At a media event Tuesday afternoon, in a windowless room deep in the bowels of the Civic Opera House, members of the creative team for Lyric Opera’s still-distant cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen gathered to hint at what audiences could expect when the four operas reach Lyric’s stage between 2016 and 2020. Those present received a few misty evocations of the character of the productions, and some negative information, too—so although we can’t really say what Lyric’s Ring is yet, we can say more about what it is not.
What the Ring cycle always is, is huge. The four-opera set, written by German composer Richard Wagner, dramatizes a story of gods, heroes, dwarves, valkyries, giants, and an all-powerful ring—and has influenced pop culture ever since it debuted in 1876 (it’s the source of the Bugs Bunny clichés about opera singers with breastplates and Viking helmets). The total amount of music in the four operas runs to about 15 hours. Lyric plans to stage one opera each season from 2016–17 to 2019–20, and then get the band back together to do three complete cycles in April 2020.
The downbeat of Das Rheingold, the first of the four, still lies almost two years in the future. This means, on the multiannual time scale of producing opera, that Lyric is waist-deep in planning, but they’re not saying much. The negative news delivered to us, unfortunately, was that the project’s set designer, Johan Engels, died suddenly last month, but he had already completed his designs at the time. (Lyric will hire a replacement to help bring Engels’s vision to the stage.)
The conductor, David Pountney, described his vision for Lyric’s Ring in broad terms. It wouldn’t take the tack of radical interpretations that relocate the action to a historical time and place. Wagner produced this sweeping musico-dramatic landscape over 25 years of mulling and creating, Pountney says. “To narrow the vision that yielded is an incredibly stupid thing to do,” he says. “The aim should be to open doors, not close them.”
It also won’t use “fancy machinery,” and video will be employed only sparingly, Pountney says, a not-so-subtle reference to the temperamental, noisy rotating machine and the liberal use of video projection from the Metropolitan Opera’s recently completed Ring. “Our Ring will be characterized by its use of naïve theatrical devices and its avoidance of high-tech solutions,” he says. “We’re focusing on the element of ‘Once upon a time.’”
Denni Sayers, the team’s choreographer, says that, for example, if a character flies in, you’ll see the person who hauls the rope. As a sort of parable, Pountney sets the scene: On a simple, empty stage of wooden boards, a person walks out, alone. He sets down his hat on the stage, and out of the hat flows the Rhine River. From here, the story spins out in all its gargantuan glory. At the close of the fourth opera, the man retrieves his hat and walks off into darkness.
Of course, revealing such an episode now would be too much information released too soon. “That’s not what’s going to happen,” Pountney says.