Can you describe what you’re doing at Seattle Opera this summer?
My permanent position is Head of Coach-accompanists; for the Ring I’m one of the assistant conductors. I also schedule musical needs for rehearsals, which is extremely complex, as you can imagine. I need to be ready to play at the piano or conduct any portion of the Ring in rehearsal or coaching at any time. 17 hours of music. It’s a bit much to keep between here and here [gestures to ears]. It used to be that when we did the Ring, the coach-accompanists only worked two shows at most, but at a certain point I said, you know what? I’ll just challenge myself to do the whole shebang.
Are you at every performance?
Yes; I am cover conductor for Rheingold and Siegfried, and I also have backstage duties, such as playing the Rheingold anvils, which are digital samples on a keyboard, and conducting offstage cues, such as the Valkyries we hear from offstage—they’re back there with me conducting off a TV monitor with Asher [Fisch, the conductor of the cycle] on it. I don’t have any backstage duties in Siegfried because our dragon, Dan Sumegi, sings his role from the orchestra pit so he can see the maestro and a TV monitor so he can see also what's happening onstage. That's how he can scream exactly at the moment when Fafner gets stabbed in the heart. That’s my personal favorite of the four operas. I love Siegfried.
How did you first learn about the Ring?
You know, The Lord of the Rings was really what first introduced me to Wagner. I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings even before I first heard Wagner on the radio, and had turned around and read the whole thing again. Loved it; it had amazing resonance for an 11 year old boy. I was reading an interview with Tolkien where he spoke about Wagner’s Ring, and I thought, ‘There are operas about the Norse gods—that’s cool!’ That was what inspired me to investigate. One thing I love about epics, films or operas, is that at its heart an epic is always about basic human relationships. Act I of Die Walküre is about Siegmund and Sieglinde finding each other and taking control of their destiny.
Die Walküre was the first grand opera I ever heard. I already played the piano and French horn, and I'd listened to a lot of classical music, but of opera I'd only heard Menotti’s The Telephone and Amahl and the Night Visitors. Then I heard Die Walküre on a radio broadcast from San Francisco Opera, and, though I didn't know the language, listening to the music I could tell what was going on: when the characters were upset and when they're joyful and when they're going to run off together. And the music! When the "Ride of the Valkyries" came on, it made such a huge impact on me, I told my dad, "I didn't know music like that existed!"
I didn’t play the show until 1995, when I was asked to come to Seattle to assist on Rheingold and Walküre. I had some evenings free, so I started looking at Siegfried. [Principal horn player] Mark Robbins said Siegfried was his favorite opera, and I said, “That’s because of the horn call you play!” He said, “Well, of course...but seriously, it’s the most interesting.” So much happens in Act One, and it’s amazing the way he tells the story musically. There’s what the dialogue tells us and what the music tells us; when Mime says to Siegfried, “I never saw your father," the orchestra plays Siegmund’s theme, so yeah, Mime knows exactly who Siegfried’s father is, he’s just not telling. Later you find out that Mime knows the whole story. It’s really brilliant. All these operas have something special to offer. Die Walküre is so lyric, it’s amazingly well written—if you have the voice to sing it. And Götterdämmerung is this huge culmination.
Alan Alabastro, photo
How long did it take you to learn the music?
Hermann Michael [conductor of Seattle’s Ring in 1987, 1991, and 1995] used to claim it was arrogant to say, “I know the Ring.” I’m always learning the Ring. I’m still discovering things in never realized, thematic relationships, psychological implications, musical subtext. Trying to play all of it on the piano is impossible, especially in Götterdammerung when there’s three or four layers. I don’t think I ever really play the same thing twice. You want to play what sounds best or, more practically, in rehearsal if a singer needs help with a rhythm, for example, you make the rhythm more obvious than it would be with an orchestra and then you gradually wean them off and make it more vague. They have to internalize it, feel it in their bodies. You can’t tap your foot up there!
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Working with Asher Fisch [conductor of this summer’s Ring]. I like him a lot on a personal level; we get along very well. He’s just one of the best musicians I know, especially for Wagner, which is near and dear to his heart. He has a way to let it breathe and live; there’s always enough room for the notes to play out and sing. If a Wagner conductor just follows the singers, it starts breaking down into sections, and you lose the sense of flow. It doesn’t really stop and start; the music should always be going somewhere. It never feels slow, because there’s always motion. That’s where the conductor comes in: how do you phrase it, how do you get from page 1 to page 2000. The art of making the text speak. Asher has always been concerned about the text, the way the text flows as poetry within the musical line. He has a special relationship with the Seattle Symphony, and they really play for him!