Over the past few weeks, we have been working with Yorkshire film-makers Ron Wright and Richee Mathwin to create a short film documenting the making of Die Walküre –the second part of the Company’s critically acclaimed four-year journey through Wagner’s Ring Cycle – and as Press Officer for Opera North, I’ve been with the film crew every step of the way…
Thursday 24 May – Music Week
Wanting the film to document all of the different stages, we started in the first week of rehearsals – music week. This is when the singers work with Opera North’s music staff, purely on their vocal performance. Several of the singers are being coached by Dame Anne Evans – one of Britain’s most famous Wagnerian singers and vocal consultant for the Company’s Ring Cycle. We start by interviewing Anne, and then film her in a rehearsal with Jennifer Johnston. Jennifer is singing the role of Waltraute, one of the Valkyries, but she is also working with Anne to learn the part of Fricka, which she is covering. The rehearsal room is tiny – with Anne, Jennifer, and Head of Music Martin Pickard at the piano, there is hardly room for Ron, Richee and myself along with a camera and sound equipment. Unusually for Leeds, we are also in the midst of a heatwave. The room feels as hot as Niebelheim. Richee looks as if he is melting, but we get some lovely footage!
Thursday 31 May – Studio Rehearsals
By the next week, rehearsals have moved into one of the large studios, where the cast now rehearse with Peter Mumford, director of this concert staging. Peter also designs the lighting and video projections, which are shown on three large screens above the orchestra during the performances. After interviewing Peter, we film as he directs the eight Valkyries, working out the movement, or blocking, for Act 3, Scene 1 – otherwise known as the ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ We debate what to call a group of Valkyries. A flock? A gaggle? They run through the scene, singing their warrior cry: “Hojotoho!” I am about three feet away. It is quite possibly the loudest thing I have ever heard.
Friday 8 June – Sitzprobe
Because Die Walküre is long (the running time is 5 hours 30 minutes), the Sitzprobe rehearsal lasts for two full days. The Sitzprobe, or ‘seated rehearsal,’ is the first time that the singers rehearse the music with the orchestra. It takes place in the Howard Assembly Room, the rehearsal space for the Orchestra of Opera North as well as a performance venue in its own right. Richee sets up the microphones in the gallery, to capture the sound from the best angle. Members of the cast sit in the gallery, whilst the orchestra fills the space downstairs. It is a long day, but Annalena Persson (Brünnhilde), Richard Farnes (conductor) and several members of the orchestra kindly allow us to interview them in precious spare minutes before and after the rehearsal.
By the end of the Sitzprobe, we are sat on the floor of the gallery, watching through the bars as the orchestra play the ‘Magic Fire’ music that ends Die Walküre. All of the cast members have now left the rehearsal, except Béla Perencz (Wotan). He sings his last moving words, about saying goodbye to his daughter, and a hush descends on the room as the harps and piccolo pick out a shimmering, shifting line, taken up and echoed by the rest of the orchestra. It is a magical, glorious, climactic moment – but we’re not filming and we kick ourselves! It’s a missed opportunity, and we make a note to make sure we film this part another day.
Wed 13 / Thurs 14 June – Stage and Orchestra rehearsal / Dress Rehearsal.
It’s now the last week before the premiere of Die Walküre on Saturday 16th, and rehearsals have moved to the concert stage at Leeds Town Hall. Over several days, the cast and orchestra rehearse the music and movement, now together with lighting, and video projections on the triptych of screens in place above and behind the stage. After filming for an hour or so, Ron tells me he has just found the perfect opening shot for the film.
We have now filmed almost everything that Ron and Richee need, although we still capture parts of the dress rehearsal on Thursday 14th.
Saturday 16 June – Opening Night
Suddenly, rehearsals are over, meaning that today is Saturday, the opening night… and the first audience! All first nights have their dramas but this one is tense. Annalena Persson, our Brünhilde, has to withdraw last minute from singing the role due to illness. Kelly Cae Hogan, an American soprano, is flown in on Saturday morning so that the performance can go ahead. Although Ron and Richee are only capturing the curtain calls and none of the actual performance today, we request an interview with Kelly. Even though she hasn’t been in the rest of the film we want to illustrate the reality of the production, with opera companies all over the world regularly facing challenges such as these.
We also interview Richard Farnes and Jennifer Johnston direct from the stage and it is great to feel the buzz of a successful opening night. We don’t want to keep them too long as the post show party is underway in the room next to us, so after getting a few soundbites we send them on their way to the bar for a well deserved drink.
After following us throughout the whole of the rehearsal period, Ron and Richee now have a real sense of the passion, talent, dedication and hard work the creative team and singers have and the film will surely reflect this. The Ring Cycle is certainly a journey for Opera North, the five star reviews flow in pretty quickly afterwards and whilst we await the first edit of our film, the Company as a whole is already thinking ahead to next year’s Siegfried.
The final performance of Die Walküre will be at The Lowry, Salford Quays on Saturday 14th July.
Watch the film Opera North commissioned following the making of Das Rheingold, the first instalment of the Ring Cycle: