The first thing I see while walking through the backstage of the Kennedy Center is the stage manager’s command center. There’s a series of primary colored buttons and switches (the kind that look like they could set a bomb off), but you don’t need to know anything about the performance the Center is putting on to figure out what they do, because they’re all helpfully labeled flare. Right next to the buttons is a bowl of similarly colored jolly ranchers. My tour guide for the evening, Michael Solomon laughs, explaining the cast and crew are always sneaking back here for some candy.
The first thing I notice while walking through the backstage of the Kennedy Center is that it’s dead quiet. Nary a cast or crew member wanders around. The few people who do flit about seem to be in high spirits, but this is a smaller, quieter cast. Which is funny, considering the reason we’re here today is to watch the technical practice for Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre.
And no one could consider that a quiet opera.
As I sneak looks at the sparse, incredibly minimalist set (which is truly just a series of dark platforms of various heights), Solomon, the senior press representative at the Kennedy Center, talks excitedly with me about the opera. He’s been ferreting questions from ludicrously nosy rule breakers (I like to touch the things they tell me not to touch) like me for years, but he seems genuinely excited that the Washington National Opera is putting on Wagner’s The Ring Cycle. Made up of four different operas Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), The Ring Cycle is what Mickey Berra, vice president of production at the Center, refers to as “the Super Bowl of opera.” It’s an epic tale to say the least. Spanning many years, multiple locations, and three generations of characters, it took Wagner over twenty years alone to write the music and libretto. On average, watching (or performing) the entirety of The Ring Cycle takes 15 hours, and that’s not including intermissions. The last opera in the cycle alone is about five hours long. The orchestra pit at the Kennedy Center had to be enlarged just to handle the amount of musicians required for the show. There’s no other opera in the world like it.
For those of you who don’t know, The Ring Cycle is essentially Lord of the Rings before it was even a wink in Tolkien’s eye. What the entire four opera play boils down to is, a series of gods, demigods, magical creatures, and mortal humans fight for a ring that has ultimate power. During the struggle, people fall in love and die and do all the other things that people tend to do. The Valkyrie is the story of how the hero of the entire Cycle, Siegfried, came to be. In the third act, Brünnhilde, against her father’s wishes, saves Siegfried’s pregnant mother, Sieglinde. Her sisters, the other Valkyries, want to help hide her, but they are scared of their fathers wrath, and they have every right to be. Wotan shows up, tells Brünnhilde that he is going to transform her from a Valkyrie into a mortal and keep her trapped in a magic slumber on the mountain, for any man that may pass by. After an incredibly emotional back and forth where Brünnhilde explains her actions, Wotan agrees to ring the mountain in fire, so that only the most brave and worthy men will be able to reach her. Brünnhilde excepts her fate, knowing she did the right thing, and the opera ends.
“The last time we did this was in 2007,” Solomon explains, “but this is sharper and updated.” Which almost goes without saying. Besides the extensive pyrotechnics (what I wouldn’t give to be able to press one of those “flare” buttons) the entire visual identity of The Ring Cycle has been flipped on its head. Fafner, a giant who is transformed into a dragon in the first part of the cycle, The Rhinegold, looks more like a gritty, broken down transformer than any dragon I’ve ever seen (and I mean that in a good way). It’s sharp and mean and looks like if could do some serious damage, if it was real. The Rainbow Bridge, which Wotan (a god) creates so that other gods may more easily travel from Midgard to Valhalla, is an incredibly tall utilitarian like structure. It feels like something you would see at an abandoned construction zone. As we survey the props, a giant poster from Les Miserables looks over us like a benevolent god.
It’s all looking very cyberpunk. And even though they didn’t ask me, I heartily approve.
Out of all of the parts of The Ring Cycle Solomon readily admits that this is the one he loves most. “It has all of the best music and all of the best special effects,” he says. “When you have eight Wagnerian voices coming together to sing The Ride of the Valkyries, there’s nothing like it.” And he’s right. Wagner’s magnum opus may be incredibly impenetrable to most opera beginners, but it is undoubtedly the opera they are most familiar with. Everyone has heard the main theme from The Ride of the Valkyries. It’s in The Birth of a Nation. It’s in Apocalypse Now. It’s in a goddamned Bugs Bunny cartoon. You may think you know next to nothing about opera, but trust me, you’re more familiar with Wagner than you think.
Right next to that multihued switchboard, there’s a shelf with a series of parachute packs. These are for the Valkyrie’s in question. All eight of them will at one point take flight during the third act. Between this and the promise of fire, I’m ready for rehearsal to start now, but we still have enough time to get even further into the belly of the beast.
On our way under the stage (I promise you I will never get tired bragging about that), We pass some of the smaller props for Valkyrie. A classic rotary phone sits on a desk next to a set of crystal glasses and a whiskey decanter. It looks like a series of props stolen from the movie Clue, but I barely have time to ask about it before we’re ushered to the section where they’re keeping all of the liquid nitrogen tanks. The makeshift partition is covered with bright yellow “DANGER” tape. While BYT photographer Jeff Martin pops in to take a few photos, I chat with electrician Eric Shannon.
He’s one of the folks on hand to make sure the pyrotechnical aspects of the opera goes off without a hitch, and although he has what I call the most exciting job for this run, he’s very casual about it. I ask if he’s excited or nervous for the performance, and he gives a resounding no to both, “I’m a bit bitter and jaded. It’s kind of what I do.” he says, adding “I’ve never been this involved with these kind of special effects.” After telling me about working with the liquid nitrogen, he opens up, “From what I’ve seen and heard, this is going to be intellectually stunning.” Adding, “It’s a testament to technology.”
Time is ticking, and Solomon pulls us away to check out the dressing rooms. Most of the Valkyries are already suited up, and done with hair and makeup, but on the way there we luckily run into the star of the show, Catherine Foster, who plays the courageous Brünnhilde. Introducing us to the rest of the Vakyrie’s hanging around until rehearsal begins, Foster jokes, “These are my sisters!” While most of the Valkyries sport dark hair, hers is a short icy blonde, complimented by dark and intense makeup. She is the vision of a femme fatale. “Our Brünnhilde is a badass,” she laughs. “It’s a wicked costume.”
Brünnhilde is a complicated and important character, not just in The Valkyrie, but throughout The Ring Cycle, and no one knows this more than Foster knows it. “She’s the one who grows… She’s the one figure who actually matures,” Foster says. “A chrysalis from a teenager to a woman.” She adds, “She’s not fixed in one time or place.” And more importantly, “She saves the world at the end of the day.”
As I leave Foster to get ready, we stop by the wig room. No one’s around to put anything on, but the pieces are beautiful. We get to look at the old designs (short, sleek bobs, minimalist braids and ponytails) and then the final ones, which are longer and more traditionally feminine, with slightly more complicated braids and curls. An interesting juxtaposition to the William Gibson-esque vibe of the set pieces.
Next up is the wardrobe room, where I see that largest washer and dryer I’ve ever seen in my life. Martha Timlin, who has worked at the Kennedy Center for many years, explains that they have to do laundry for 52 men and 22 women. I ask her about the Valkyrie’s costumes, which look like something a gothier Amelia Earhart would wear (and I mean that in the best way).
“I like them… They’re fanciful and interesting and take you on a historical tour of fashion,” she says. “The costumes range from 19th, to 20th century, to beyond.”
Suddenly, Alan Held who is playing the fierce god / father of Brünnhilde, Wotan swings by. He’s having a problem with his pants and as Timlin goes to fix it she says to one of the other supervisors, “Open the drawer marked horse hair.” Held laughs and responds, “Of course you have a drawer full of horse hair.”
Finally, rehearsal is about to begin. As we’re on our way to the wings to watching the Valkyrie’s take flight, we run into Christy Blackham, an assistant tech director. I ask her about the massive props being used (the backstage is holding props for all four operas at the same time, which is madness), and she explains that the fun thing about all of the props is that they’re so basic. “It’s all fairly low tech to put together,” she says. “It’s all man power, not motors… They’re just good old fashioned set pieces.”
There’s a slight delay, one of the costumes is missing an important piece (which is exactly why they have these kinds of rehearsals), and then they’re off. Flying through the stage of the Kennedy Center. It’s a sight to behold, but I could say that for everything that happens during The Ride of the Valkyries. Foster is electric onstage as Brünnhilde, while Held is an incredibly intimidating Wotan. Of course, it is the fire that really seals the deal. Nothing says Wagner more than lots and lots of fire.