On the Town

Ring Leader

Conductor Robert Spano returns for another workout with Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

By Thomas May July 14, 2009 Published in the August 2009 issue of Seattle Met

AUDIENCES FROM AROUND the globe will pack McCaw Hall this month after waiting four years for the return of The Ring, Seattle Opera’s signature Wagner production. Robert Spano, the internationally acclaimed music director of the Atlanta Symphony, gives over his entire summer here to prepare and lead three rounds of the mighty four-opera, 16-hour cycle. Yet he once counted himself among the uninitiated who wondered what all the fuss was about. “I was a real Wagner hater,” he confesses. “Everything about him put me off, the nasty personality and social behavior. But musically, too, I found certain things unappealing. Before I really knew the music, it seemed so full of excess—like repeating the theme that represents the ring 13 times in one scene change!”

This staging of _ The Ring_, dubbed “green” for its spectacular design drawing on the natural splendor of the Northwest, was unveiled in Seattle in the summer of 2001. The director, Stephen Wadsworth, brought a compelling focus to the character relationships, but the production lacked a correspondingly strong personality in the orchestra pit. Spano surprised himself when he accepted Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins’s invitation to serve as the 2005 Ring maestro: To conduct a single Wagner score for the first time is demanding enough; it’s a walk compared to the triathlon feat of a Ring debut. All of the piece’s dimensions are gigantic. Long before George Lucas or J. R. R. Tolkien, Wagner grasped the enormous pull of fantastic mythological narratives. His cycle, nearly three decades in the making, includes a sizeable cast of over 30 distinct characters, not counting extras. Because some of the lead singers need “intermission” days to rest their -voices, a presentation of all four operas lasts close to a week.

“Even physical demands are part of the scope of The Ring,” says spano. “Wagner is that big.”

Spano hadn’t even seen a production of The Ring. But, after six months of internal debate and a preliminary study, he reconsidered his wholesale dismissal of Wagner. Once he accepted the post as Ring leader, he spent another two years in close scrutiny of the material. “This was all new water to me,” he recalls. “I had no idea how it was going to turn out. Once I started exploring this world in depth it became all-consuming. It was a complete reversal. Of course we had all learned in music classes about Wagner’s influence, but suddenly I got it.” As an example he cited the famous monologue in Act II of Die Walküre, in which Wotan, the king of the gods, explains the ring’s curse to his daughter. “I was one of those people who couldn’t sit through it. But I realized it’s the most perfect scene in the whole Ring, not a wasted note.”

After glowing reviews for his 2005 debut, it was a given that Spano would return for the current revival. Rehearsing here since early June, he refers to the “kinetic memory” he summons from those first encounters. “Even physical demands are part of the scope of the project,” he says. “Wagner is that big.” He prepares like an athlete in training. Cigarettes are verboten. Pilates and a carefully rationed diet help him shepherd energy.

This time, he coaches a dramatically altered cast, including, in her first Seattle Brünnhilde, Janice Baird, who brought thrilling intensity to the title role in last fall’s Elektra. But any challenges and complexities are part of the appeal for Spano—and for the opera’s rapt fans. A keen student of philosophy, Spano refers again to the big scene with Wotan: “It’s like Nietzsche’s idea of perspectivism—you can look at The Ring from the perspective of each character, and all of them have value. I wouldn’t give any of them up. It’s not about finding the truth of The Ring; it’s about finding the truths. That’s why we have Trekkies for Wagner!”

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