Life is Short, Opera is Long, but Wagner is Forever

Aug 15, 2013

Brian Carter, professor of music at WSU

This month, Seattle is abuzz with excitement over Seattle Opera's Ring Festival, which began last week and continues until August 25th. Every four years, Seattle Opera produces Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, the set of four operas totaling fifteen to sixteen hours.             

So what’s it actually like to sing in something so epic? I’m a recent graduate of WSU with a B.A. in Music, and an emphasis on vocal performance. Okay, I admit it, I may love to sing opera, but I haven’t yet tackled Wagner, so I turned to Dr. Brian Carter for the answer.  A Professor of Music at Washington State University and a Wagnerian singer, Dr. Carter sang Loge in Das Rheingold and Siegmund from the Act I Finale of Die Walküre. "It's only about twelve to fifteen minutes long," Dr. Carter says, "but it's a bombastic sing. It's huge sounding and it's got three arias, two of which are for the tenor, making it lots of fun."

Das Rheingold is in one act, broken into four scenes. At two and a half hours, it’s the shortest of the four operas of the Ring Cycle by far. (Really.) "Loge is a fun character because he's entertaining. He's devilish, he's conniving, and I love it."           

Singing Wagner is different from singing the works of other composers because Wagner's operas call for a certain huge vocal sound. "Wagner for the right kind of voice is like Mozart for the right kind of Mozart voice. When it's a good fit it's a comfortable sing. You either have it or you don't, but it’s not something that can be manufactured from any voice" says Dr. Carter.

One of the reasons the voice has to be bigger is to be heard over the huge orchestra. Wagner practically doubled the size of the orchestra from previous opera composers, and the more voices in the orchestra, the louder the singer has to be to be heard.

"I've always found the best way to compete with an orchestra like that is to not compete; just sing the way I sing and if the orchestra is too loud that's for the conductor to decide, not for me to kill myself by trying to sing too loudly. You've got to have a certain amount of resonance and stamina to pull it off. Wagner himself said that the best way to sing his music is in the Italian style.” Dr. Carter explains that style means singing with breath support; healthy and balanced.           

Then there’s the text of the operas. It’s not the same as everyday spoken German, and that makes it challenging even for Germans, let alone non-native speakers. "One aria took me a considerable amount of time to translate because the wording alone is very... unique, even archaic," Dr. Carter says.

Wagner wrote the words himself and they are an integral part of his art. "His poetry has a musicality to it, and a lot of times you can tell by the way the words and phrases are shaped that that was very important to him. There are rhythms and musical phrases just in the words alone."

Dr. Carter drew attention to the opening lines of one aria from the Act I Finale of Die Walküre Wagner used alliteration such as:

'Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,     'Winter storms have given way to the moon’s delight,

in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz;'             in mild light shines the spring;'

"It has an almost hip-hopesque kind of rhyme to it. In Wagner's music, the words are the music, and even when you speak the words without the music, you hear the music. That's what makes it really unique and amazing. The sets are enormous, they're extremely high-budget. The orchestra is immense; the music is complex and colorful. Everything you need is there. Somebody dies; somebody falls in love; there's a dragon, there's Gods. There's a mountain on fire. There's everything you would need in an opera."

Opera-goers are also attracted by the mystique of the Ring Cycle. "Wagner's music has this mythological pinnacle of achievement. For a lot of people it's an unattainable goal, because they don't have the right kind of voice. The sheer aura of the Ring Cycle itself creates this sort of otherworldly image."

But don't be frightened by the immensity. For people who are unfamiliar with Wagner's music, Dr. Carter suggests listening to early Wagner operas. "For example, The Flying Dutchman. You hear Wagner start coming into his own early on, but there's a little more classical structure to some of his early works. Build up a step at a time. Das Rheingold is two and a half hours; that's manageable. The first one I saw was Siegfried." The third in the cycle, Siegfried is five and a half to six hours long. "That was a long day at the office!"           

"The bottom line," concludes Dr. Carter," is that it's still just an opera…words and stories set to music, just like any art song that Schubert ever wrote but on a much larger scale."           

There’s more information at Seattle Opera's website.