Nearly a hundred fifty years after his death, German composer Richard Wagner remains an intimidating force in Western music. His operas are notoriously difficult to stage: he intended for them to represent his grandiose vision of opera as a total work of art that would equally emphasize music, text, movement, and visual elements. Even today, his compositions overwhelm like few others in the Western opera repertoire with their massive performing forces, mythical subjects, and challenging vocal and orchestral parts. But in Raleigh, North Carolina Opera has decided it's up to the challenge. The company is presenting a full-length performance of Das Rheingold, the first installment in Wagner's massive four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, as its season opener this weekend. If all goes well, it stands to be a mighty feat for a minor metropolis.
Staging Wagner's works is a logistical challenge increased by pressure to live up to the history around his performances. In his time, Wagner exerted artistic control over everything from the operas' texts, which he wrote himself, to set design and the performance space—he famously had a theater built to his acoustic specifications in Bayreuth, Germany, to house a recurring, multi-night festival presenting only his own music. His ambition has attracted generations of musicians and composers since his death, though his works celebrating Germanic legend (along with his widely known anti-Semitic statements and political writings) fueled popular approval of the Nazis in the 1930s. His legacy is intimidating in every sense. Any group that wants to perform or present his work must tread carefully and deliberately.
Das Rheingold is a big leap for the six-year-old NCO. The performance won't be fully staged, but will still make for an imposing sight. The eighty-three-piece orchestra won't fit in the pit of any performance space in the Triangle, so the orchestra will instead be onstage in Meymandi Concert Hall. Singers will be in costume, with stage direction, acting, and props to move the action along. NCO has taken this approach before with its performance of Antonín Dvoák's Rusalka in 2014, but Rheingold will also be accompanied by a projection by video designer Katy Tucker. She's worked on a number of past Wagner productions, including a full Ring cycle at Washington National Opera. In all, artistic director Timothy Myers estimates the performance involves about a hundred-fifty performers and crew members, a strikingly large number considering the lack of scenery and larger stage props.
Der Ring des Nibelungen typically runs for fifteen to sixteen hours, spread over four nights; its length and complexity has contributed greatly to Wagner's legacy of difficulty. Das Rheingold is the shortest of the cycle, clocking in under three hours, including intermission. It's a natural choice for an opera company attempting its first foray into Wagner's work: its relative brevity means less rehearsal time and a less costly production. Listeners also get a bit of a break, as Rheingold is comparable in length to many works that the NCO has put on in recent years. But the lighter production doesn't make it any less significant a milestone for a young regional opera company. Having performed excerpts from Wagner's operas, including full-acts from his Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde in 2013 and 2014, the NCO has been working up to this achievement. Performing a full-length opera is another big step forward. The Rheingold production stands to be an impressive feat on its own, but as one of the few times that one of Wagner's operas will be performed unabridged in the Southeast, it's especially notable.
"We're a hundred forty years past the premiere of Das Rheingold, and it's the first time it's been performed between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans," Myers says.
Performing in a smaller market is different for the Rheingold players themselves. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, who will sing the role of Fricka, is an experienced Wagnerian—she's sung Ortud in Lohengrin and has been involved in Metropolitan Opera productions of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, among others.
"I've performed in Chicago, at the Met, and in Europe, but the chance to get to bring this to a smaller community is really special," she says.
Still, she's quick to say that no one should assume that the performance will be anything less than stellar. She's worked with several of the production's other singers before, including Alfred Walker (Wotan) and MaryAnn McCormick (Erda) at the Met, as well as with Myers.
"Musically, I know it's going to be excellent," she says. "Even though it's small, the talent is really good."
Myers and NCO general director Eric Mitchko both view the production as part of a longer-term vision for the NCO's relationship to its Triangle audience. Myers says the institution is committed to presenting unique artistic experiences that are otherwise unavailable in the state. Mitchko, on the other hand, speaks of the concert performances and associated community outreach events as a kind of test run for both company and audience. He points to positive responses as a reason for moving ahead with the full performance.
"We've been building up the audience's appreciation of Wagner's music, and we think that this is the right time to do this," Mitchko says. He also mentions other signs of community interest, such as the recently formed Triangle Wagner Society.
As NCO continues to move forward, the institution may still be trying to find its voice in the area of programming. In the past few seasons, the offerings have been mixed, with opera standards by Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini scattered in with more recent works, like last season's Approaching Ali and the upcoming Hercules vs. Vampires. But the company is still fresh and expanding in scope every season. What's more, it exists in a cultural landscape in which opera companies and other classical music ensembles feel pressure to try to please everyone, resulting in a mix of donor-friendly old favorites along with innovative programming that conforms to contemporary tastes regarding length, format, and subject material. It remains to be seen what impact this production will have on the future trajectory of the company, but in the meantime, it makes for one intense kickoff.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Put a Ring on It"