Pump Up the Valkyries

An early peek at the Met's new Ring, photographed during tech rehearsals on August 11.Photo: Courtesy of Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera © 2010

When Richard Wagner inaugurated Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876, he outfitted his theater with the latest technology: gaslights, a hidden orchestra pit, rolling wagons for hoisting water nymphs. Wagner’s four-opera, sixteen-hour work has remained at the theater-tech frontier, and now Robert Lepage, who directs the Metropolitan Opera’s new Ring, is bringing on the virtual magic. As singers move through a stage bathed in infrared light, cameras track the reflective costumes and sensors pick up the voices. The data stream flows to computers that track the humans and envelop them in projected images that breathe with the score. A Rhinemaiden sings underwater, releasing a column of bubbles. As the orchestra accompanies the god Loge with a musical motif of fire, a flaming aura follows him onstage.

“With these technologies, you can project textures that react in real time to the performers, so it helps magnify what they are doing,” says Lepage. “Between the coups de théâtre—the ride of the Valkyries, the walk across the rainbow—there are hours of intimate scenes, and hopefully I will find the delicate balance of spectacle and intimate narrative.”

For more than twenty years at the Met, the Ring’s gods and heroes inhabited Otto Schenk’s landscape of castles and glowing crags. That popular production never quite solved the Ring’s classic paradox: As the orchestra keeps the music and emotions constantly in flux, singers often spend long stretches planted amid immobile décor. Lepage’s version (reportedly costing as much as $16 million), which launches September 27 with Das Rheingold, animates the atmosphere in ways that should feel subliminal.

All four operas will use the same set, which is at once minimal and complex. Each of 24 aluminum-and-fiberglass planks pivots independently around a central beam like a seesaw. Images projected on the planks bend and tilt with the moving surfaces, yielding an array of configurations: a forest, a dragon’s skeleton, a bird’s wing. In Das Rheingold, when Wotan and Loge descend from their mountaintop to the underground realm of the Nibelungen, the planks arrange themselves into a spiral staircase flipped on its side. Two acrobats—stunt doubles for the singers, really—walk that sideways staircase, suspended by ropes, and then vanish, replaced a moment later by the singers.

Complex technology is vulnerable, but Lepage’s production manager, Bernard Gilbert, insists that the system is “nearly idiotproof.” If a computer crashes, another takes over instantly, and technicians can also fill in manually. And anyway, the production relies heavily on old-fashioned labor. “The set is computerized, but there are also stagehands in every scene, manning cables and ropes,” says Gilbert. “There’s plenty of heavy traffic back there.”

Das Rheingold
By Richard Wagner.
Directed by Robert Lepage.
Metropolitan Opera.
Opening Sept. 27.

Pump Up the Valkyries