Richard Wagner said, “Music is the inarticulate speech of the heart, which cannot be compressed into words, because it is infinite.” Well, Wagner’s operas may not be infinite, but they are famously long and difficult. Das Rheingold, however, is under three hours long, yet it still stands as a major undertaking for all of us in the pit as well as everyone on the stage. The question is…why is it so hard?
Let me say up front that I speak from the perspective of a string player, and the photo above is a picture of my part. There are many pages in my music that look just like these, and I think the photo speaks for itself. The music is complicated and complex, and putting it together requires an extra measure of knowledge of the entire score. Many of our non-string players are playing unusual and less familiar instruments such as bass trumpet or the Wagner tuba (an instrument created for the Ring). There are LOTS of us in the pit and we are crammed together in ways that make it difficult to move freely, hear others in our section, see Maestro Davis, or see our music. If you get stiff from sitting in the same position for hours, well…tough. And it gets really, really loud. Like a stage full of people all striking anvils loud.
When faced with a daunting task, people tend to depend upon rituals and routines. This is our third Ring cycle at Lyric since I joined 25 years ago, so many of us have learned through experience what works for us. Much of it is common sense for a working musician…but sometimes there are other routines that might border on magical thinking. For instance:
1) We all have special ways of warming up before really taxing performances. We have to get fully comfortable while conserving mental and physical energy. The importance of this cannot be overstressed - one invites injury if one plays cold. I have a routine of finger exercises and scales that I must complete. This gives me the confidence that I am fully prepared, and borders on superstition.
2) Zen and the art of playing Wagner - one of our members talks about entering a zone of meditation-like calm to help her stay focused during performances.
3) Das Rheingold and the call of nature - since Das Rheingold is about 2 ½ hours long and has NO intermission, the usual pre-performance hydration must be adjusted. This is particularly challenging for pregnant orchestra members.
4) Wagner sushi - we have a contingent that swears by the consumption of sushi before performing Wagner for that perfect mix of protein and carbs.
5) And of course, there is the post-opera Scotch Club. I would tell you more, but the first rule of Scotch Club is - you do not talk about Scotch Club.
Whatever helps us make it through the night, that’s what we do - so we hope you come hear us perform Das Rheingold, and think about all that goes into giving you that 2 ½ hours of glorious music and storytelling!