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Speight’s Wagner Memories: 03 PARSIFAL

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David Adam Moore (Esquire #4), Stephen Milling (Gurnemanz), Linda Pavelka (Esquire #2), Doug Jones (Esquire #3), and Terri Richter (Esquire #1) in Wagner’s Parsifal, 2003 © Rozarii Lynch

Of all the decisions on operas that I have made since 1983, none frightened me quite as much as when we announced that Parsifal would open the new hall. No one, even in the company, realized how clearly I knew the pitfalls of Wagner’s last opera and how much I feared its being the opener. Halls in America open with Aida, Turandot, some other huge Italian grand opera, or a new work. But Parsifal? It is neither an automatic crowd pleaser nor a gala event. We had scheduled it for that summer, and when it was clear that the house was going to be ready for an August 2003 opening, I had gone ahead with the plans, believing that because we had made our national and international fame on Wagner, it was the thing to do. The logic was good, but I still worried a lot.

The rehearsals of Parsifal, directed by François Rochaix, were charmed. Every member of the cast enjoyed each other; the rehearsals were lessons in hard, dedicated work that paid off even as it was happening. All of the principals really enjoyed working together, and Asher Fisch, making his debut with the company, proved the ideal maestro—knowledgeable, great for both the singers and the musicians of the orchestra. Sales had been good. I had done a special CD on Parsifal that we sent to all our subscribers in June. Would they listen to it? Would it make Wagner’s most complicated work more interesting or, better, more available to them?

I vividly remember the first time that Fisch led the orchestra in the hall. I don’t think it was the Prelude, but it might have been. Whatever it was made us know that the acousticians had achieved more than I had dreamed. We had the finest orchestral sound that we had ever heard. When the singers started singing, we knew that we had hit a grand slam. They were excited because they could feel their voices going out; we were all thrilled because we had the combination of clear vocal sound and more sound from the orchestra than ever before. This certainly extended into the performances. In all eight performances the same thing happened: after the first notes of the Prelude, the person sitting next to me would look at me with amazement and say “Oh, my God!” The sound was unforgettable.

Though that was a great and unexpected victory, my real fear came to a head in the first public rehearsal attended by board members, sponsors and the usual large coterie of students.  I went to the top balcony when Gurnemanz began his long narrative in Act I with sheer terror in my heart. I visualized the entire balcony turning off, starting to move around, talking among themselves. Stephen Milling’s great bass and wonderful presence, together with the superb orchestra and the acoustics of the hall, were factors that I had not given sufficient credit. They sat silent and involved, heeding the titles and entranced. I don’t think I have ever been happier. Opening night though also scared me. How many were coming because it was the opening night of the new hall? How many of those would have been far happier with a less cerebral opera? I don’t know, but I do know that the house was silent throughout and wildly enthusiastic at the final curtain. The Seattle audience as usual outperformed any expectation I could possibly have had.