Full and amended version of my January 17, 2014 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com story
Lyric Opera of Chicago announces new ‘Ring’ cycle
Goerke, Owens to star, Davis, Pountney to conduct and stage
From 2016 'Rheingold' through full runs in 2020
Christine Goerke | Arielle Doneson photo
BY ANDREW PATNER
Things take time in grand opera.
And if you’re talking about a new staging of Richard Wagner’s mammoth Ring of the Nibelung, that can mean nearly a decade.
You read that right.
At a Friday morning press conference, Lyric Opera of Chicago announced top casting, the creative team, and dates for the second-ever new production of the four-opera saga in the company’s storied history. One part will be presented at a time in four successive seasons starting in 2016-2017, culminating in three week-long presentations of the full cycle in April of 2020.
That’s how long it takes to secure the leather-lunged voices required by this demanding music, plan and develop a new and cohesive concept of direction and design, obtain financial backing, and secure spots on Wagner devotees’ (often dubbed “Ringheads”) schedules who are needed for Lyric to sell about 11,000 cycle tickets to fill 43,000 seats for the 12 performances. (Lyric’s first "Ring," starting in 1992, had its full, sold-out cycles in the spring of 1996, created by the late German director August Everding and conducted by Zubin Mehta.)
Lyric launched this artistic campaign with a bang Friday, snaring the world’s most-talked about future Brünnhilde, American soprano Christine Goerke, for role of the sky-riding valkyrie who has inspired nearly 150 years of serious and satirized tough women in breastplates, heads topped by horned helmets.
As expected, Lyric music director Andrew Davis will conduct the new production with Lyric chorus master Michael Black preparing the choral parts.
Unlike New York's Metropolitan Opera, which brought in someone with little operatic experience -- let alone an understanding of Wagner -- autobiographical Québécois theatre artist and Cirque du Soleil stage director Robert Lepage, to create its Ring, Lyric has turned to the widely respected veteran British opera director, translator, and company manager David Pountney (below), to mold its 21st century Ring.
Pountney was joined Friday by the other members of the international creative team who have worked with him in the past creating sets (South African Johan Engels, who designed this season’s Lyric Parsifal), costumes (London-based Romanian Marie-Jeanne Lecca), and lighting (Frenchman Fabrice Kebour) for other successful projects including a recently rediscovered 20th-century opera dealing with the Holocaust. Lyric general director Anthony Freud also revealed Friday that this piece, Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1968 The Passenger, would be a part of the company’s 2014-2015 season. Lecca and Kebour will each be working at Lyric for the first time. (See my story above or here.)
Major role casting
Goerke has rapidly been attracting international interest since she opened the 2012-2013 Lyric season in the title role of the intense Richard Strauss retelling of Elektra. When she took up the key role of the Dyer’s Wife in another Strauss work, Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman without a Shadow"), this season at the Met to similar acclaim, the New York company’s chief, Peter Gelb, showered her with major new contracts, including for Brünnhilde in the first Met revival of the Lepage Ring in 2018-2019.
Goerke will by then have sung Brünnhilde in Chicago in Die Walküre in 2017 and Siegfried in 2018 (her character does not appear in the preamble opera which will start the project in 2016, Das Rheingold). Freud said that he had proposed a Chicago Ring to Goerke just before Lyric's Elektra opened.
So fierce is the competition for the tiny number of dramatic sopranos who can perform this works with volume, stamina, and high artistry that Toronto's Canadian Opera Company made a surprise announcement Thursday that Goerke will take up the role in a stand-alone 2015 revival of the Walküre from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's earlier full Ring production. She has also been announced as taking up the role in Houston from 2015 to 2017. That cycle has gone through many changes since Freud, who came to Lyric from the top position at Houston, first planned and announced it there several years ago, however.
Owens was a standout success both vocally and dramatically as the evil dwarf Alberich in the Met’s hugely expensive and much-disparaged new Ring from 2010 to 2013. He has appeared successfully at Lyric in recent seasons in two company premières: as General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic by John Adams (a role he created) and in the title role of Handel’s Hercules, both staged by Peter Sellars. Owens also stars as another water goblin, Vodnik, in Lyric’s first production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka next month. He is one of the most prominent African-Americans in opera.
Both Goerke and Owens, the latter participating in the pres conference via Skype due to scheduling conflicts, were visibly excited. Goerke emphasized her 'joy" at participating in developing a production and characterization from the beginning. Never boastful, Owens, who has long wanted to take on the lead male role in the cycle, said he was "still getting his feet wet" in Wagner and "still trying to know how to inhabit his sonic world."
"The biggest challenge for Wotan is to keep straight all the names of the children and baby mamas," Owens said with a warm laugh.
Davis, a Briton long resident in Chicago, established himself as a Wagner hand to be reckoned with with the first full Ring of his career during the Lyric’s 2004-2005 50th anniversary season. Wagner’s mythology-inspired, musically revolutionary Ring, Freud said Friday, “represents the high-water mark of our art form -- unique in its scale, complexity, fascination, and indeed in its ability to ‘hook’ an audience. Experiencing a Ring cycle is one of the most life-transforming artistic experiences the world has to offer.”
Even before the 2011 announcement of Freud’s hiring in Chicago, it has been no secret that another Ring was a company ambition and that Davis was especially eager to see a new "from-the-ground-up" production. Freud added Friday, “From the first conversation I had with Andrew upon my appointment as general director, it was clear that one of his greatest artistic priorities over the next ten years was to revisit the Ring.” Davis has also had great success at Lyric last season with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and this season with Parsifal, two of the composer’s great and most substantial individual works.
Pountney (left) is a known quality around the world as well as at Lyric where his productions of Satyagraha by Philip Glass in 1987-88 and Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (2001-02) were moving and highly insightful. Lyric said it had secured major funding in support of the new Ring from local industrialist and philanthropist Dietrich M. Gross and his wife, Erika Gross.
Pountney and the production
High costs and technology yielding mixed results in recent New York and Los Angeles Rings -- the Met production cost over $16 million, much for a giant mechanized abstract machine and set of surfaces for video display that often broke down and made noise during performances. And over-the-top interpretation drew boos and grumbling in Bayreuth, home of the annual festival Wagner himself founded in Bavaria for his works. Look for this new Chicago Ring to be both more subtle and more carefully thought out. Pountney several times said that "the saga of storytelling is itself a great part of the story."
"The Ring is one of the great philosophical and cultural statements that we have, not least about love itself," Pountney observed.
Pountney is clearly thinking long and hard about the structure of the cycle and the way that the four pieces both fit together and have individual characteristics. He reminded attendees that Wagner wrote the librettos, or stories and texts, of the four operas "backwards" -- from the final Twilight of the Gods to the opening Rheingold, becoming "more mature" as a writer as he went -- but wrote the music "in the right order," from prelude to conclusion, growing deeper there in the opposite direction. "Time," he said both at and after the press conference, "is always moving both ahead and back in this work. Time is itself a subject of the cycle."
"One of the challenges of Wagner is in the way" through frequent narration by characters "he makes time stand still," Pountney said. "A director has to remember that he has to make things that will be interesting on stage for 20 minutes at a time. It's easy, in contrast, to make something interesting for just two minutes!"
Freud said he would and could not put a dollar amount on the full production, "in part because we literally don't yet know what we are looking in terms of design," but said that, "Just as added expenses provide great challenges so they provide new opportunities for major support."
When asked if the new production might require that the Civic Opera House stage be reinforced -- as the Met's stage had to be for its new set, at great cost -- Freud smiled and said that he did not think so. Davis let out what Pountney called "quite a cackle."
Pountney said that his team was meeting and talking regularly -- "We all four communicate almost telepathically at this point in our years of collaboration," designer Engels said -- and planned to "present drawings to the company for all four operas by December of this year."
Schedule and future announcements
The four-year scheduling pattern is a traditional one at Lyric, both as a means of building up the series over time and allowing the performers to grow in their roles and as way of sharing each of the first three operas with regular season subscribers, many of whom then might also purchase tickets to the complete 2020 cycle. Rheingold will be a part of the 2016-17 season, Walküre that of 2017-18 and Siegfried the 2018-19 season. The lengthy concluding opera, Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”) will be offered on some subscriptions at the end of 2019-20, followed by the three complete cycles in April 2020.
Tickets for the full Ring cycle will not go on sale until 2018, with pricing, further casting, and additional sponsorship to be announced at later dates. Tickets for th efirst opera, Das Rheingold, will be offered in 2016.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Lyric Opera of Chicago
Das Rheingold: performances begin October 1, 2016
Die Walküre: performances begin in early November 2017
Siegfried: performances begin in early November 2018
Götterdämmerung: performances begin in late March 2020
Three complete “Ring” cycles:first cycle begins in April 2020
Hat tip to Mr Whet Moser for being able to hear the second Eric Owens quote more clearly than those of us not sitting near the television speaker!