The Lord of The Ring: Keith Warner on Wagner

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Now returning to direct the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden, Keith Warner talks to Mansel Stimpson about a work and a composer dear to his heart…

Keith Warner, director of the Royal Opera's forthcoming Ring Cycle

Consisting as it does of four linked operas (music-dramas) and lasting somewhere around sixteen hours in total, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a phenomenon like no other. If its length alone marks it out as a supremely ambitious project, the extraordinary nature of the piece is all the greater because of the composer’s exploration of what his style of music, including the remarkable use of leitmotifs, could accomplish and on account of the range of the subject matter. Here is a work that captures the whole human psyche ranging through love, greed, jealousy and ambition in a context that reflects family and generational tensions no less than social ones and does not stop short of questioning what man would be if the Gods ceased to exist and society became essentially secular.

To dream of such an opus is remarkable; to achieve it is amazing. Yet it’s also true that a great opera like Berg’s Wozzeck which again deals in depth with the tragedy of the human condition is far more specialised in its appeal. In contrast to that, The Ring attracts vast numbers, supporters who can be fanatical, and this has been confirmed all over again by the speed with which all tickets were sold for the three performances of the Cycle to take place this October at Covent Garden. Those without seats have no hope except for possible returns and a small number of tickets released on the day.

Can the public’s exceptional passion for The Ring be explained? It was a question I had in mind when meeting the director of this production, Keith Warner. Having presented each of the four operas at Covent Garden individually from 2004 onwards, he is now providing London with its first full cycle in over a decade. There will be three sets of grouped performances so that each audience can experience the complete work within a period of eight evenings. I was equally keen to learn something of how Keith’s career came about and of how he approaches a work like this. I soon found that all these aspects link together: they stem from his childhood involvement with a North London group led by a lady who was as much interested in Shakespeare and Shaw as in running a choir.

The final scene from Keith Warner's Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

“I’ve never really felt the division. I think that opera has to be theatre too, to have the same quality of acting and thought behind it. In London in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies it was instead very much a case of having singers standing and singing without any drama happening at all. I went to stagings of that sort to experience the repertoire, but I was never interested in the old-fashioned kind of bejewelled Prima Donna. However, by the time I was at university in the mid-seventies things were changing. There was the excitement of what was being done by the Germans Herz and Friedrich and here in England we had people like David Pountney and Michael Geliot. But I never really made a choice on setting out to become a director: I applied for jobs to theatre companies as well as to opera houses.

“Immediately an offer came my way from David Pountney who was just taking over at English National Opera, but had it come instead from Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company things might have gone in a very different way. I’ve done stage-plays – mostly in America – and I would like to do more, but opera houses book you much further ahead and it’s very hard to leave big gaps in the hope that a play will come along. Also in the UK it’s very typecast: if you’ve done opera, the straight theatre holds back. It’s amazing how many people running theatres are still scared of opera as though it’s some bastard art form. When we did “Wozzeck” here at Covent Garden and it won the Olivier Award, my agent contacted the National about coming to see it and nobody was the slightest bit interested. Yet the fact is that directing The Ring here is very like doing a play in terms of looking at the characters and directing the actors.”

Bass Sir John Tomlinson, who will now sing the role of Wotan/Wanderer in Keith Warner's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Keith has reached a point in his career when he can afford not to take on operas that no longer appeal to him sufficiently to justify giving weeks of his life to them. He recently turned down Verdi’s Nabucco because much Italian opera no longer retains his sympathy to the right degree however pleasant he may find such pieces as a listener. “Wagner, however, I have loved non-stop since the age of fourteen. That was when I went to Sadler’s Wells to see Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Since then I’ve constantly read about Wagner, seen his works and thought about them and the amazing thing is that my interest has never waned – indeed, as time goes on I become more and more interested. I directed The Ring in Tokyo a few years ago as well as doing the individual parts of it here and I’ve thought about it for most of my life.

“But I still find that every day in rehearsal something new crops up, and I think to myself, ‘oh my God, I’ve never noticed that before’. So I’m glad really that nobody asked me to do it earlier before I felt ready to do it: I’m just grateful that I’ve been asked now, and not once but twice. These days a lot of opera houses give each of the four operas to a different director and a different designer, but I would never want to be part of such a thing because I believe that it’s all so closely linked, from the very first notes in Rheingold to the close of Götterdämmerung. But how does anyone conquer all this? I think the answer must be that you can’t, but at least I know it pretty damned well and given my set of insecurities I had to have that degree of knowledge before I embarked on it.”

I ask Keith to speculate on the various elements that combine to explain the extraordinary appeal of this work. Is the current enthusiasm for classical music’s Romantic era as evidenced by the popularity of Mahler part of it? “It’s relevant but far from being the whole story. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is in many ways a Romantic score and it’s a wonderful piece, but you can’t sell it for love or money: it’s always half full. The Ring on account of its Romantic element does possess an immediate emotional attraction, but I do believe that it’s the drama itself that makes it so compelling, so absolutely all-embracing. However it has more than a traditional appeal. That’s because in the use of themes, those leitmotifs that set off connections and memories, you have something modern, something that for me is very much looking forward to cinema, to the editing process. Information is quickly conveyed by the music not only to push the story forward by revealing changes but also to refer back on itself. That blend of the Modern and the Romantic is amazing and it keeps the piece still wholly convincing to us as a theatrical entity in a way that a work like Norma isn’t or can’t be.”

Plácido Domingo, who will sing the role of Siegmund in two of the three performances of Die Walküre at Covent Garden. Photograph: Fernando Manoso/EPA

Two other factors play a part in making The Ring so popular. One is length, a feature it shares with the Harry Potter tales and which played a major part in drawing the fourteen-year-old Warner to Sadler’s Wells (“I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that the opera began at 5 and ended at 11 because in that time you could have done a matinée and an evening in the West End”). The remaining factor is the creation of a complete other world. “It’s the same with the recent revival at Chichester of the Dickens adaptation Nicholas Nickleby: these pieces possess a whole sense of time and place, which you can really step into: they encourage you to enter rather than to stand back and analyse. In addition there’s the fact that from the very beginning of art there’s been a need for stories, and these are great stories. I’ve often thought that of all the composers Wagner is perhaps the least well served by being in the opera house.

“Back in the 19th-century in Germany you would have national theatres putting on straight plays but also some operas, and, if you were doing The Ring alongside writers like Schiller and Goethe and Lessing, people would immediately know that it was about something. So often there’s a resistance to the idea of opera being concerned with anything other than its own aesthetic appreciation: it frankly terrifies me that you can be looking at a document, which I think that The Ring is meant to be, a living document in theatrical terms that confronts us with huge issues about living and about what the world would be without God, when the only reaction you get from some people, some critics, is talk about whether a singer hits a top note or how the tempo of a particular passage compares with the tempo taken by some other conductor. What’s that about? From what Wagner wrote we know that he saw the theatre as a place where you face up to who you are and what your society is.”

Given the range of material and themes within The Ring, you could well ponder whether a director’s job is to stress his or her own interpretation or, instead, to aim at the clearest possible exposition that will enable individuals in the audience to find their own emphasis. Keith’s view lies somewhere in the middle. On the one hand he says this: “Other people’s imaginations are wonderful places to go to, to explore, and when I go to the theatre to see, say, King Lear, I want to see the King Lear I never dreamt of, something that brings the play alive to me in a completely different way. So I do look for interpretation while recognising, as many critics do not, that it comes not from a director imposing what may be crazy ideas but from notions that are discussed and developed through rehearsals with the cast entering into the process.

Antonio Pappano, conductor of the Ring Cycle and Music Director of the Royal Opera. Photograph: Sheila Rock

“Furthermore, I do now believe that whatever you do, particularly in a work like this, you should allow for a multiplicity of interpretation. In other words, you shouldn’t close doors. I really love the idea that people in the audience can go on completely different journeys, making their own connections and getting different things from it rather than just one. It’s important to me to take note of what Wagner himself said but ultimately I have to try and find a way through the piece that is as poetic as possible, not hammering the audience over the head but trying through my staging to give people the possibility of finding their own interpretation. It’s in keeping with the theme of The Ring not to insist on one view of things but to give freedom of thought. Also, as I’ve said, the contributions and ideas of the cast can be important. Indeed I’ve now reached a point when as a director I recognise what I must prepare but also what not, that’s to say what I must know and what must be left free if things are to happen in the rehearsal room.”

And what about the experience of taking on the whole Cycle and the stress involved in that? “Well, I’ve just worked for twenty days, seven days a week, three sessions a day. But nevertheless just two nights ago I had dinner with Tony Pappano who is conducting again. That was just to catch up outside the rehearsal room, and what happened was that we both said the same thing: ‘What’s amazing is that this is so much easier’. Because we now have all the information in front of us and because we’re dealing with the whole thing, it helps one to interpret it and to discover new things. What’s so pleasing and rewarding – as I had hoped it might be – is that all the things one has done over the last two or three years are starting to connect up, and I would like to think that for the audience the opportunity to see it all within a week will help to make it very clear.

“The editing of ideas, this clearing of the decks and getting the thing together, is very joyous. There’s also the pleasure of working with John Tomlinson who is now singing Wotan in all three sets of the Cycle since Bryn Terfel has had to withdraw. Bryn is a genius who can do things in two hours that would take others twenty, but because of his other commitments we had always known that he would not be able to be present from the start of rehearsals. We were all very upset for him, but John too is a genius, a great actor, a great colleague and a great interpreter of the text. Furthermore, he’s been at the rehearsals from day one. Things get good, deepen and become worthy through rehearsal: it’s by repeating and discussing day by day by day that you find more. So I actually believe that because John has been here for weeks rehearsing every scene the audience will see an interpretation that is more truly complete and refined.”

  • Wagner’s Ring Cycle – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung – is presented by The Royal Opera in four complete cycles: as a Preview from Monday 24 September to Monday 1 October; from Tuesday 2 October to Tuesday 9 October; from Wednesday 17 October to Wednesday 24 October; and from Friday 26 October to Friday 2 November. Please check ROH’s website for performance-dates and start-times. There is a “special student performance” of Das Rheingold on Friday 12 October at 7.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Das Rheingold
  • Die Walküre
  • Siegfried
  • Götterdämmerung

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