in Israel, balk at presenting Wagner because some can’t separate the man from his works. Wagner was a fanatical anti-Semite who wrote despicable articles and books about Asians and Africans. Wagner died half a century before Hitler took power, but he was Hitler’s favorite composer.
“Wagner was a nasty man, a horrible anti-Semite who didn’t pay back his debtors and stole other men’s wives,” Stearman said, while noting “Wagner was not responsible for the Holocaust.”
"There’s been lots of misplaced guilt by association, because he was Hitler’s favorite composer and many Nazi (propaganda) cinematographers used his music,” he said. (Read more from Stearman on Wagner.)
The Ring saga includes a magical dragon, two giants and enough other extras to fill Forest Park’s Muny stage. Instead of spreading out, the UAO production will go up and very deep. Carpenters are completing set designer Patrick Huber’s two-story structure, which can be used each of the four “Ring” productions with modifications, Schoonover said as he gave a tour. Imagination will transport the audience to Valhalla among the stars, the Rhine River and battlefields as an original video projected on the full rear wall provides another dimension.
The ‘Ring’ in St. Louis
Union Avenue Opera’s production of the Ring Cycle is only the third time that the full Ring has been done professionally in St. Louis.
The last full Ring performance here was in 1930, but no one associated UAO was aware of that or the first production in 1889. That performance was ait had ever been done here.
The touring German Opera Company, managed by Hermann Grau, presented “Das Rheingold” on May 6, 1889. Then, on subsequent nights, the singers performed “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung.” Conductor Anton Seidl and his troupe finished the week with Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and “Die Meistersinger.” All were presented at the city’s Exposition Hall completed at Olive and 13th. That’s now site of the main branch of the Public Library.
In 1895, the touring Wagner Opera Company presented the three longer parts of The Ring Cycle without its shortest “Das Rheingold.” Instead the company presented other Wagner operas “Tannhauser,” “Lohengrin” and “Die Meistersinger."
Over the years St. Louis’ own San Carlo Opera Company did Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” Touring companies from Chicago, New Orleans and New York’s Metropolitan Opera brought in more Wagner operas but none brought the Ring again until 1930.
The German Opera Company gave what stands as the most recent full Ring Cycle at the then-new Odeon Concert Hall, at Grand and Finney avenues in Grand Center. It was home of the St. Louis Symphony for many years. On Friday Feb 21, 1930, “Das Rheingold” opened the whirlwind weekend. “Die Walkure” played the Saturday matinee. “Siegfried” was given that evening. The six-hour “Gotterdammerung” took up most of Sunday. Ernst Mehlich and Ernest Knoch conducted.
In 1934, the 12,000-seat Municipal Auditorium opened and developed its own in-house opera company lead by Guy Golterman and Walter Head. Five years later the company presented the only locally produced – not touring – parts of the Ring: “Die Walkure” played April 17 and “Siegfried” followed six months later on Oct. 20.
That hall was renamed Kiel Opera House, in honor of Mayor Henry Kiel. It is now Peabody Opera House.
-- Patricia Rice
“Like a movie,” Miller, the production director told the cast. Adding video to Wagner brings the art full circle. Early silent movie directors were inspired by Wagner’s musical themes.
The story begins with three enticing Rhine maidens guarding magic gold. The German composer, who wrote words and music, took his tale from the fall of the Norse god Wotan, (also known as Odin) and his daughter Brunnhilde, her husbands Gunther and Siegfried, Gutrune, Hagan, the dwarf Alberich and more. Most of his characters are in the Norse sagas and in the parallel German medieval Nibelungenlied myths.
Scholars content that both sagas were storytellers’ transpositions about the real fall of Attila the Hun. Nothing is new, it seems.
What’s it All About, Alberich?
Behind all these Norse sagas what does the Ring say? Opinions are many but few are as determined as the great playwright and British music critic George Bernard Shaw. In his book “The Perfect Wagnerite” he stresses that that Wagner was a fugitive revolutionary with a price on his head when he began to write The Ring in Switzerland.
Shaw’s laser-like look through mythological mists called the Ring a condemnation of capitalism. He equates the Nibelungs with 19th century labor wretches, the giants with skilled craftsmen and the dwarf Alberich as an unenlightened industrialist. Wotan, Brunnhilde and the other gods represent Europe’s ruling class. The Ring’s anarchist hero Siegfried aims to put the world into a just and healthy order.
Shaw reminds opera lovers who cheer for the passing away of the old order that those who are part of the old order, no matter how outworn it has become, must fight for their lives.
“It seems hardly possible that the British Army at the Battle of Waterloo did not include at least one Englishman intelligent enough to hope, for the sake of his country and humanity, that Napoleon might defeat the allied sovereigns, but such an Englishman would kill a French cuirassier rather than be killed by him, just as energetically as the silliest soldier ever encouraged, by people who ought to know better, to call his ignorance ferocity and folly patriotism and duty.”
What will modern audiences see in it? Check with UAO audiences later this month.
In addition to the debut of the three Rhine Maidens, other company debuts include Jordan Shanahan as the dwarf Alberich. Kevin Misslich sings the god Wotan. Kevin Hanek sings Loge. John Maynard sings Donner.
Others in the cast are familiar to St. Louis music lovers. Nikolas Wenzel, who sings Fafner, was Pastia in OTSL’s “Carmen.” Wotan’s wife, Fricka, is sung by Elise Quagliata, who was Sister Helen Prejean last August in UAO’s “Dead Man Walking.” Clark Sturdevant, who was in Turandot” and Dead Man Walking” for UAO last year, sings Froh, Fricka’s brother.
Missouri Baptist University voice professor Cecelia Stearman sings the Goddess Erda. The giant, Fasolt, is sung by Todd von Felker, who was the Pirate King in “Pirates of Penzance” two years ago and Count Tomsky in “Pikovaya Dama” and last month.