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Speight’s Wagner Memories: 01 RING

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Fafner and Alan Woodrow (Siegfried) in Siegfried, 2001 © Gary Smith

Rehearsals began on Wagner’s birthday, May 22, 2001. Wadsworth was again joined by Vote, whom I had asked to take over the whole cycle. Jordan made up his mind not to travel by air again and not come back to the States. That decision was made in October of 2000, and I was grateful to have Maestro Vote, who could be present from the beginning of the Ring rehearsals.

Almost every role was covered in this Ring, and Wadsworth’s assistant directors kept the covers prepared and ready. The work was long and grinding but intensely rewarding, and, thinking back, I recall it as a great rehearsal period with a minimum of problems. To Wadsworth, everyone onstage must be living his or her role while relating to everyone else onstage all the time. No one can wait unconcernedly to sing; no one can tune out on what is happening. It’s a lot to ask, but, in my experience, singers love to be challenged in this manner.

The dress rehearsals all worked splendidly. They were not perfect; they never should be. The Ring was set to roll. And indeed this happened. The first performance of Das Rheingold was rapturously received. The Rhine Daughters appeared to be incarnations of Esther Williams, Alberich’s transformations, accomplished by using the cross lights described above, worked like the proverbial charm, the rainbow bridge—always a bugaboo in the Ring—glowed effectively, and the singers were stupendous, with the audience loving everyone. Die Walküre was the same. This most popular opera of the Ring is very hard to do. There are many comparisons of other Walküres in the audience’s minds, and I have found that though it always seems to satisfy on some level, it usually doesn’t live up to its expectations. This one did, led by stunning performances by Jane Eaglen in the title role and Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde. Phillip Joll made a commanding, warm Wotan, and Mark Baker a sensitive Siegmund. Two characters not always popular with audiences were unforgettable: Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and the Danish bass Stephen Milling as Hunding.

At Seattle Opera, the Ring is always treated as a festival with lots of collateral events, such as lectures and symposia. The day after Die Walküre, we had almost a thousand people attending an event at which four Wagner authorities spoke on various aspects of the Ring. The third speaker, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan from Yale, was delivering his paper, when Ernesto Alorda, the staff officer in charge of artist relations, came into the room and signaled me to leave with him. Once out of the lecture room he said that I should go immediately to one of the local hospitals, that Alan Woodrow, our Siegfried, had injured his leg. I was somewhat incredulous and received no more information, only the name of the hospital. When I arrived, it took me about thirty minutes of frustrating searching to find Woodrow, who was sitting in an examining room with his wife, the soprano Vivian Tierney. That morning he had gone down to the exercise room in their apartment hotel where his wife was exercising. Very fit himself, with Siegfried the next night, he had decided not to work out and was talking to his wife. He somehow tripped over a treadmill and fell. He tried to get up and found that he couldn’t move his right leg. An ambulance brought him to the hospital. X-ray and an MRI showed that in this fall he had split all four of the quadriceps muscles, the large muscles of the thigh, just above his knee. He couldn’t move his leg, and he would have to be operated on to repair the damage.

I couldn’t believe it, but I was ready. As I heard the verdict, I figured out what we had to do. We had a good cover, Richard Berkeley-Steele, who had worked far more with the assistant directors than with Wadsworth. I had heard Berkeley-Steele, an English singer, sing a brilliant Tannhäuser in London at a concert hall there. He had wanted to get Siegfried under his belt and therefore had agreed to cover the role in Seattle. The assistants had reported that he was well prepared on the text (always a nightmare in this longest of all roles, which has more words than any three Italian parts strung together) and knew the staging. I thought that in this first cycle Berkeley-Steele should act the role while Woodrow sang it, sitting at the side of the stage. There was nothing wrong with Woodrow’s voice or his stamina. Wadsworth spent all of that day and most of the day of the Siegfried working with Berkeley-Steele on fine points of his acting. We went on, and the public, bless them, responded with enthusiasm. They adjusted to the double Siegfried quickly, and I never heard a word of criticism of our solution, which was reported extensively in the world press.

Woodrow was operated on two days later, and now is completely restored to health—no problems, no limp. He returned to Seattle Opera that October to sing the Prince in Rusalka. Berkeley-Steele went on to sing the last two cycles to great success. Certainly, every other artist in the Ring, including Jane Eaglen, our Brünnhilde, and Phillip Joll, our Wotan, helped him. Tired as they were from rehearsing, they all pulled together to make him a part of the team. It was a remarkable accomplishment.

At the conclusion of each of these cycles, the audience was more than supportive; they were ecstatic. It was enormously gratifying, also, to have uniform press acclaim as well. Our goal now is to make the next Ring even better. In August of 2002, we started meetings on the 2005 Ring. The Ring can never be conquered; whatever one has done can always be improved, and that is our goal for the future.