The Orchestra of Opera North. Photo Richard Moran

Richard Farnes, Opera North’s Music Director, talks about big scale drama ahead of the Company’s first step on Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

It’s been said that more words have been written about composer Richard Wagner than any other human in history apart from Jesus Christ, and I guess the latter’s divinity would put him in a different category anyway. While I’m hardly in a position to prove that this fact is so, Wagner was certainly one of the most controversial figures of the nineteenth century, and there seems to have been a contemporary fascination for exposing every lurid and tabloid detail of his life. Of course none of this would have been of interest to anybody were it not for the enormous power of his music and the high ideals he set himself: the performance of any Wagnerian drama was probably intended as a type of cultural and spiritual catharsis for its recipients. Now there’s a challenge.

The Ring of the Nibelung (The Ring Cycle) is the largest work in the history of Western music, and its conception took nearly as many years as Opera North has been around! So why should we be embarking on this huge enterprise right now? No, it’s not megalomania on the part of the Music Director. The company hasn’t performed much Wagner in its 33 year history, despite the fact that his music is a cornerstone of the repertory (and we’ve had plenty of correspondence pointing this out!). But fitting a Ring-sized orchestra (just under 100 musicians) into the Leeds Grand Theatre pit – as well as those of some of our touring venues – is a physical impossibility, and there is also the difficulty of scheduling such large scale works into our usual performing pattern. Furthermore, until recently the acoustics of our home theatre have hardly been favourable to the enormous spans of Wagner’s musical architecture.

Made temporarily homeless during the refurbishment of the Grand some years ago, the Company took the opportunity to take into the concert hall some operas that could never be produced in our theatre for the reasons above – extraordinary pieces like Bluebeard’s Castle  and Salome.  These were well received, and helped us establish good relationships with some of the excellent new UK arts centres that have sprung up in recent decades, notably the Sage in Gateshead. We’ve been determined to develop these performances outside the theatre ever since, because it allows us to venture where we haven’t been before in musical terms. Following on from Elektra a couple of years ago it became clear that some of our concert hall colleagues were very excited – just as excited as we were in fact! – at the possibility of creating something really, really big over several years,  and the fact that this period included the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth in 2013 meant only one thing: The Ring.

So, Opera North will commence a Ring Cycle this June 2011 and continue through the series until 2014. Performing The Ring in this way has a couple of key advantages. The acoustics are generally better in concert halls than in theatres, with a warmer and more generous sound, and the orchestra is a visible part of the action, highly appropriate in a drama where the ensemble of approximately a hundred players is arguably the principal character (and the only one that appears in all four operas!). Alongside the extraordinary sight of six harpists playing together are some instruments introduced to the orchestra specifically by Wagner for The Ring, such as Wagner tubas, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone. The audience still get the English titles even though we will be singing in the original German, and we’re currently working on ways of delineating the storylines as clearly as possible on what’s left of the platform! 

Das Rheingold will be performed in the following locations and on the following dates:
Leeds Town Hall   18 June, 1 July, 8 September
The Sage, Gateshead  26 June
Symphony Hall, Birmingham 24 June
The Lowry, Salford Quays 10 September