In the opera world, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the Holy Grail, so it is no surprise that The Metropolitan Opera turned to French Canadian director Robert Lepage for its newest version of this massive four-opera series, which opened last fall with Das Rheingold and continues this spring with Die Walküre. Lepage is known for his own mega-length productions—the seven-hour Seven Streams Of The River Ota or equally lengthy Lipsynch—both created for his own Quebec-based company, Ex Machina. He has also successfully directed opera around the world, as well as Cirque du Soleil’s technically groundbreaking , in which he started to use the kind of high-tech projections that would follow him in his debut at The Met, La Damnation de Faust, in 2008. Giving him a shot at its first new Ring Cycle in more than 25 years would give The Met a truly 21st-century Wagnerian vision.

Lepage’s collaborators for the first two works in the cycle are set designer Carl Fillion, lighting designer Etienne Boucher, video image artist Boris Firquet, and costumier François St-Aubin. To stage these epic operas, Fillion and Lepage decided to go with one set that would transform for each of the four segments of the complete Ring. Weighing in at 45 tons, the set required The Met to call upon Koenig Iron Works of Long Island City, NY, to reinforce the stage by adding three 65' I-beams underneath it. The stage wagons were also reinforced. Scène Éthique in Montreal built the set.

Setting The Stage

"I didn’t know the operas well; I hadn’t studied them," says Fillion of his first Ring Cycle. "But with Robert, we wanted to try something new and contemporary yet remain respectful to Wagner—modern, yet with a historic sense of the operas, and using contemporary scenic techniques."

As a result, the scenic design is bold and kinetic, with two 26'-tall towers connected on an axis that measures 5' in diameter and moves vertically via a hydraulic power system that reaches down to the basement under the stage. Twenty-four elongated triangular-shaped planks (2'-wide, with one wide flat face and two angles, and almost 30' long) are attached to this axis at their centers and can revolve individually or collectively, giving the set its flexibility. "It is always difficult to try to put these operas in a modern context," adds Fillion, who strove to avoid clichés. "The biggest challenge for me was to find the one design solution for the four operas and create all the spaces and ambiances needed to remain interesting from the beginning to the end of the cycle," he adds.

"We are sure we found the right solution that allows many different configurations and a different language for each opera with the same scenic elements," Fillion explains. In Das Rheingold, two of the strongest scenic moments are the creation of a staircase that seems to simply float across the stage and the bridge that leads to Valhalla at the end. "The planks move continuously," notes Fillion, "but in these two moments, there is a feeling of lightness for a very heavy set."

The planks also serve as the primary projection surface for the Ring Cycle, with interactive video going beyond that initially created by Holger Förterer, but along the same lines Lepage used for and La Damnation de Faust. "The set and video will continue to evolve throughout," Fillion notes. "This allows us to change the look of the set, and new video technologies will be used in operas three and four. Götterdämmerung will become very architectural." Seigfried will use 3D image technology that does not require wearing special glasses.

For Die Walküre, one of the highpoints is the flight of the Walküres, as they arrive on horseback. "Each of the planks becomes a flying horse with a Walküre galloping above the clouds, an example of the video and set combined," says Fillion, whose design decisions are complex, utilizing the set to the max. Another big moment is Die Walküre’s first movement, as the set lifts up to become a big forest. "There is a projected snowstorm, triggered by the music, to set the scene," Fillion notes, adding that "fire and ice are the important elements" in Die Walküre, "creating contrasts in the opera."

The set moves in various ways. "There is mechanical movement, both hydraulic and pneumatic, as well as gravity, and even human power, pulling cords, etc., to allow us to make all the combinations," says Fillion. The operas appear in rotating repertory at The Met, where the set needs to continually move on and off the stage in the limited time allowed for changeovers, and the video projectors must be calibrated on a set that moves all the time. "It is an extraordinary feat to make it all happen," adds Fillion.

Visual Verve

A custom-built system with a dozen computers was used to create the images for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. "A first layer is the content creation, where most things are rendered interactively in realtime based on a singer’s position on set and voice amplitude," explains Firquet. This interactive imagery triggered by motion detectors is the domain of Roger Parent of the Montreal-based firm,

"I don’t program things on this side," notes Firquet, who created the preprogrammed images using Isadora software for the scenes that do not have interactivity, or as he puts it, "because sometimes, the good old-fashioned way works best. I also do textures for interactive effects fed to the second layer of software or the mixer side. It blends everything and sends it to the projection/mapping side."

The set does double duty as a two-sided projection screen that divides into 24 pieces and turns 360° around the axis that lifts up to 16' in the air. "This is really tricky in terms of realtime calculations," says Firquet. "I bow down to software engineers Holger Förterer and [Catalin] Alexandru Duru for their massive amount of work on the system."

"There is no real connection between the first two operas," he adds. "They live on their own. With the others designers, we decided that there will be a progression from the gods’ world to human world. Starting with Das Rheingold, we are fully in the land of gods. With Die Walküre, we begin to be more in a human world." From the water effects in Das Rheingold to the fire and forests of Die Walküre, Firquet’s layer of video augments the interactive imagery.

Ten projectors, hung front-of-house, comprise the heart of the video rig: seven Panasonic 10K PT-D10000Us, two Christie Roadie HD+30Ks, and a Christie Roadie HD+35K. Seven of the projectors at the balcony level shoot onto the moving sections of the set when in an upright position, and three at the very top balcony level shoot onto the stage floor and apron. "The images track the set as it moves," explains Parent, adding that the best projector for each moment is then employed. Scharff Weisberg served as projection equipment consultants.

On the interactive side, Parent and Realisations stepped into The Ring just a few months before the premiere—a little like jumping out of an airplane and knitting your parachute on the way down, he notes—but the end result is visually exciting and well executed. "The cast triggers the content, such as the mermaids in Das Rheingold," Parent notes. "They trigger bubbles that are particles that want to go to the surface, but if they don’t sing, there are no bubbles. It’s not like prerecorded video they have to be in time with. This is the next wave of imagery on stage with dancers and singers triggering movement rather than playback," he says.

The system at The Met uses custom software along with the infrared motion detectors to track the singers’ movements, using algorithms to calculate the physics of the particles. "Some of the computers generate the particles, and others calculate the movement of the scenery, making live, split-second corrections so that the images don’t spill or look distorted," Parent explains. Custom Medialon software and an MA Lighting grandMA console complete the system, which is totally redundant. "In case one machine doesn’t respond correctly, we can move to the second system seamlessly," adds Parent, who collaborated with another Montreal-based firm, Maginaire, on some of the visual effects and mapping system.

"The important things are Wagner’s music and the singers, and not the wizardry of the technology," stresses Parent, who all the same is forging the next generation of projection design tools. "We are there to support the score and Robert Lepage’s vision," he adds, pointing out that he thinks Peter Gelb, artistic director at The Met, has made a bold choice bringing this technology into the opera house and renewing the art form. "It is a strategic move that is very interesting for the company, and Robert Lepage is a perfect candidate to integrate this new technology." 

Lighting And Video: Hand In Glove

In collaborating with the other designers, Boucher notes, "For each different position of the set, we determined if video, lighting, or a joint effort of the two would serve the story and the dramaturgy best. It is always a challenge to find the right balance between video and light, so that one doesn’t cancel out the other. Most often the lighting design supports the images that are front-projected. There is one scene where the set is not used as a screen but becomes an actual tangible set—the descent and ascent to and from Nibelheim." For this scene, two 575W HMI ADB 22°/50° Warps—one within each machine support tower on the set—are the only light sources guiding the characters on their journey.

In advance workshops at Scène Éthique with the actual set, Boucher tested all that he had planned virtually. "Because the time allowed for lighting at The Met is very succinct, I had programmed all my cues and effects in [Cast Software] wysiwyg," he explains. "The time that was given us in the theatre was used for focus and adjustments in cueing. The set’s movements guided us in the timing for the light and video effects."

For time and efficiency reasons, Die Walküre has the same rig as Das Rheingold. "A few of the spots change position," notes Boucher. "Because the stage design is the same for the whole Ring cycle, there has to be coherence in the lighting design. I know Die Walküre has gained from the past experience of Das Rheingold, as will the two last operas."

LEDs are a prominent light source in Das Rheingold in costumes, in the props, and on the set. "The Met already owned the ETC Selador fixtures used in the show," says Boucher, pointing out that the 63" Selador Vivid units add color-changing capacity to light the cyc. Another fixture Boucher finds very useful for its small size and efficiency is the Chroma-Q Color Block 2 from AC Lighting. "It fits in the smallest of places," he notes.

In Die Walküre, the LD has created more effects with the Color Blocks. "The Seladors are used as backlighting for ambient effects, which is useful in Rheingold," he says. "The Color Blocks 2s are put to use in creating the fire effects on the set, as needed in Die Walküre."

Working in tight collaboration with the video team throughout the design process, Boucher strives to offer a blended palette of colors to support the video and enhance the feeling created by the projected virtual world. "In a few scenes, it was necessary to extend the video with lighting effects on the apron," he says. "We had a mixing job to do in the color parameters so the effect would be seamless."

This is also the case in act two of Die Walküre, which starts with lava flowing over rolling hills. "The audience can see the top of the set with the projection of the red-orange lava flow and see the light through the smoke coming out from underneath in the same color as the video," Boucher says.

Gelb’s gamble seems to have been a wise move: Robert Lepage and his design team have stepped up to the plate in creating a new Ring Cycle that would please the gods as well as The Met’s audience by harnessing cutting-edge technology in a visually enhanced environment that is both intriguing and innovative.