What is your history with Seattle Opera’s Ring?
I started playing the Ring in ’76. Seattle Opera did that production each summer until 1984, and I played them all, every single one. I learned the story very well, because of the two casts they had at the time. They had one cast that sang the operas in English and one that sang in German. (They did not have supertitles.) I can’t tell you how many times I was asked: “Is it harder to play in German or in English?” [laughs] I’d smile and say, “Well, it doesn’t much matter to the violin players!”
One international language!
It’s some of the hardest music I’ve ever learned, and it isn’t even orchestral music, it’s opera music.
Is opera normally easier to play than orchestral music?
Yes, on the whole, opera music is less demanding for the orchestra than our usual symphony work, our usual repertoire. There are exceptions to that; and Wagner is consistently very difficult, some of the hardest music I’ve ever learned. And yet it’s written to be an accompaniment to the stage. Except with Wagner, the action moves back and forth between the orchestra and the stage. Wagner does that consistently in the Ring by developing the various themes both onstage and in the orchestra. Sometimes the stage is very static, and the bulk of the activity and the development of the themes is in the orchestra. Then the reverse happens—the orchestra becomes much more static and quieter and a lot of the drama is shifted to the stage. It’s part of his genius that we’re both just as important in the storytelling.
What was it like to play it for the first time?
For the first couple of cycles I played, I don’t think I did anything else besides practice, eat, sleep, go to work, come home, practice, eat, sleep, go to work, come home.... It was so amazing to try to learn all of that. I’m still learning. We all are. It’s fabulous music, and so very well-written. Wagner scores the music so beautifully that the orchestra can be roaring away and when it’s time for the singer, the orchestration and the dynamics are such that the voice comes right through. You just have to play what Wagner wrote, and it works. It’s a masterpiece on so many levels. I find it amazing that one man could write the music, write the lyrics, build a stage, do all the stage direction...it’s truly a masterpiece and I always feel like the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
So when you say it’s some of the hardest music you’ve had to learn, can you characterize that? What is so hard about it?
Technically, it’s very difficult in places. Most of it is playable with a lot of practice. It’s very dense, and it’s non-stop for strings in particular. And you have to work very, very hard to learn this music and get it up to tempo. I think it’s an endurance contest more than anything, because it’s so long. Our parts are 70, 80, 90 pages long for each opera!
Do you get a break?
The strings play most of the time. I think there are two or three places where we rest for about 10 minutes—in the whole cycle! We try to take good care of people who are playing it for the first time, because it’s so difficult and people can get easily discouraged. You’re always convinced that you’re the only person in the pit NOT playing every note, when in fact some passages are meant to be an effect, a rush of sound.
Is it actually impossible to play all the notes?
Most of it is very playable. There are passages that are renowned finger-tanglers. In the fire music in Walküre, it is, I would say, virtually impossible for any orchestra anywhere to have every player play every note at exactly the same time. It’s divided up, first of all, so you have different people on different parts; it’s hugely dense; it’s fast. Wagner was way ahead of his time in lots of things, but he gave, in the fire music, a tonality and a time frame, and basically: “There you go, have at it! Get as much of it as you can!” So you get most of it...and the effect is what is so fabulous in a place like that. But most of the Ring is highly playable.
There are moments where it’s so big, and so loud for the audience...how loud is it down there in the pit for you?
Very, very loud. Many of us keep foam earplugs stuck in our scroll box, where the pegs are on the violin, and put them in as needed and then stick them back in the scroll box! If the brass are four feet away, you have to have some type of protection.
Do you have either a favorite opera or a favorite passage to play?
In the third act of Siegfried, after he wakes up Brünnhilde, the music is just so glorious. It’s worth sitting there for four hours, just to get to that point.
What about the violin passage just before that, when Siegfried climbs out of the fire?
It’s very slow, very quiet, and very exposed, and the rhythms are a bit unusual. The entire violin section plays it together—we’re the only thing you hear!
How long did it take to get this music in your fingers, to learn it?
I think all of us are always learning. I really have to work at it every single time. When I first played it, back in ’76, it involved incredible amounts of practicing. It was at least the third year before I really started to feel a wee bit comfortable on some of those hard, hard passages. I had to change my style of fingering. String players ordinarily shift from one position to another in a very logical manner; but with Wagner, you don’t have time—and it doesn’t fit the music. So you grab large chunks of notes, and jump from one chunk to the next, so you end up with what I call “chunk-style” fingering, which works very well! But until I figured that out, some passages were harder than they needed to be.
I’d like to recommend George Bernard Shaw’s book The Perfect Wagnerite. He alternates chapters in the book talking about the music and talking about Wagner as a person. And I agree with George Bernard Shaw in that all of Rheingold, all of Walküre, and two acts of Siegfried are actually music drama; and then starting with the third act of Siegfried, where he wakes up Brünnhilde and this poor tenor who’s been singing for four hours has to compete with a fresh soprano who’s been resting for three days—from that point in that act through all of Götterdämmerung are actually opera. Of course, you get to the end of Götterdämmerung, when the Rhine River overwhelms everything, and you end up playing the same music you played at the beginning of the week for the Rheingold, so it truly is a cycle. You could turn that over and start all over again! No thank you!
INTERVIEW BY JESSICA MURPHY