Questions for the Nashville Opera on the occasion of staging “Das Rheingold”

by Jon Sewell, originally published in Salt38: Love Over Gold, Feb 2022

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Is Opera cool again? A recent NY Times delves into how the Met is finding a new audience (“Drama! Divas! Dates! A New Generation of Fans Discovers the Opera” Dec 23, 2021)- a younger crowd drawn by affordability, accessibility, and an interest in the artform and the glamor. Opera as work lives on its etymology, opera as art lives on its staging, the libretto, the signing and the music obviously. A new younger crowd exposed to the arts and enjoying the entertaining value of opera may be having its moment. When people tire of younger music being derivative and recycled nostalgia, why not go to something original? 


In that line of questioning, we ask about the upcoming performance of “Das Rheingold” by the Nashville Opera. Long a city with musical undercurrents outside the mainstream and short on coverage, Nashville may be primed for such an awakening here. The prologue in a cycle that totals more than 15 hours, Wagnerian epic displays were the original metal opus- literally: in the Rheingold there’s a group of blacksmithing dwarves who pound on anvils to a rocking motif. Gods get greedy, bathing babes chill at their equivalent of Percy Priest and try to shoo away a pesky troll dude. But he gets mad and the dwarf Alberich renounces love in order to steal gold from the Rhine River and forge a ring that will make him master of the universe (The Rhinemaidens probably should have been a little lighter on their teasing). When king-of-the-gods Wotan steals the ring, Alberich puts a curse on it that sets off a chain of tragic events.  Meanwhile, the first chapter of the story ends in heavenly splendor with the famous “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” – with some foreshadowing to the Valkyries thrown in, among the dozens of other motifs that blow over and under each other like wind currents in the clouds. It takes Erda, a primal earth mother figure to encourage Wotan to choose Love over Gold. The Nashville performance will excitingly feature Gwendolyn Brown, a Fisk singer and professor in the role of Erda.


While Opera as an artform is finding a new audience, Wagner and his intense corpus of works has always had plenty of praise the world over. Just recently there have been several prominent presentations: the interesting production at Deutsche Oper Berlin with folks in their longjohns and a dude on a piano, the cycle coming to the Met again, the Koln Philharmonie doing the Das Rheingold on period instruments with an emphasis on the music and its instrumentation. The story is being seen, reseen, and performed from both new eyes and old tools. Virginia Opera here in the South did a condensed version at a Topgolf, allowing folks to “enjoy the delicious bites and beverage offerings at Topgolf!” 


Here in Nashville, the location might be a bit more appropriate at Belmont University’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. To be performed Friday, May 6, 2022 at 7:30 PM and Sunday matinee on MAY 8, 2022 at 3 PM, “It is believed this DAS RHEINGOLD will be the first fully staged production of this masterwork in Nashville,” according to the Nashville Opera website. Closing out theri 2021-22 season, Nashville Opera has been busy rightfully getting the good word out, so we decided we ask a few questions to help enlighten potential new audiences to the splendor, the drama, the complete work that Wagner wrote and now adds to the golden river of sound flowing thru Music City.


Jon Sewell (#) interviews John Hoomes, the Opera Artistic Director.

#: To start with the setting, what are some of the staging choices you can share?

Hoomes: We’re working to create a staging that will work for the hard-core Wagner fans, as well as for first-time opera goers.  The primary focus will be to tell the story and flesh out the characters in such a way as to blend Wagner’s incredible music with intense, active drama. We’re also working to clearly create and define the different worlds of the characters of the show – everything from the Rheinmaiden’s underwater world to the underground caves of the Nibelung dwarves. 

#: Where will the costuming decisions fall, and will they resonate with a Nashville audience? 

Hoomes: Costuming is extremely important in this opera to define the social class of each group of characters.  The dwarves are undergrown dwellers and will look traditionally more like miners, but we’re going for a more sleek, modernist look for the Gods.  Less traditional breastplates and horns, and more Marvel Comic Universe.  Although, I have not broken it to the singers yet that there may be spandex body suits involved.


#: Where does Nashville Opera’s production fall in among the several recent performances of a condensed version of the piece?

Hoomes: Our production will be the full uncut version of the show.  Every glorious note of music, and every bit of drama intact.  And we’re producing the show as Wagner originally intended – as an extended one-act with no intermission.  That will clock in at around 2 hours and 30 minutes of intense music drama.  It really is an overwhelming experience.  So don’t drink a lot of water a few hours before it starts, get comfy in your seat, and let the experience wash over you.

#: Will we be immersed in the full 136 bars of the Rhine bottom rising slowly and playfully? Will there be the Green Twilight from Wagner’s notes to wake the performance? 

Hoomes: For the show, we’ll be using an HD video wall of various imagery, so yes, we hope to visually slowly fill the stage from bottom to top with the swirling turquoise splendor of Rhein river. 


#: Will there be a unique Nashville connection? Maybe the Cumberland gold as Rhine gold?

Hoomes: We briefly considered making the show more of a Nashville connection, with the Rheinmaidens as country music starlets down near the river and Broadway, and the Gods as power brokers of Music Row, but we decided we’d rather not be sued.

#: Speaking of a green light will Donner summoning the storm tap into a hometown fear of green clouds before a tornado? We wanna be swept away but relatively and figuratively so. :) 

Hoomes: Yes, to churning cloud imagery as Donner summons the storm, but he remains in control, so no errant tornados will make an appearance.  But we’ll keep the Nashville Severe Weather staff posted.


#: The Wagner tuba- such a fun history there, especially in its use in the Valhalla theme. Will this production be using them? Who has those, where do they stay? And what’s it cost to rent one just for a few days? 

Hoomes: These Wagner tubas are an extremely specialized item and not easy to find.  However, we found a set in Atlanta and will be bringing them to Nashville for this production.  Still working out a rental price.  Not inexpensive, but doable.


#: Rhinemaidens- what’s up with them? All that playing and fun, but they literally told Alberich the power of the ring. And who knows who their father is. They don’t seem entirely innocent, and have a range of emotions. Starting and ending the ring cycle they are their own. What are the challenges of casting them as individuals and as a choral ensemble? 

Hoomes: The big challenge when casting the Rheinmaidens is they need to be loud.  When the sing, Wagner sometimes has the orchestra cranked up to 11, so they need to be able to project their voices to cut thru the wall of sound.  And, although they have been left in charge to guard the magic gold, they seem to be terrible at their job.  Not only do they tell Alberich the dwarf all the history of the gold, and the power that could come to the person that commands the gold, but they also tell him exactly how he can steal it. Not the best guards.  And not entirely innocent no. I think Monty Python came up with the term “watery tarts,” and that certainly could apply here.


#: Nibelungs- now what’s up with these dudes? Are they to be presented as a red glow offstage?

Hoomes: After Alberich (spoiler alert) steals the gold and forges the ring, he enslaves the dwarf kingdom. Often the dwarf kingdom is played by an offstage glowing red light, but in this production we’ll see Alberich’s slaves onstage.  I think the sight of Alberich violently exploiting his fellow Nibelungs helps point out one of the themes of the piece – absolute power corrupts absolutely.


#: Will Nashville Opera be using actual anvils, let alone the full 18 anvil arrangement? And, if so, where are all these anvils coming from? (Is there even a rental house with 18 anvils in this state?) 

Speaking of anvils, wouldn’t it be cool to allow some private anvil-banging for sponsors to have an interactive participation in the performance? (There’s probably some liability there, but hey if they wanna be a nibelung now might be the only opportunity they’d have.) I’d personally bang out $100 per clang, if I didnt have to work in Alberich’s sweat shop and could just do it for fun. 

Hoomes: We’re still working out what we’re doing about the anvils.  It’s another of the many challenges that Wagner has given any company that chooses to stage this piece.  Real anvils are an option.  Orchestral anvils are another option (mostly hunks of tuned metal that don’t look like a real anvil but will give you the proper sound).  There are also anvil tape loops that could be incorporated at the correct time in the score.  There are also pitched anvil sound files which can be played on a synthesizer live.  Those options have all been done by different companies, and we’re still weighing what is the correct choice for this production.


#: Between the Rhinemaidens and the Nibelungs, who do you think has the best parties? 

Hoomes: The Rheinmaidens seem to be party animals, so I think they would win the contest.


#: The gods seem awfully human in this story, are they really that different from us? 

Hoomes: The gods indeed have some of the worst human attributes.  For the most part, the gods are vain, greedy, self-absorbed, and power hungry – and this is only the first show of the Ring Cycle. I think my favorite character is the demi-god Loge.  Half god, half mortal, but all cleverness, snark, and malice.  I’m sure he attend Rheinmaiden parties.


The Nashville Opera will end its 2022 Season with the staging of Wagner’s Das Rheingold May 6 and 8.