It’s Wagner, By Thunder! – A German ‘Ring’ in the Brazilian Rain Forest

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Watch on the Rhine

Rhine Maiden (Douglas Engle)

On the evening of May 7, 2005, darkness engulfed the ornate auditorium of the Teatro Amazonas Opera House in the northern city of Manaus. The only sound to be heard — the primeval groan of a low, E-flat major bass note — emanated surreptitiously from the theater’s packed orchestra pit.

No, it was not another power outage so typical of the region, but was in fact the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (“The Rhinegold”), the first of his four-part, sixteen-hour Norse saga, known collectively to fans as The Ring of the Nibelung — a cautionary pre-Tolkien tale that ambitiously tracks the corruption of a mythical world-gone-wrong through its chaotic destruction and redemptive rebirth.

At the curtain’s rise, three nubile nymphs (called “Rhine Maidens”) are seen to frolic off the waters of the onstage riverbank. They are soon joined by the gloomy figure of Alberich, the Nibelung troll, sung by Brazilian bass Pepes do Valle. Seeking to catch one of them off guard, he is teased then aroused by the maidens’ obvious charms.

Despite his loathsome visage, the sprites continue their amorous play by deliberately tempting the poor creature to a watery grave. Disgusted by their taunts, the lustful gnome resolves to wreak havoc on them: if he cannot steal their hearts, he gathers, then their fabulous treasure trove will be his instead.

Renouncing love forever, the Nibelung plunges into the briny depths and swims off with the horde of gold, leaving the Rhine Maidens behind to mourn the loss of their luster. To solidify his power-base, Alberich later forces his minions into forging an all-powerful ring — the object of each character’s singular pursuit and the ruinous cause of their eventual downfall.

Little did the audience of 800-or-so strong realize it was the German composer himself who started the by-now familiar trend of lowering a theater’s houselights in order to press his public to pay closer attention to the works at hand — works that Wagner had long desired to have performed in a house built to his own exacting standards.

The locale chosen was a picturesque tract of land a brief walking distance from the town of Bayreuth, a humble middle-class burgh ideally situated in the hills of northern Bavaria.

Thus it was that in 1876 the celebrated annual Summer Music Festival was first inaugurated there.

By contrast, Manaus at the time was but a hollowed-out clearing in the middle of the tropical rain forest. Today, it is a bustling business and commercial center, thanks to the so-called Zona Franca (“Free-Trade Zone”), with a population of over a million and a half.

Even so, the significance of a German-language Ring cycle, a supremely challenging endeavor for any opera company — one whose extra scenic and musical demands have tested the mettle of lesser theaters — performed in its entirety on Brazilian soil, cannot possibly be overlooked. This was indeed a monumental undertaking of truly historic proportions.

The expected budget for the event, reported to be around 3.2 million reais, or USD$1.6 million — the equivalent of one American greenback for every resident in the Amazon capital — would have to make due not only for the Ring but the other works anticipated for 2005, including a rapid run of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

With that in mind, two complete cycles were planned: one for May 7, 8, 10, and 12, and the other for May 14, 15, 17, and 19. For the past few seasons, however, single performances of the various Ring components have been fully mounted and staged in Manaus, with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), the second opera in the cycle, the first up in 2002, followed by Siegfried in 2003, and Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) in 2004.

This year’s new production of Das Rheingold, made possible by state grants and private-sector donations, was unveiled only as an integral part of the whole. “It was a kind of test to see how the Brazilian voices were going to function,” Luiz Fernando Malheiro, principal conductor and artistic director of the Amazonas Opera Festival, told Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. “Any apprehensions I may have had were ultimately unjustified.”

Though heavily billed as the first complete Brazilian Ring, in actuality the Festival’s “low-budget and low-tech” approach is only the second time Wagner’s epic tetralogy was presented in the country: the first one, in 1922, took place in Rio de Janeiro and was done by a visiting German troupe contracted by legendary opera impresario Walter Mocchi.

But how did the seeming incompatibility of a “Ring in the rain forest” happen to come about? The answer is deceptively simple, and can be traced back to the naiveté of Aidan Lang, the show’s 47-year-old British-born director, whose stage experiences boast of previous stints in Manaus and São Paulo, in addition to appearances with Glyndebourne’s touring wing, the Netherlands’ Maastricht Festival, and the Buxton Festival in England, which he still runs.

“Malheiro and I were talking about what we should do next one year and he suggested something German. ‘What about the Ring?’ I joked. Well, that’ll teach me.”

A Formidable Task

The task at hand was a formidable one, to be sure, and not to be taken lightly, considering the stifling working conditions they all had to endure (and sweat) in, and the high degree of planning undoubtedly involved with the project itself.

“If I offered this to Welsh or Scottish Operas, they would tell me to think again,” the director exclaimed. Remarkably, though, the surprising success of the series was well worth the extra effort.

“To be able to do a Ring cycle here,” an exuberant Lang later declared, “for an audience that has never seen one is absolutely extraordinary. It’s the ultimate gig in the ultimate place” — even if that place turned out to be a rather steamy tropical jungle.

Alan Woodrow as Siegfried (baybuzz.blogspot.com)

Canadian tenor Alan Woodrow, who sang the lead role of the young Siegfried, concurred with the director’s views: “The climate here is very hot and very humid, but I think that because of that you can sing well. After all, singers inhale steam to help get their voices into good shape, but with the 90-percent humidity here, you don’t have to do that.”

Notwithstanding the theater’s on-again/off-again air-conditioning system, nature sometimes has a way of taking its own precarious path, especially with regard to regional lumber practices.

“They’re very good with wood,” said Lang of the stagehands, “but we do have to remind the set-builders to use screws. Because of the humidity, nails tend to pop out.”

Other exotic hindrances were almost as life threatening, such as the incident involving Japanese soprano Eiko Senda (Sieglinde in Die Walküre), who suffered a debilitating allergy attack just moments before the curtain, thanks to a particularly noxious variety of garden spider. A massive dose of antihistamine was administered to Senda in time for her onstage cue.

In spite of the potential hazards of opera in the Amazon wilderness, the final bill for the two cycles went blissfully unnoticed by most patrons: with the best seats in the house going for a top price of USD$20.00 per ticket, all of the individual performances were quickly sold out.

Equally attractive to the foreign press corps were the production’s raked-platform stage setting — complete with scientific and molecular décor (both cost-cutting, space-saving devices) — and its pro-ecological message.

“I’m especially proud of the helmets, which are made of papier-mâché,” boasted Ashley Martin-Davis, the British set and costume designer. “They look like aluminum, and of course the singers love them because they have almost no weight.”

In a land where the average person’s monthly wage can be just as skimpy as Rio’s scantily-clad Carnival participants, that spoke volumes for the locals’ creativity and resourcefulness in the face of ever-mounting political and economic pressures. Said Mr. Martin-Davis: “[It] taught me that if you have the labor and the ingenuity, you can always make the materials work for you.”

Nevertheless, the sense of being a part of something so bizarre as to border on the surrealistic was a difficult one to shake, even for some of the more veteran cast-members.

“When I first came to Manaus in 2002, it was definitely a very big new experience for me,” voiced soprano Maria Russo, an opera singer from upstate-New York who played Wotan’s favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde. “It’s extreme. Even now, it sometimes seems amazing that we are actually doing this here. I’ve done a lot of Rings, and this is definitely not your ordinary situation.”

Multiplying the Effect

For the record, the Brazilian operatic event of the year, which went on to become the near “miracle in Manaus,” could only have come off through the continuous effort and financial support of the local Amazonas State government.

With the administration’s solid commitment to, and backing of, the entire classical enterprise (no doubt, a ghostly echo of opera days gone by), scores of crazed Wagnerites from dozens of foreign lands, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, England, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, and North America, as well as host nation Brazil, faced the long trek and arduous travel conditions — hand-in-hand with the twin discomforts of torrential rain and tropical heat and humidity — to hear the Ring works performed in sequence by a proportionately international cast of artists.

The orchestra, known locally as the Amazonas Philharmonic, was comprised mainly of musicians from Eastern Europe (Russia, Bulgaria, and Belarus) and from native-Brazilian forces living overseas.

By all reports, it exceeded every expectation and played at the highest possible plane demanded of Wagner’s exacting scores. This elevated level of competence, however, was bought at a stiff price, and illustrates both what was right and what was wrong with musical education in Brazil today.

In a sobering June 2004 article, “A Brazil Out of Tune,” published by the SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio — Social Service of Commerce) organization, journalist Flávio Carrança examined the myriad challenges facing the performing arts there since the 1996 adoption of the revised Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional (LDB, or Basic Educational Law), which, prior to that time, had already folded the teaching of music into overall artistic education, i.e., dance, theater, drama, and the visual arts. What this did for the pedagogical system was to place the responsibility for musical education squarely on the shoulders of teachers, “who may not have had specific training in music — an unfortunate reality of public education,” claimed Mr. Carrança.

The problem became a major concern for Brazilian maestro John Neschling, who during the time of his 1997 reorganization of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (Osesp) was pressed to concede, “We have never had a tradition of musical education in Brazil, nor a solid school, particularly for strings. We were always limited to a few good teachers — many of them immigrants — who trained individual talents.”

Neschling further indicated that, “Instruction in music is not limited to learning the instrument, but includes an entire musical culture which must be transmitted and stimulated.”

Julio Medaglia (griggspeter.wordpress.com)

This is precisely what was done with the original Amazonas group back in 1977, when conductor Júlio Medaglia was still presiding over it. He was forced at that time into recruiting new members from abroad — coincidentally, from Eastern Europe, where, as luck would have it, Brazilian players were firmly entrenched.

Medaglia was one of the first native musicians to have given credibility to the phenomenon he labeled the “multiplier effect,” whereas in exchange for services rendered foreign players would take promising local youngsters under their wing and, over the course of time, these same youngsters would themselves become teachers, thus increasing the quality and number of musicians obtainable to scouting-for-new-talent Brazilian orchestras.

“You can see kids from the outskirts studying with musicians who were trained in St. Petersburg, which produces the best string players in the world,” the conductor revealed. “Each one of the Russians who came here has about 20 students by now.”

Other deficiencies worth noting included the “lack of a good structure for musical instruction,” viable graduate and post-graduate training, scarcity of resources, and, most surprisingly of all, “not enough schools of music at the introductory level,” at least according to Cláudio Cruz, Osesp’s first violinist, and a noted symphony conductor (the Sinfônica de Ribeirão Preto, in São Paulo) on the side.

“We are not able to fill orchestras with 90 percent Brazilian musicians,” he lamented, “because when they finish undergraduate school, they are not ready.”

As distressing as this bit of news may have sounded, the multiplier effect has had some lasting benefits, most noticeably with young Elismael Lourenço dos Santos, a 20-year-old clarinetist from Northern Brazil, in the pit for the Ring premiere in Manaus and a recent graduate of its lauded training initiative.

“If it weren’t for the government’s program, there is no way I could have gotten this far, because my family is not rich and could never have afforded private instruction for me.”

His personal testimonial represents the optimistic icing on the orchestral cake for the future of these types of learning ventures: “To have this opportunity to play not just Wagner but the Ring cycle is a real honor and a dream, one that is still a bit hard to believe.”

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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3 thoughts on “It’s Wagner, By Thunder! – A German ‘Ring’ in the Brazilian Rain Forest

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