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About this Piece

About the Production

The following is excerpted from an interview with opera director Yuval Sharon, discussing his production of The Valkyries at the Hollywood Bowl.

“We are producing Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre as a stand-alone opera in an appropriately Hollywood style using green-screen technology that allows the singers to be in a narrow, shallow space but be projected into a digital universe. We are kind of creating a video game in real time.

Die Walküre has a long tradition at the Hollywood Bowl. In [the 1930s] at the Hollywood Bowl, there was a famous production with real horses [riding down the hillside]. So for the 100th anniversary, I was really honored to come up with a new concept that would feel more 21st century, that would take advantage of contemporary technology, and feel like you’ve never seen it before. When I think of the Hollywood Bowl, I think of the pleasure of going back and forth as an audience member between the framed image on the screens and the live performer on the stage. I thought to myself, it would be great to take advantage of the screens and really direct it for that.

“I’ve done productions with green screen, including Andrew Norman’s Trip to the Moon (2018) with the LA Phil, and it led me to think about the possibilities, especially as it relates to someone like Wagner who was already writing with a cinematic imagination. … The kinds of worlds he was imagining, at the very beginning of Die Walküre, you have these women flying through the air on horses. The music is so enormous that no stage technology could ever really do it justice, but I think the green screen can, in some ways because we can really have them flying through the air, and not in a static way but with camera movement.

“The story of Wagner’s Ring cycle is incredibly complex and involves a lot of backstory, but I really wanted to create a production where you didn’t need to know anything, where you could walk in and really have an experience that encapsulates [what] the whole Ring cycle might feel like. There is an introductory video that sets up a little bit of the story you need to know but also sets up the aesthetics you will experience, which is not 19th century Romanticism… but is actually a kind of retro-futurist aesthetic that involves vaporwave technology. … Kind of in the world of Tron or Blade Runner and the early advent of video games that points in a futuristic direction but also looks back in the past.”

About the Music

Think of The Ring of the Nibelung as the Stars Wars of the 19th century. It is a multi-episode epic featuring extravagant spectacle as well as intimate moments of passion and tenderness, spanning generations across several worlds, with a teeming cast of various species. This was long before the time of IP franchises, but The Ring survives—flourishes—as an immediately recognizable brand, its presence amplified beyond the operatic stage in media from film and video to graphic novels.

And like Star Wars fans, Ring partisans love to argue which installment of Richard Wagner’s opera tetralogy is their favorite. That is going to be a personal choice, of course, but the one that is staged and performed most often outside the complete cycle is overwhelmingly the second episode, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). It is arguably the most self-sufficient in terms of narrative and it is packed with familiar highlights, both vocal (“Winterstürme,” Siegmund’s exultant declaration of love to Sieglinde, and Wotan’s achingly poignant Farewell to the daughter he is banishing, the titular Valkyrie Brünnhilde) and orchestral (the astonishingly kinetic “Ride of the Valkyries” and the “Magic Fire” music that blazes up at the end).

Actually, the “Ride of the Valkyries” is both orchestral and vocal. It is beloved as a concert excerpt and famed for its use in films almost from the outset of commercial cinema. (It was used in the original score for The Birth of a Nation to depict the ride of the KKK, a hint at some of the darker aspects of Wagner’s legacy.) Wagner himself made a purely orchestral version of the “Ride” for concert use, but in the opera, at the beginning of the third act, soaring over its turbulent instrumental surges comes the “Hojotoho” war cry of Brünnhilde and her eight Valkyrie sisters.

Even in the smallest houses that might attempt Die Walküre, directors try to use as much of the stage as possible for this scene, to capture the spatial effects Wagner intended as the nine Valkyries call to each other above a battle below. It is probably safe to say, however, that no production has ever extended the scene to greater distance than at the Hollywood Bowl in 1938. The Bowl shell was removed, and from the hills behind, at the start of Act III, not nine but 18 costumed Valkyries rode down on snow-white horses, accompanied by thunder, lightning, and smoke. (The thunder sheets, at least, are in Wagner’s score.)

Sheer spectacle was clearly one goal of the production. Here’s how Los Angeles Herald critic Carl Bronson described the opening of Act I, which begins with a short prelude depicting another storm: “The scene down front, across the sea of waving heads to the orchestral pit, was as unusual as the impressiveness of the occasion warranted. As sudden as the switch of an impulse was the reaction of the thousands as the darkness which had until that vital instance beveiled the temporary forest of action merged into an eerie twilight when Richard Hageman lifted his deft baton high and led the Philharmonic Orchestra in the sweep of the instrumental storm.”

But the Bowl also had its vocal and musical priorities straight. Its Brünnhilde was Maria Jeritza, the charismatic Czech (Moravian) diva who was one of the greatest singing actresses of her generation, creating roles in several Strauss operas and long a star at both the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. (She returned to the Bowl later that summer as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana. The operatic force was certainly with the Bowl that year, which also saw Barber of Seville, La bohème, Madama Butterfly, and a program of Wagner arias with Kirsten Flagstad under Otto Klemperer.) Paul Althouse, an American tenor who also had a long career at the Met, was the Siegmund, and acclaimed Wagnerian Friedrich Schorr (the son of a Hungarian cantor and later a naturalized American citizen) was Wotan. The conductor, Richard Hageman, had solid operatic credentials, though he was probably better known to Bowl audiences as the composer of such sentimental hits as “Do Not Go, My Love” and “At the Well.”

—John Henken