A Rural Ring Cycle

Written by: Phill Ward

The disappointment of the annual rejection from the Kartenbüro of Bayreuth (the letter that always kicks off with “We regret that due to overwhelming demand…” and goes on to inform in no uncertain terms that your application has failed yet again) may now have evaporated, but for the keen Wagnerian the gaping void left requires substantial consolation.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my proscribed summertime remedy may be found in the tiny Austrian village of Erl where this past few years the Tiroler Festspiele has programmed Wagner’s Ring Cycle that really does, er, ring the changes. When I arrived in the Tirol last summer to investigate reliable rumours of musical magnificence, I was unprepared for the kind of special quality and inspired eccentricity that is brought to bear on Wagner’s epic tetralogy.

Rejecting the notions of the commercial aspects of the opera and classical music business, conductor Gustav Kuhn has been outspoken in his condemnation of the artistic rat-race that in Wagner performance Europe-wide produces performances of maximum volume but often minimal musical sensitivity. Over the years Kuhn’s fiery independence has undoubtedly closed some doors of opportunity for him, but his commitment to artistic truth and a shrewd ability to articulate his message has maintained some influential and wealthy contacts. These supporters he has rallied over several years in the development of a Wagner festival that now generates legions of new converts every July.

So intrigued was I by the Festival’s guiding spirit and maestro Kuhn’s mould-breaking achievement, that this spring I found myself making the journey to his on-loan monastery high in the hills surrounding the beautiful Italian walled city of Lucca. In quite a unique partnership between church and culture, Kuhn has persuaded the Padri Passioniste order to allow him to take over the practically disused building that commands majestic and inspiring views high up in the Serghio valley.

Here at the Academia di Montegral, as with his several other Italian projects, Kuhn, a sometime Karajan protégé and former captain of Austria’s Olympic sailing team, a generally genial and inspirational individual, is on a mission to achieve a third-way in artistic achievement, forging a path entirely outside the framework of traditional performance.

It’s difficult to resist the generously dispensed wisdom from such an engaging personality and while Kuhn demands loyalty and commitment from his young collaborators, his style bears no sense of conductorial dictatorship. In the relaxed atmosphere of the convivial and collegiate learning-experience that permeate his coaching sessions at Montegral, Kuhn constantly emphasises the importance of the singers’ artistic individuality in preference to the basic development of the voice into easily labelled and easily marketable types. The stylistic examples he gave were all great artists of our time, and of the recent past, whose personalities are as important as the forging of their sung craft.

There’s no doubt that much of Kuhn’s success stems from his often deep dissatisfaction in past experience, as the well as the results he has already achieved with singers struggling with challenges of what the traditional ‘system’ rejects as the problems of individuality and personality quirks. His career advice to young artists is nothing less than pragmatic.

In open-air conversations with Kuhn in the idyllic surrounds of the Erl theatre last summer and again in the springtime sunshine of Montegral Kuhn expounded on his artistic philosophy: “When you try to try to stay in this culture system, then you get frustrated. Like an unhappy marriage – you try to make it work, but when it’s impossible you must realise the time to change. We try to educate our singers in a certain way – this Wagner sound can’t be produced with only two orchestral rehearsals. There the singer must get used to a mezzo-forte standard to be heard, so he must scream over the orchestra. So the voice gets heavier and heavier and this shouldn’t be. Working with a singer with an open heart, as a director I can create a stage atmosphere that enables me to mould the character through the music – so that the production works regardless of the strength, or not, of the artist’s personality.”

Over a May weekend the Academia students were preparing for a grand gala concert, given in the delightfully intimate chapel of the Convento Dell’Angelo, for Kuhn’s principal sponsors – a mix of enlightened captains of industry and cultural politicians from the Tirol Region including no less a figure than Austria’s former Vice-President Susanne Riess-Passer (now the country’s first woman CEO in the finance industry). After a five-hour roll-call of some of the most exciting vocal talent I’ve heard gathered together on a single occasion, it’s unlikely that these important figures will have left less than immensely impressed, convinced that their sponsorship largesse is well invested in these voices of the future.

Kuhn’s casting and performance philosophy for the Erl project goes right back to Wagner’s own times, and take into account the voice-types of the period. After all, Wagner’s operas pre-date verismo but are contemporary with the height of bel canto – the voices available to him would have been familiar with the challenges of Bellini’s Norma for instance. What make the vocal qualities of the Tiroler Festspiele so special are the acoustics of the auditorium alloyed to the positioning of the orchestra behind the singers. These enables Kuhn to employ lighter, younger (and one could say more inexperienced) singers who can undertake the huge challenges of the Ring free from the concerns of long-term vocal damage that is so often the result of Wagner performance in other, less sonically sympathetic, environments.

Of course success is not 100 percent but the project is work-in-progress, and Kuhn continues to support the singers’ development. The mainly agricultural community of Erl is conspicuously supportive of Kuhn’s grand project – numerous local residents ranging in age from 5 to 75 have walk-on parts in the cycle. The Festival has boosted the tourist Euro one-hundred-fold in this sleepy region of the Tirol in the years between the Passion Play. Herr Kneringer, landlord of the cosy and welcoming Hotel Postwirt, is only too happy to tell me that full occupancy is guaranteed during the festival weeks.

Beyond Erl the presence of the festival is acknowledged at government level with financial support coming from the Landeshauptmann – but here a recent change in political leadership resulting in internal squabbling over the previous administration’s pet cultural projects has resulted in a cut of E150,000 to the Festival’s grant. This shortfall could be made up from commercial support, but Kuhn and his supporters know that once raised such sponsorship would never be matched by a Salzburg/Vienna fixated Government. Kuhn ruefully points out that two days’ running costs for the Vienna State Opera represents his entire operating budget – modestly he leaves me to make my own artistic comparisons.

An internationally renowned Passion Play, staged here every six years, was the first cultural activity to put Erl on the festival-map. The dominant architectural structure in the village, besides the pretty baroque church, is the Le Corbusier-style Passionspielhaus where recreations of Christ’s suffering are played out by the local farming community. A white sail-like construction (erected by architect Robert Schuller in 1959) sweeps majestically out from the Niederndorfer Mountain, visible from miles around, housing a simple concrete and wooden auditorium with seating fanning into an amphitheatre holding 1500 or so.

With it’s plain-deal interior – exposed ceiling, total absence of decorative effects et al – besides sporting wholly democratic sight-lines, the auditorium has perfect acoustics remarkably similar to Bayreuth. Musicians of the stature of Celibidache and Brendel have played here since this sonic perfection was discovered in the 1970s. Unlike Wagner’s own theatre, the orchestra is on full display in Erl – the absence of a pit promoting their position to tiered ranks upon the stage behind a semi-transparent gauze, whilst the action is played out by the singers on a wide platform in front.

Besides the originality of Erl’s presentation of the Ring, a predominantly young orchestra, its commitment and virtuosity has to be heard to believed, and the special treat of hearing singers off the well-trodden Wagner voice circuit, there is the geographical juxtaposition of the festival’s location to enjoy. Wagner built his theatre on the green hill on the outskirts of Bayreuth. His intentions were for audiences to arrive with minds clear of the mental clutter of daily industry. Over time the Bavarian town has expanded and with it that desired tranquillity evaporated. Along with Bayreuth almost every town and city boasting a Wagner Festival is unable to offer the rural peace of Erl in its verdant Tirolean valley. Here you can walk or bicycle the short distance from local accommodation to the Passionspielhaus through lush fields and past contented livestock with their gently clanking bells.

There is also the enjoyable proximity of Festival artists – in such a relaxed environment there is no sign of the usual unapproachable hierarchy. This is largely because you may well find a substantial part of the cast billeted in your hotel – accommodation being high quality, but scarce, in a region with a population of around 1200.

Some Tirolean travel tips: Trains from Kufstein link to Salzburg (Ryanair from Stansted), Innsbruck and Munich (Easyjet) airports. A festival shuttle may be arranged for transport from the station to hotels in Erl and surrounding villages. Once in Erl, outdoor pursuits, cycling, mountain trails, swimming in the many beautiful lakes are the perfect counterbalance to the Wagner evenings. Tourist information, bicycle hire, accommodation listings are on the Erl link below.

The Tiroler Festspiele presents two cycles of the Ring – 10-15 and 17-22 July. In 2005 a further cycle will be followed by the project’s grand finale – presenting all four operas over a 24-hour period – an operatic first. Longer-term plans include Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. Gustav Kuhn has recorded the Ring Cycle for Arte Nova.

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