Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring Cycle is an experience not to be missed

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Over the past two weeks, we’ve shared with you our interview with Maestro Auguin, a French conductor currently in Australia for Opera Austalia’s production of Wagner’s operatic tetralogy The Ring Cycle. (You can read part one here and part two here). For our final part of the interview with Maestro Auguin, we talk to him about the length of these operas and how Wagner made it easier for both orchestra and audience, the significance of producing The Ring Cycle, and the question of fatigue being on stage for hours on end.

The Ring Cycle Maestro Auguin

It seems that we cannot speak of The Ring Cycle without speaking about its length. How do you conduct an orchestra for such a long period of time ?

There’s a whole plethora of aspects to a more or less complete answer. I’ll just try to touch on a few things, of course. A musician is someone who, when given a score, plays what it has marked on it. When it’s music that lasts five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, there’s of course the fact that attention and also physical fitness, quite simply, are easier to negotiate than when a musician sits in the orchestra pit for Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the prologue and first act are 2 hours 15 minutes or 2 hours 20 minutes. So, of course, you have to manage your energy and concentration.


Wagner helps in that he puts extremely compact, fast, technically difficult and dramatic things for one group in the orchestra for a period of time that takes into account the limits of concentration and physical strength. And then it’s another group, in a calmer tempo, where he allows his speech to continue, but rests the orchestra. So all these things alternate.


It also has to do with the audience’s attention. He wants to tell us a story, but at the same time, he wants to be sure that the story he’s telling achieves its goal. Wagner puts the listener at the centre of the work. That’s why his system of leitmotifs, which he never called leitmotifs but rather main motifs, is so important.


Leitmotiv is an invention of Mr. von Wolzogen, who wrote the catalogue. Wagner never gave a single theme a single name. None at all. But of course, he’s like the magician behind the curtain, preparing his tricks. He knows exactly what to do, where to do it, to hold the audience. In reality, the musical motifs aren’t at all what you’d think for the kind of signposts, names, cards or names that would be affixed to the characters entering and leaving the stage. No, these are musical elements that anchor themselves in our memory and help to broaden, lengthen and give greater scope to other times, as we psychologically follow them.

(c) Wallis Media Images de la production de Das Rheingold, l’un des opéras du de L’anneau du Nibelung (c) Wallis Media
Production images from Das Rheingold, one of the operas in The Ring Cycle (c) Wallis Media

When you’re on the train, if the train is going too fast, you don’t look out of the window because there’s too much information, and somehow what is colour becomes gray because there’s too much information. If the train is going too slowly, very quickly, instead of continuing to look at what’s outside, you lose interest in looking because there isn’t enough of a difference between what you expect and what you perceive, what you recognise and what makes you say “Ah that’s different.


So the pleasure of listening to music, which is the same thing as keeping the audience alert and the musicians and the composer’s first audience, is always alternating what makes you say “Ah that I know” and at the same time “Ah that’s new!” So Wagner organizes the whole musical discourse around this. The ear is really the organ of memory, in the moment, much more so than sight.


Once it’s anchored in our ear, it presents itself in a sufficiently clear, sufficiently striking way, like a character we recognise, a person whose sketch we can then draw for ourselves. We recognise it, and we know what it is. And every time this musical character comes into our ears, it’s a kind of milestone that’s inscribed in our memory, allowing us to go back and get a broader musical feeling. And at the same time, every time that element comes back, it’s varied, it’s different.


It’s like a dish you know and in this particular one, the chef in the kitchen has put a different herb. So you recognise it. It’s like people who are capable, who are Chevaliers du tastevin (expert wine tasters), who are able to say “that’s from this year, this vintage” . So for them, it’s not just the wine, it’s almost a person. It’s a profile, it’s a character, it’s got depth.


The way to manage this with the orchestra, for the conductor, is of course to manage the technical memory for the musicians. In other words, if something is very difficult, you have to give it enough time and attention so that it is fully digested technically and musically by the musicians, so that it comes in a certain way, I would almost say naturally. These are things they’ve acquired, and at the same time give this overall impression with the idea behind it of saying that this thing, this is in the action that’s happening, this at such and such a moment, but it’s not just to tell a story, but to make you feel that you understand at that moment, “the clarinet is such and such a feeling in such and such a character, and the character is thinking about such and such a thing“. And that’s why it’s the oboe that will now take up the phrase with a different colour and such-and-such notes.


For the contrabass cellos, it has a special meaning, because something is happening at that moment. You have to make the audience feel it. Because that note, which seems like nothing, is of great importance. So we’re constantly playing on several levels. When I prepare the orchestra for these 15 hours in front of the audience. at the very least, I have to lighten the atmosphere, because there’s so much concentration that we’re also there to release the pressure and drop a good word where necessary to highlight a little, perhaps, if there’s something funny in the story.


And all these things, we animate the performance at the same time as we prepare the orchestra for the performance. And all these things are so ingeniously composed that often it’s enough to say, to just look at that note, you play it in a way that’s, how shall I say, habitual, whereas you have to pay attention to it. It’s like a little child. Okay, it’s two, three notes, you have to take special care of it. And musicians are sensitive people, so it’ll mean something to them. So we’re always going for detail.


I’ll just finish with an example from the prologue to Götterdämmerung [the final opera of The Ring Cycle], where you’re practically told the origin of the world up to the point where it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future. And so we know that catastrophe is coming. Wagner’s magic lies in his ability to give the bassoon two notes, a whole bar for the bassoon – a piano of notes that suggests a whole world to the musician. With these two notes, you really feel as if you’re somewhere else. We’re in another dimension, on another planet.

Production images from Die Walküre, one of the Wagner operas from The RIng Cycle (c) Wallis Media
Production images from Die Walküre, one o the operas from The Ring Cycle (c) Wallis Media


Due to its length, it must be very difficult for companies to stage The Ring Cycle.

In reality, let’s not fool ourselves: length is one thing, but you have to distinguish between the preparation and the length of the shows, which are quite different things. For example, you have the same characters in Das Rheingold [the first opera in The Ring Cycle] as in Götterdämmerung [the last opera in The Ring Cycle]. Okay, you’ve got the three Rhine girls, you’ve got Erda, you’ve got characters sung by the same singers who can work in parallel. In other words, we don’t work on one work after another. So the three Norns, these characters who speak of the past, who speak of the present and who read the future, are three singers who also sing the Valkyries in Die Walküre, who are part of the eight Valkyries.


So in reality, there’s a way, there’s an economy of rehearsal in the preparation that’s possible. The only real stumbling block is preparing the orchestra. Because that’s incompressible. When an orchestra gets to know a work from A to Z, as the orchestra is doing with me this time, the musicians have never played the work before. So it’s up to me, step by step, to introduce them to the work. And we don’t have a lot of rehearsals, just the minimum to make it work. It’s not below the minimum, but we don’t have a minute extra, so it’ll work just fine.


But in reality, when it comes to programming for an opera house, Wagner’s Tetralogy is always full. It’s always full because people want to experience it. If you tell someone that “without risking your life, without freezing your hands and then risking perishing in a storm, you can climb Everest“, people go. If you tell them you’re going to visit the Vosges, people won’t go as much. The Vosges are beautiful, but they’re less of a destination. If you say to people, “You’re going to Egypt, but you won’t see the pyramids“, people won’t go to Egypt. So we want to see the pyramids. If you say to people, “You’re going to the Louvre, but you won’t see the Mona Lisa“, people don’t go to the Louvre. Well, I’ll stop making absurd comparisons.


The thing is, for an opera company, mounting Wagner’s Tetralogy is the guarantee of having a production that will be an irresistible magnet for audiences. It’ll be packed, people will talk. And let’s say that the world of culture, whether it’s theatre, modern painting exhibitions or concert seasons or spoken theatre – it’s always a kind of pyramid, and you have the base with a kind of the works that we’re more used to showing and then the top point of the pyramid that attracts the eye. In the world of classical music, and not just opera, but for classical music, it’s Richard Wagner’s tetralogy. Then you’ve got Gustav Mahler symphonies that strike a chord, like the Second Symphony, but the Second Symphony, meanwhile, it’s shorter than Das Rheingold, much shorter even, and so even Gustav Mahler’s The Symphony of a thousand, spectacular though it is, very beautiful all that, it’s the first part of Twilight of the Gods [in Götterdämmerung, the last opera in The Ring Cycle] . All these things, the dimension of the works, are also the artistic ambition of what the composer wants to bring us..

L'Anneau de Nibelung - Gotterdammerung
Production images of Götterdämmerung, one of the operas in The Ring Cycle (c) Wallis Media

You have works that are rather horizontal, such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. It’s marvelous, it’s brilliant, it’s irresistible. But the plot, Beaumarchais’ play, is an intrigue between characters who all live under the same roof. We go from A to B. These are horizontal rooms. And you have plays where there is of course a story, but this story is an opportunity, like a Shakespeare play for example, for the author to open up higher horizons.


Shakespeare’s Richard III is a meditation on the essence of despotism. How one being becomes the monster for society, how society reacts, how the Bishop of London is the criminal accomplice of the next despot and then is executed by him. The way. when you see Macbeth, when you see King Lear, all of these plays; when you read The Odyssey, what’s striking isn’t the journey, it’s the fact that Ulysses, when he goes down into the underworld, sees people he didn’t know were dead. He sees his mother. So what’s striking for us in The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example, is what’s going on inside the characters, their journey. And of course, these are men of great dimensions. Otherwise, we simply can’t have enough elements to reach the depth of truth of things and the height of view that the composer and author want us to participate in.


Wagner’s Tetralogy is a history of the world. In the same way that The Iliad and The Odyssey have been hitting imaginary Western civilization for 2,500 years and more in reality.


So, you’re not just a conductor but you’re well versed in philosophy, and literature!

I try to take an interest. I don’t remember who said “Nothing human is foreign to me“. You know, when I talk about Marcel Proust, it’s also because Marcel Proust was inspired by Gérard de Nerval’s Sylvie, and he was influenced by Saint-Simon’s Mémoires and also by Chateaubriand. Wagner spoke of himself as the music of the future.


But in reality, even if he systematised a musical language – because all the musical language he uses, it existed before, but he expanded it and brought it to a kind of point, a kind of conclusion. Then, those who came after were either influenced by it, they imitated it, or they had some reaction to it and detached themselves from it after admiring it. Or it was used and taken to an even more sophisticated point of development towards more modernity.


But all these art forms, in reality, come together. The way in which painting arrived at Impressionism and then detached itself from Impressionism. The manner that led to Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand and Gérard de Nerval can be found in Marcel Proust. But Marcel Proust was the first to write the first psychological novel of the 20th century.


And before Proust, everyone did a bit of what Paul Morand says, did a bit of Benjamin Constant did, or did a bit of all those things. So there are moments in the history of art that are key moments and to which we always return, because, in reality, each of us, in a way, we are all born on the same day and we learn in our own way from all the things we encounter along the way.


Just as the Regent diamond has belonged to the French Crown since Louis XV was a child. Well, the diamond called the Regent has been seen by every generation, and we all learn in our own way, at a certain age, from the things that have been left to us and that enable us to move forward. And just to finish with Patrick Modiano for literature, Patrick Modiano is the first since Marcel Proust to have created a new way of talking about the past. He proceeds by touches, and the synthesis is entirely in the mind of the reader. He never gives the key, and in a way, this is also related to Wagner.


For example, there are themes that Wagner would have us believe are associated with a character or a thing, and then we realise that for dramatic progression, they mean something else. I’ll just give two very brief examples. The first example is the King of the Gods, the chief god Wotan, who is the God of bad weather, as Claude Debussy used to say. And he was right. He’s the God of storms, the one who makes others obey the laws. He doesn’t have a musical theme, there isn’t one; he has absolutely no driving theme – Leitmotiv in German – associated with him. But Wagner gives you the impression that he has, and you hear the theme, which is what you think is the theme of the Castle of the Gods, Valhalla. If you just look at the notes, the notes are identical to the theme that represents the ring. Both the castle and the golden ring are embodiments of the same desire for power. And Wagner makes this clear at the end of the work.


There’s also another element, the theme that characterises Siegfried, the one who is sentient because he is entirely free from the tutelage of the gods, since he was born of incestuous love between two outlaws, twin brother and sister. So, yes, he was born against the law, outside the law, and with a sword he forged himself. So he’s really the first free man, and he’s the one destined to break the curse that hangs over the world and do away with the old world, the world of power, the world of hierarchy, the world of constraint towards something new which is freedom, which is spontaneity, which is the world freed from all that was power and corruption.


Images de production de Seigfried, l'un des opéras de L'anneau de Nibelung (c) Wallis Media
Prouction images of Seigfried, one of the operas in The Ring Cycle (c) Wallis Media

Everyone knows the Siegfried theme tune when they hear it. Well, as Siegfried approaches King Gunther’s house, he is greeted by the king’s half-brother Hagen, who will be his assassin, the one who will kill Siegfried. And Hagen greets him by name. He sings Siegfried’s name over Siegfried’s theme, and the orchestra shows that the theme associated with the curse of gold is almost identical with Siegfried’s theme. And this is where we understand that Siegfried is not the one who will bring liberation, but the one who will bring catastrophe.

And Wagner brings all these things to a climax of tension, and makes you recognise all at once, it’s like a veil being torn before your eyes, when all at once you realise that Siegfried and the curse are the same thing, and that no being is free of the curse, and that he too will have to perish before the world can be free of it all. So he’s not the first free man, he’s the last man still in the straitjacket, in the system of power and corruption.


Just coming back to managing the length of the operas. Are you completely exhausted after conducting the orchestra for more than 5 hours for most of the operas in The Ring Cycle

That’s not the question. You’re right to ask the question, but in reality it’s not that at all. It’s that you’re guided by an idea and you’re entirely invested in that idea and you’re entirely yourself and entirely open to others. Your sensibility is completely open. You listen, you look, you’re constantly absorbing. So, in reality, the most beautiful thing about the activity of the human brain is this side, this kaleidoscope offered to me, in which I’m fully invested for three, four, five, six hours at a time.


And during the break, there’s no rest. In fact, you’re constantly working. Of course, you change your shirt, you see people, you have a coffee, but that’s not the point. You’re always entirely in the thing. You’re like an actor who, when he leaves the stage, doesn’t leave the character.


You’re entirely in anticipation, so the notion of fatigue is really totally foreign to the situation. You’re entirely yourself. We have been [ourselves] for several hours thanks to the music, thanks to the incessant exchange between the musicians and the conductor. In reality, you are entirely yourself. You’re much more alive than in normal life. You really live in yourself, as you would say in German philosophy, you exist in yourself, so there’s no fatigue to worry about.

We thank Maestro Auguin for this interview. If you wish to read the other parts, you can find them here and here.


WHAT: The Ring Cycle with Maestro Auguin as conductor

WHERE: The Lyric Theatre, QPAC, BRISBANE

WHEN: You can choose from three different cycles for this series of four operas.

Cycle 1; Dec. 1, 2023 7pm, Dec. 3, 2023 1pm, Dec. 5, 2023 5pm, Dec. 7, 2023 4pm

Cycle 2: Dec. 8, 2023 7pm, Dec. 10, 2023 5pm, Dec. 12, 2023 5pm, Dec. 14, 2023 4pm

Cycle 3: Dec. 15, 2023 7pm, Dec. 17, 2023 5pm, Dec. 19, 2023 5pm, Dec. 21, 2023 1pm

HOW: The Ring Cycle is a special event, sold either as a series of four operas, or as individual operas.

You can buy tickets for all four operas as a complete cycle, with the same seat for each opera. These performances have been rescheduled from last year, so many seats have already been purchased. The best availability is in cycle 3.

Ticket buyers will now have the option to build their own variable package, for those wanting to view more than one production, and to mix and match dates across the three-week season.

You can purchase tickets via this link

HOW MUCH: Tickets are available for complete cycles of four operas (or for individual operas). There are no concessions. Ticket prices for the full cycle are as follows:

  • Premium $2360
  • Reserve A $1960
  • Reserve B $1200
  • Reserve C $520


Tickets to the individual Ring operas (single tickets) start at $165 and bookings of two or more performances qualify buyers for a discounted rate. Reserve Single tickets pricing are as follows (before any discounts for purchasing tickets to several productions):

  • Premium $625
  • A Reserve $525
  • B Reserve $335
  • C Reserve $165


Have you ever seen a production of The Ring Cycle?



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