Like Alberich, I am irresistibly drawn to the Ring. But instead of 100 I’ve got 18 musicians… | Opera

‘Beware the Ring,” sings Erda the omniscient Earth mother in the final scene of Das Rheingold. Her warning is conspicuously ignored by the gods, men, valkyries, giants and dragons who inhabit the world that Wagner creates – and destroys – over the course of the four operas in his Ring cycle.

It has also almost destroyed many musicians, and indeed opera companies, who, failing to heed Erda, have fallen under its spell.

‘Beware the Ring’: Mae Heydorn as Erda in Regents Opera’s new production.

As the director of the relatively small-scale Regents Opera, I am acutely aware of the risk attached to any attempt on Wagner’s epic saga. Yet, like the lustful dwarf Alberich, so tempted by the Rhinegold that he steals it and forges it into a magic ring, I find myself irresistibly drawn. We are currently preparing to stage our second Ring cycle in eight years, a challenge driven by an obsession to rearrange and reduce the gloriously lush orchestra from around 100 players to just 18.

Regents Opera has carved out an especially ridiculous niche for itself within London’s thriving fringe-opera scene, becoming known for staging productions of massive operatic works for vastly reduced chamber forces. We have re-scaled and re-arranged hundreds of hours of music, from Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena to Wagner’s Meistersinger. As well as the challenge and sheer enjoyment for us, we hope that in our wake is a legacy of arrangements opening up some of the best music in the genre to other smaller-scale opera companies.

Back in 2014, as Fulham Opera, we put on the whole Ring cycle, with me at the piano. We certainly didn’t make any money – barely enough to cover one day of the months of work we put in. But people still talk about it – it was what we do in its purest form, and it was what we built our reputation on. Wagner’s music is one of my greatest loves and I had unfinished business. I wanted to do the whole thing, every last word of it, uncut. And this time with an orchestra.

Zoe South as Brünnhilde in Regents Opera’s (then Fulham Opera) 2014 production.
Zoe South as Brünnhilde in Regents Opera’s (then Fulham Opera) 2014 production.

Adapting something like The Ring doesn’t work if it is just a job. The idea of rearranging it for 18 instruments was born first out of necessity. I had a contract to adapt the opening scene of Die Walküre (the second cycle’s second opera) for a gala. It was lockdown where I live in Berlin and the maximum number of musicians we could get together to play was 18, accounting for social distancing in the space. I reworked that first scene only to find that a return to a fuller lockdown meant that we couldn’t go ahead at all with the gala performance.

But it set a hare running. From that point my lockdown mornings started with two or three hours of unpicking and rearranging starting with Das Rheingold. Then there came the Forging Song from Siegfried and the famous Immolation from Götterdämmerung. I loved it, painstakingly deconstructing it and distilling it all down. I felt that I was being a musician in spite of all the challenges around.

To give you a sense of the scale, my target was to rearrange five pages of score a day. Rheingold alone is 300 pages. And the subsequent three operas get significantly longer. Quantifying the herculean task, my estimate is that if you play the entire Ring cycle, at a lick, it’s a bracing and exhilarating 16 hours. Each minute of that takes around one hour to rearrange. I am still only part way through this epic task. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre are done, but I have at least another 400 hours or so ahead of me at my desk.

I’ve made many arrangements before with just single winds, one trumpet, one horn and five single strings, and this 18 seemed to be the clearest way to expand on that, adding in extra players on the string parts, plus having an extra horn and a bass trombone to give a little of Wagner’s colours.

I have sought to keep the textures as close as possible to the original score. I am not recomposing, but redistributing lines that were perhaps for four horns on to two horns, trumpet and trombone, or sometimes moving layers of woodwind on to strings. The key is to keep the orchestral colour. As a répétiteur condensing 100 instruments into two hands on the piano, bringing that orchestral sweep to the music is essential. With an orchestra of 18 musicians, we work incredibly hard as a team to ensure that this isn’t any pale imitation of Wagner’s music.

There are moments of course when the challenge seems almost insurmountable. Having reduced forces asks a lot of the players too. Horn players don’t get to pass the strident melody between them, they play every note, which is exhausting. Ensuring a rich and full-bodied string sound is much more challenging to the nine players we have, than 40 or 50 strings in a group, dashing over their many arpeggios. The tuning has to be that much more finessed, the action relentless, the stamina breathtaking. But the intimacy of a performance like this invites audiences and musicians to listen on a different level, uncovering new aspects of the music.

Ben Woodward rehearses with Regents  Opera.
‘The key is to keep the orchestral colour and sweep’: Ben Woodward rehearses with Regents Opera.

This Ring cycle is happening at a point in time where it seems to become a crazier venture with each passing day. Regents Opera were not granted Arts Council England funding this past week, nor have we received any public funding in 2022. Our production we hope balances an orchestra large enough to do it justice but compact enough for us not to bankrupt ourselves, with the resources we have been able to muster, thanks to some generous philanthropy and (almost) sufficient ticket sales.

We’ll get there because we have to and because, despite all else, we are compelled to do it. As Wagner himself said, “imagination creates reality” – and that is what we do. Have done. Will continue to do. So sorry, Erda, thanks for the warning. but we’re gonna do it anyway.

Regents Opera’s Das Rheingold is on 13, 17 and 19 November in the Grand Temple at the Freemasons’ Hall, London.

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