Time doesn't necessarily beget progress. We tend to believe that, as the years pass, our technologies will grow, accelerate and become more spectacular. As the 20th century dawned, the Wright Brothers got an airplane off the ground for 59 seconds. As the century ended, Voyager 1 was fast approaching the edge of our solar system. In computer technology, Moore's Law even quantifies the improvement, stating that every two years, the number of transistors that fit on a computer chip will double.
But this weekend, the North Carolina Opera offers a reminder that this march doesn't always apply to art. The Opera presents the area's first concert of Richard Wagner's work, including a complete act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera in the gargantuan four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Though The Ring, as it is commonly called, was first performed nearly 150 years ago, it remains opera's—and perhaps art's—biggest artifact.
The Ring isn't just an epic; it's built of epics. The full cycle takes from 15 to 18 hours to perform over four nights and requires an orchestra of well over 100 instruments. Sunday afternoon's concert in Raleigh will present two hours of music, with NC Opera Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers leading an 80-piece orchestra. After popular selections from Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, NC Opera will present Act I of Die Walküre, voiced by guest artists from the highest echelon of the medium.
Few companies can afford to embark upon a full production of The Ring. The four operas' libretti, music and staging were on an unprecedented scale when conceived between 1848 and 1874—and they still are. Wagner had to build his own massive theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, just to have a place to stage his work. Even now, American companies are at a particular disadvantage with Wagner, as orchestra musicians are paid by the quarter hour for performances and rehearsals. Before a ticket is torn at a three-hour opus, the Metropolitan or San Francisco Opera has paid their expanded orchestras a fortune just to rehearse. Wagner is more common in Europe, where musicians work on a salaried or flat scale. That's partly why Raleigh's never heard Wagner before, and why Myers can't wait until Sunday afternoon.
"I'm thrilled that we get to do something so significant," he says. "I've guest conducted all around the world, and when I tell people what we're doing here—whether it's this Wagner concert or the Philip Glass [Les Enfants Terribles, staged in early 2012]—people are really taken aback about the level of seriousness that we're doing things on here."
Indeed, putting Wagner on your stage puts your company on the map. In Raleigh, the addition of two Metropolitan Opera regulars—tenor Jay Hunter Morris and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop—should help. They will join bass Peter Volpe to play the respective roles of hero Siegmund, his twin sister Sieglinde and her husband, the dastardly warrior Hunding.
The Opera is also renting four Wagner tubas from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to satisfy the requirements of Die Walküre. The sound of a Wagner tuba lands between the French horn's regal but restrained call and the trombone's robust blast. It's just one of three instruments that the composer invented, along with the bass trumpet and contrabass trombone.
"Wagner had concepts of sound that were far beyond what was possible to produce," Myers explains. "So he said, rather than give up on these sounds or settle for another sound that's not quite what I want, I'm actually going to find a way to get that sound."
So the German composer visited instrument guru Adolphe Sax (guess what else he contributed to the brass section) in Paris in 1853 to ask him to build something between the French horn and the trombone. The Ring was the first major work to feature the resulting Wagner tuba.
"It's a fatter sound, warmer," Myers says, humming pieces of the opera to illustrate the effect. "It still has the ability to punch like the trombone can, but it just has this nice weight and color to it."
Because of Wagner's vast vocabulary of musical colors and textures, and his often-dramatic content, Myers hopes for a diverse audience at this weekend's performance.
"Where would rock 'n' roll be without Wagner?" he asks. "When you talk to metalheads, they all know about Wagner and The Ring cycle. There are entire websites that are devoted just to 'The Father of Metal: Richard Wagner,' you know? His musical imagination, the textures, the harmonies, the attacks—you can draw some pretty strong correlations between metal, especially black metal, and Wagner."
Wagner expanded his orchestra and built an acoustically perfect hall around it, harnessing the same power a headbanger might gain by planting himself in front of a stack of vintage tube amplifiers. He also created an entirely original vocabulary of sounds matched to dramatic action and tone: Tiptoeing chromatic musical themes convey a character's uncertain heart or locate him as wandering in a landscape. Booming dissonances establish the entrance of villains or the fallacy of nature's wrath toward humanity. Wagner's vocabulary has been so pervasively adopted across so many different kinds of music—from the crushing darkness of metal to the opening shot of a movie scene—that it's become a de facto vernacular for Western music.
In fact, the broad influence of Wagner can seem so overwhelming that approaching his work is intimidating; just saying his name, with the opening 'V' sound, feels oppressive. To make The Ring more approachable, the Opera's programmed a wealth of area events to soften the legend's image. General Director Eric Mitchko talked Wagner all over the area last week, hitting McIntyre's Books in Pittsboro, an N.C. State lecture hall and Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books on consecutive nights. Company members Hailey Clark, Chase Taylor and Wade Henderson mixed arias with pop covers in a Raleigh bar. And Myers conducted a 16-piece brass section at the Flanders Gallery on Monday night for an event called "Beer, Brats and Wagner."
The featured artists in Sunday's concert certainly connected with Wagner from populist backgrounds. Both Morris and Bishop grew up singing in Baptist church choirs, blissfully unaware of opera and its brooding master. Born and raised in Paris, Texas, Morris hasn't lost an iota of his hometown drawl. He sang in his father's church, in garage rock bands and during happy hours at the local Holiday Inn. Morris took the musical plunge by moving to Nashville to try to make his way in commercial singing and Christian contemporary music.
"The truth is, I wasn't very good at that. I saw this opera thing from the outside looking in, but I was so smitten with it and impressed with the singers," he remembers. "I thought 'I want to try that. I want to give this a shot.' I went back to school and I studied and I took voice lessons."
That tenor mellowed and grew, and Morris became a working opera singer after finishing school. He was happy just to pay the bills. Then Wagner came calling in 2009 in the form of the opportunity to be Placido Domingo's understudy for Siegfried—the son of Siegmund, who Morris will play in Raleigh—with the Seattle Opera. Morris desperately wanted to decline due to its difficulty. But it was the only job offer he had at the moment, so he took it. The following year, he backed up Domingo for the entire Ring cycle in Los Angeles before his debut as Siegfried with the San Francisco Opera in 2011. Wagner had claimed him. Morris relishes the challenge of meeting the physical and technical demands of The Ring, though he feels a comparable emotional demand.
"I don't sleep the night before a performance, envisioning and fretting and planning and pacing. I'm actually calm during the shows. And then I go home and collapse and I stare at the ceiling all night long," he admits. "After performances as Siegfried—where I'm supposed to be 17 years old, and a god, and slaying dragons and awakening sleeping beauties and all that—I can barely walk."
Bishop has suffered similar Wagnerian restlessness. "There's a great amount of anticipation, on several levels, when you're about to get up and do this. I'm not afraid of it anymore. I used to be," she says. "But I'm 20 years into this now."
Like Morris, Bishop emphasizes technical preparation for the demand of Wagner. But while Morris brings something like a method actor's approach to the stage, she thinks of herself as the conduit that the music's emotions come through.
"I think of myself as a reconstituter. It's magic, what we can do. We take dots on a page that were written 150 years ago and can put them back out into the air like it was the first time they were ever heard," Bishop explains. "And you can't do that unless you, the conduit, are emotionally and technically prepared to do it in a way that speaks to the audience."
Myers praises Bishop's sheer commitment, Morris' raw energy and power, and Volpe's profundity. He's as excited and restless about the concert as the singers are. During the first act of The Ring, Siegmund encounters a rite of passage when he draws the sword Nothung from the ash tree into which his father stuck it. Performing Wagner can serve as a rite for opera companies to move from the local or regional toward the national elite.
"It fascinates me that, 150 years or so after it was premiered, this is finally coming to light here. That's why I'm thrilled to do this concert, and also to present it with such incredible talent. The sheer fact that this is the Triangle premiere—and maybe for North Carolina too—of a full act of an opera in The Ring cycle, and we have one of the reigning Wagner tenors in the world coming to Raleigh to sing..."
A little overcome, Myers can't quite finish his sentence.
Bishop, the veteran, sums it best: "Wagner is not less than anything else. The people who sing Wagner regularly will slyly tell you that it's just better than anything else. It's just the most satisfying singing you can do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Valkyries ride."