The germ of an idea for a “green” Ring Cycle entered Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins' head in 1994, seven years before the plan reached fruition in Seattle Opera's triumphant 2001 production. By 1995, he had chosen Stephen Wadsworth as his stage director, and, with him, set designer Thomas Lynch, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, with a plan to present a Ring that hewed as closely as possible to Wagner's own stage directions, including sets portraying nature realistically.

“We've done many, many shows together,” says Kaczorowski of the team. “We get asked as a group instead of piecemeal.” This assignment, however, was immense. Kaczorowski and Pakledinaz had qualms about dedicating so much time to one project. Kaczorowski's first reaction was not how to do a green Ring, but what he would do with the Ring. “I've done plenty of realistically presented operas, so in this sense it wasn't wildly different,” he says. “The scope and the space and the requirements of these four operas — there was my dilemma. Could I devote four to five years to this?”

“I was incredibly wary about it,” says Pakledinaz, “a bit nervous because of its importance. From a business point of view, it took such a time commitment. You always want a project that's highly visible, but this seemed to be dangerously visible. You're not sure you'll see eye to eye with the director, even though we've worked together often.”

Lynch, however, was plain excited. “This is a life-list project, the Super Bowl of the opera world, a lifetime opportunity,” he enthuses.

To Seattle's good fortune, they all agreed to do it. All of them work essentially the same way, at least early in the creative process, and this project was no different. The designers all steeped themselves in the Ring, its libretto, and its music. Over several days holed up in a hotel room in New York, they read through it together, with many stops for Jenkins, a Wagner expert, to explain and discuss it.

Over the next four years, they spent months in discussions, a few days at a time, in New York or Seattle, often with technical director Robert D. Schaub and his top assistants. “I'd be doing another show in Seattle,” says Kaczorowski, “and we'd utilize those times.” One of the earliest decisions, he says, was to treat the four operas as one work in four parts, revisiting earlier scenery, and seeing the whole visually like a piece of music with a set shape: A/B/C/D/C/B/A.

In between talks, the designers went away to mull it over alone, a long process for each of them. Lynch, who grew up in western North Carolina and appreciates its natural beauties, found the concept deeply interesting.

Götterdämmerung

The Great Outdoors

“Nature is the hardest thing onstage,” he says. “It's something we don't get to do often, certainly not with such good resources.” Much of Lynch's inspiration came from the nature photographs of Eliot Porter, many of which he sent to the scene shop with comments on aspects that interested him. A key scene came from a Sierra Club calendar.

For this project, he broke with his usual method of going it alone until the final models were delivered to the scene shop. He held brainstorming sessions with Schaub and those who would actually build the sets — scenic studio manager Michael Moore, lead scenic painter Kitty Kavanaugh, lead sculptor Jeff Scott, and master stage carpenter Charles T. Buck among others — to hammer out the physical logistics. The sets were going to be massive — one is a cliff face taking up the whole stage, top to bottom, left to right — and an early decision was to build them in sections as large as could be moved around, to save assembly time onstage. (Wagner gives scant scene-changing time, from under two to four minutes of music.)

Lynch provided preliminary drawings, and Kavanaugh and Scott carved models in foam, changing details until Lynch was satisfied. Moore and Schaub calculated costs and made alterations that wouldn't show but would save money. Scenic studio project lead Ken Berg cut up another set of models to see how the sets would fit into semi-trailers, and also built a miniature stage house, to work out how they could be moved through the doors and stashed in the wings. The sets for all four operas would be stored in the opera house throughout the run.

Siegfried

For almost two years, increasingly detailed models flew between Seattle and Lynch's studio in New York, until in late 1997, the final models arrived to be built full size. All of this, masterminded by Schaub, saved the company large amounts of money and time for both themselves and Lynch. “It takes real trust between designer and tech staff to work this way,” says Schaub, and Lynch says there aren't many other shops in the country with which he would have dared to undertake this project.

It was not until the sets were completely built that Lynch noticed a crucial component in the crew's work. “Everyone in the shop was tuned in. The reason they could catch all the subtleties of natural design — which are really hard but not a problem in Seattle — is because they are in Seattle, because they have a craving to be in beautiful natural surroundings,” he says. “It's not a big stretch for them to do this bark or that, fir needles or pine, rock breaklines, the glittery light on the rock face. All the folks in the shop — woodworkers and steelworkers to scenic artists — they all got that, and for them it's been a delight doing this. Marjie [Jervis, who built his models], my main assistant, is also a great outdoorswoman.”

A Global View

Pakledinaz, meanwhile, was doing extensive research “all over the map,” using concepts the team had come up with, such as the use of color to delineate bloodlines. He looked at ancient Celtic and Mayan art, early clothing of the Middle and Far East, modern styles, the realistic dreamscapes of Scandinavian Odd Nerdrum's paintings, and more. “Not really practical, any of it, but…a feel,” the designer says.

It took him a while to gather all his sources, and a little longer to get them out of his mind. “If you're nervous, you play a lot with toys you find,” he says. “After two years I began ruthlessly getting rid of stuff. I was trying too hard, and I finally realized that with the scenery so complex, we'd have to err, for the costumes, on the side of simplicity.”

Pakledinaz found it a great challenge. “It sounds so mundane, maybe no one will ever know how simple the Norns are, but actually we worked tremendously hard on those, trying to do this timeless skimming dress to take the Norns out of time. It's such an extremely simple cut on three very different figures.”

Subtleties in his designs furthered and clarified the story without ever being obvious. The designer chose leather for most of the costumes, as being the most primeval of fabrics, “not really a fabric. It's a pelt.” The women among the gods all wore long sleeveless coats, but when, in the second opera Die WalkÜre, Sieglinde comes in, “I wanted her to be the first woman we saw, not a goddess,” Pakledinaz says. “She's a very curvy woman, and we let that really happen in an hourglass way.”

Similarly, the fourth and last opera, Götterdämmerung, takes place in a royal court, and all the women “are corseted and bound in their bosoms. The message is that the most advanced civilization is the most constricted.” To do this, Pakledinaz found one of the earliest existing bodices, from the early Renaissance, and from it designed medieval corsets for all the women that turned out to be surprisingly comfortable.

Lise Schellman is the Seattle Opera's costume shop manager; Kaufman-Davis Studio built Jane Eaglen's costumes, and those of the other Rhinemaidens (it also built Eaglen's wedding dress a couple of years ago). Fred Longton of Nova Scotia built the boots for all the principals. Eric Winterling Inc. of New York made the chorusmen's costumes, but they were fitted and finished by Shellman's crew in the Seattle Opera costume shop. Animal Firm of Texas made the bear costume.

Pakledinaz has a hard time working in advance of seeing the cast, and many changes occur when he meets them; often cast members inspire him. Once he met her, Pakledinaz rethought the costume for Eaglen, the BrÜnnhilde. “I'm not a special Valkyrie, just one of a group of sisters, and I have to move as much as possible,” he says she told him. “Her costume was too long and too adult, and she needed more freedom to move. We simplified it and shortened it. It suits her now, gives her a certain honesty and youth.” He also had it made of lighter fabrics, because she feels the heat. It's important never to forget, he says, that “you're there to support the singers. They have to be comfortable within their skin. You're there for a bigger purpose than to make those clothes.”

Natural Light

Like Pakledinaz, Kaczorowski has a hard time working without the characters. “We do have lighting sessions, we get the basic strokes in, but there's nothing like working with the cast onstage in costume. You have to do it then. It's a completely different ball game, much better than having 34 stage managers in Bermuda shorts standing in.”

With the finalized scene in front of him, Kaczorowski works quickly, fine-tuning his ideas, trying to support with the lighting what the director is trying to achieve. Lighting, he says, is about enhancing the atmosphere of the story, and controlling the eyes of the audience, to get them to look in the right place at the right time.

He works closely with Pakledinaz, whom he considers a wonderful designer and a pleasure to work with. As soon as fabrics and colors are decided, Kaczorowski receives swatches. “If I see, for instance, a night scene with a complete clash between colors or costumes and the intent of the light, like sunset on a green gown, I can warm the light to golden so it then will look attractive,” Kaczorowski says. He adds that he adapts on the fly during rehearsals, even changing tint to tint. “Somewhere in there I can get it right, even if we didn't anticipate it.”

The rig for this Ring was an economical but highly flexible one; because Seattle Opera was doing only the Ring and not a variety of operas in repertory, Kaczorowski's lighting could be completely devoted to the four Ring operas.

“One thing the design team plus Stephen decided,” he explains, “was that we needed to make a Ring Cycle that got from one opera to the next very easily and reasonably efficiently in order to leave time to work on the show itself.”

Rheingold

According to Claudia Gallagher, Seattle Opera's assistant technical director — and, for the 2000 Rheingold and WalkÜre productions, Kaczorowski's assistant — the rig has a fairly minimal automated component. Kaczorowski specified 15 High End Systems Cyberlights® and two Studio Spots®, chosen in part for economy of space in a lighting rig that had to coexist with the sets for all four operas in a small backstage space.

Another big reason for the moving lights was flexibility. Whereas in the last Ring it had taken one and a half days to turn around from Rheingold to WalkÜre, it could be done for this Ring in four hours. “In terms of turnaround time from one show to the next, using the automated lights was like night and day,” says Gallagher. “We used to have two crews, one overnight, changing and refocusing lights manually. It cut the man-hours in half. In terms of panic and angst, it solved so much, and allowed the designers much more creative time.”

The moving units, located three per pipe on four widely separated pipes and two each on lighting towers stage left and right, were used particularly for the water and fire effects; for an underwater scene, two were focused on the front silver mesh scrim with a gobo on each moving in opposite directions over a stationary gobo. “It's all very amorphous,” notes Kaczorowski. “We're using three or four different shapes, motions, and speeds, making a random whirlpool.”

The rest of the rig included a variety of Altman, Arri, and Strand fresnels, GAM Stikups, plus a large contingent of 575W ETC Source Fours, eight of which featured City Theatrical EFX Plus 2s for special effects. Kaczorowski used Wybron Coloram II scrollers throughout the four operas on a system of backlights (about 30 on a pipe), so that each conventional light could be programmed with 31 different colors. There were two lighting boards, a Wholehog II for the moving lights, and an ETC Obsession 1500 house board for the conventionals.

Like his colleagues, Kaczorowski's opinion of Seattle Opera is high. “This is the 13th or 14th opera I've done with this company,” he says. “We get a lot done with what we have, here. It has dedication and great pride in its work, and the quality of the work in the shop, the level of craftsmanship and artisan work is very, very high.”

“It's been a hugely satisfying experience working with Stephen [Wadsworth] and seeing what he's managed to accomplish with a difficult text to make it feel emotionally vivid,” says Lynch. “And it's been a huge satisfaction working this long — five or six years — with this group of people. They all put their hearts and minds into it. I feel like we batted 1,000, for what we set out to do.”

Flying the Rhinemaidens

Das Rheingold has been the least regarded of the four operas that constitute Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, but that's not likely to continue after Seattle Opera's production of the entire cycle this past summer.

Rheingoldbegins the cycle, and Wagner asks for a 17-minute opening scene in which three mermaids, the Rhinemaidens, swim underwater continuously even as they sing. Until now, productions have compromised one way or another, but Stephen Wadsworth, stage director of Seattle's production, decided to follow Wagner's instructions to the letter as closely as possible.

In Seattle'sRheingold, the three Rhinemaidens may not actually be underwater, but they never touch the ground. They fly, in a watery atmosphere created by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting on front and back scrims. The result is spectacular and convincing, with the mermaids dipping down to flirt with, tease, and ultimately reject the dwarf Alberich, who — presumably also able to breathe underwater — scrambles around riverbed rocks trying to reach the beauties and the gold they protect.

Wadsworth delegated the 3D choreography to Stanley M. Garner, an associate brought onboard specifically to design this scene; the Opera's master stage carpenter, Charles T. Buck, began to work out the technical requirements as early as 1996. No singer himself, he enlisted the aid of Elizabeth Lathrop-Moore, a singer on the opera's music staff, to explain to him the mechanics of singing and act as guinea pig.

“If we pick you up by the shoulders, can you sing?” he asked her. It took little time to understand that singers need a sturdy base under their feet against which to press, so that each can fully expand her major singing muscle, the diaphragm. Buck and his colleagues began work on a foot base suspended from a basic flying harness, deciding on the kind of stirrups used by horseback riders.

“We tried it on ourselves first,” Buck says, “and our reaction was ‘Ow! That hurts!’ One thing opera singers won't do is sing when they hurt, so we decided they needed a little platform.”

Lathrop-Moore found that small pieces of plywood under her feet provided enough support. Once they knew that would work, Buck set out to make it comfortable, building a firm fiberglass sole embedded in a ballet slipper, with the stirrup running underneath.

The harnesses themselves — nylon duck canvas shorts, close-fitting as though glued to the thighs with a looser abdominal area — were laced up at the back with crossed straps over the shoulders. “I don't think any of the singers would describe them as comfortable,” says Buck, “but we padded them inside, and they weren't painful.”

Meanwhile, Garner planned the flying and acrobatics in 3D. He used the MacDraw program on his computer, manipulating tiny figures in the singers' height and width proportions moving in an equally precise stage box. Once he had the moves worked out, stage manager Clare Burovac cued them to the music.

In order for the singers — all chosen for athleticism as well as singing abilities — to do the choreographed somersaults, backflips, and dives, Buck attached wires at hip level on each side at exact balance points for each singer. Buck commissioned Pacific Metal Company to build three 80' tracks to be suspended from the operahouse grid, and himself designed and built carriers to slide within the tracks with rotators below. The 32' suspension wires are military grade, the same used for control systems on jet fighters, while pinions and shackles attaching the wires to harnesses and rotators are load-rated, so none was manufactured in-house.

In the summer of 1999, Seattle Opera rented the opera house for a month to rehearse technical logistics and brought in two Rhinemaidens to try flying. Minor adjustments made then facilitated rehearsals in earnest during the summer of 2000. Seattle Opera presented the first two Ring operas, Das Rheingoldand Die WalkÜre that year, prior to the full cycle in 2001.

“Whenever you combine tech and talent, it takes a lot more rehearsal,” observes Buck. The Rhinemaiden scene had 18 rehearsals in 2000, and almost as many in 2001.

At first, the singers rehearsed 3' above the ground, hung from a truss outside the rehearsal room. Once they had all their physical moves down and combined with the singing, the operation moved to the stage. Here, to move them horizontally and vertically, each singer had a tiller operator and a flyman.

The flymen, operating from stage right, raised and lowered the Rhinemaidens from the same dual-rope system that flies the scenery. Nine or 10 trims in different colors marked the ropes, indicating where that singer would be in mid-air when the flyman had hauled to reach that trim. “We had charts in front of us,” says head flyman Jeff Mosher, “so when Clare [Burovac] called, for instance, ‘Cue five, track two,’ it would mean going to the peach trim on a 10-count, a count being essentially a second.”

The flymen required split-second timing for their roles: the tiller operators something more. From their position on the floor in front of the flymen, the tiller operators used no trims, working entirely by eye.

“It's difficult to tell where you are in the track,” says Buck, who himself was the tiller operator for track three. A monitor in front of the operator gave the front view, “but it tends to skew your view.” Because the singers hung from long wires, moving them sideways created swing. ‘As you move the carrier, the singer lags a little. At the end of the travel, you have to stop the carrier before the end, the singer comes to the correct position, and you have to move the carrier very quickly to directly above the singer to cancel the momentum,” explains Buck. Turning the singers around involved the same maneuver. “It's more an artistic endeavor than a technical one,” says Buck. “It's what you do and how you feel the line that makes you able to cancel the momentum as the visual cue reaches you. It's an intuitive thing.”

Great care had to be taken to prevent the singers from brushing against one another as they passed in their tracks only 24" apart. “If one Rhinemaiden nicked another's line, it would cause both to spin like yo-yos and we couldn't stop it. We had to let them down and unspin them,” says Garner. “Before each performance, my palms were wet until the curtain went down.” Such a mishap happened only once, in a rehearsal.

Before every rehearsal and performance, tiller operators and flymen checked all their equipment and inspected every square inch, says Mosher, and as each singer was hooked onto her line by Buck, its counterweight was removed by a seventh crewman, who also acted as a stay for the tracks themselves.

Next the crew floated the Rhinemaidens a few inches above the floor in order to inspect their harnesses and adjust their equilibrium before flying them. It all took 10 to 15 minutes.

“It's not only the proper way to do it, for us,” says Mosher, “but they've got to sing, they've got to fly. A lot of the procedure we used in order to put enough confidence in them, so they knew they wouldn't have any sudden moves or be jerked around.”

Once the scene began, there could be no contact between singers and crew. “The concentration during the scene reached a degree unlike anything I've ever seen in the theatre,” says Buck. “I didn't even allow people to whisper. A minimal distraction could cause pretty bad stuff, all very visible.” During those 17 minutes and 10 seconds, Burovac gave 150 cues, more than one every seven seconds.

“I'm glad it's over,” says Buck. “At the same time, I'm anxious to do it again. It's fine work, and fun.”

All photos: Gary Smith