Wagner's epic Ring Cycle – all 15 hours of it – is a massive undertaking for any opera company.
It’s rare for the entire story of Norse gods, heroes and mythical beasts, told through four operas, to be heard in a single week and so when tickets for an Opera North production of The Ring Cycle in 2016 went on sale this spring Wagner buffs snapped them up.
As Richard Farnes, musical director, points out: “It’s unusual in this country and outside Germany to see the entire cycle performed together. It is such a big thing to put on and so expensive. It’s more common to see the operas performed separately. The real fans want to see the whole thing. They are buying tickets for all four.
“It’s very powerful, elemental stuff. There is a single story running through the four and a natural progression as it unfolds - and a logical cathartic conclusion.”
The story of the cycle focuses on a quest by Wotan, the king of the gods, to retrieve a magic ring, which he stole from the dwarf Alberich and has now, in turn, lost to thieving giants. There are many sub-plots and characters, including Wotan’s grandson Siegfried – saviour of the ring – who has taken Brunnhilde as his lover, unaware that she is Wotan’s daughter.
There are many fascinating features of the Ring Cycle, which was completed by Richard Wagner in 1874 after a labour of love that had spanned nearly 26 years. For his operas – Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold); Die Walkure (The Valkyrie); Siegfried; and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) – he introduced a number of new instruments and sounds.
The works require a thunderous 100-piece orchestra, including 18 anvils and steerhorns.
Richard explains: “The orchestra is interesting because there are six harps sitting next to each other – it’s quite an impressive sight – and there is also a bass trumpet and a contra bass trombone, which have a very deep sounds. Percussion includes anvils being struck. It adds to the drama.”
The Ring Cycle, which Opera North previously staged in instalments between 2011 and 2014 and is being preceded this summer by Wagner’s other well-known work The Flying Dutchman, was intended as an ‘Gesamtkurstwerk,’ a complete and immersive artwork.
Within the operas are many themes and ‘leitmotifs’ (recurring pieces of music that identify a person, place or idea) which will be familiar to those who have never seen an opera.
The Ride of the Valkyries, for example, is perhaps one of the best-known film themes of the 20th century.
And Opera North will do what it can to make the operas accessible to all.
Richard says: “We use a big video screen to add to the auditory experience. The story is all explained and there’s a translation of the German that it is sung in, and extra information too. My six-year-old came along and loved it.”
Unusually, the Opera North production will put the orchestra into the limelight, along with the singers. And the performances in Leeds will be in the Town Hall, not Opera North’s base at Leeds Grand.
Richard explained “We can’t fit a 100-piece orchestra into the pit in The Grand so we’re doing the operas in a concert hall and the orchestra will be visible.
The composer’s concept was that you couldn’t see the orchestra at all and he had a whole theatre built with a very deep pit for the orchestra, but we think it is the biggest character of all and we’ll be using spotlights to highlight certain sections.”
Six full cycles of The Ring will begin in Leeds on April 23, 2016, with the company touring until July 10.
It is also unusual, says Richard, to tour with a production of this size and complexity.
“It is an enormous undertaking for some of the main singing parts. But performers get swept up in it. Adrenalin is an amazing thing,” he added.
In the meantime, the company is preparing for The Flying Dutchman, which premieres at Leeds Grand on June 27 and will tour until mid-July.
The opera is a much earlier work and Wagner’s first really successful opera.
Richard describes the story as “attractive and vividly painted” and says: “It’s much shorter than the main operas in the Ring and more conventional. Musically speaking it’s quite different and more classical.”
It tells the story of a Dutchman doomed to wander the seas eternally unless he finds redemption through a woman’s faithful love.
Ticket details for both The Flying Dutchman and The Ring Cycle are available from 0844 8482700 or leedsgrandtheatre.com or theringcycle.co.uk