Wagner in Fresno: California Opera presents a concert version of ‘Das Rheingold’
If you’d been sauntering past the Big Red Church in the Fresno High neighborhood on Friday afternoon, you would have heard a most uncommon sound:
Pictured above from left: Gabriel Manro as Alberich; Alexandra Jerinic as Fricka; Monica Schober as Erda; Steve Pence as Wotan. All are in the cast of California Opera’s ‘Das Rheingold.’
His voice is powerful enough that I swear you could have heard it through the main doors.
The Ring Cycle, which is rarely performed except by the nation’s biggest opera companies, has come to Fresno.
Pence is playing the role of Wotan, lord of the gods, in the first installment of Wagner’s famed Der Ring des Nibelungen, known as the Ring Cycle. Pence, who has sung other roles with Los Angeles Opera and other major companies, is singing his first “Ring” role now that his maturing voice is ready for it.
He will be one of 14 singers tackling an abridged version of the piece in a concert performance with music director Timothy Leon accompanying on piano at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, at the First Congregational Church of Fresno (aka the Big Red Church), 2121 Van Ness Ave. Admission is free with donations encouraged.
Here are 5 Things to Know about the performance:
Edna Garabedian is doing her “dream big” thing once again.
“I’ve been talking about this for 20 years,” says Garabedian, who returned to Fresno several decades ago after an illustrious professional career as a singer, including the role in “Das Rheingold” of Erda, the primal earth mother, at the world-famous Bayreuth Festival in Germany.
Her California Opera and its annual education festival has remained a stalwart presence in the Fresno cultural scene, through times thick and thin, for an impressive 24 years. As artistic director, she has consistently staged ambitious opera productions using local, national and international talent while finding a winning formula in blending performance and education. It turns out that mixing veteran performers and young singers in a collaborative, teaching environment can have positive outcomes for both groups.
Wagnerian singers need special training.
In general, opera is a notoriously difficult art form to study and master, with years of training required. It turns out that Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which is made up of four titles that require 15 hours of performance time in the original versions, makes even more specialized demands on a singer than a production of “Carmen,” say.
“First of all, you need a voice that is large enough to cut through the orchestra,” Garabedian says. (Wagner’s music calls for a whopping 105 musicians.).
“It’s not about one vocal technique. It’s about shading colors and textures. It’s about taking an instrument (the voice) and twisting it into a conversive style, which is very important to texturize to make it interesting. When an artist can’t do that, you’ll find the audience sitting there saying how monotonous it is.”
It can take decades before a singer’s voice matures enough to be able to handle a “Ring” role.
Like an athlete in peak condition, a Wagnerian singer needs to be in good shape. Dramatic soprano Monica Schober, who will be singing the role of Erda in the Fresno version, is on the California Opera faculty as the German language, diction and character development coach. She says training and timing are key.
“At their peak, Wagner opera singers are simultaneously performing as stage actors – meaning they have been perfecting that craft while as singers they are projecting beautiful sounds as professional athletes, because it takes that kind of stamina to perform these works.” Performing these roles takes vast tracts of time for research, memorization, athletic preparation, for developing emotional intelligence and stability, and patience – lots of it – as the voice and psyche mature into Wagner.”
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Garabedian saw the need for specialized training for singers, even ones in mid-career, whose voices have the “dramatic” quality needed for Wagnerian roles.
There are no Wagnerian training programs on the West Coast. A specialized program in Florida run by Evelyn Lear and Tom Stewart, dear friends of Garabedian, shut down after they passed away.
Now Garabedian has decided to add a two-week training track to her California Opera festival schedule.
The music is gorgeous and the plot fantastical.
In “Rheingold,” you won’t hear the most recognized piece of music in the Ring Cycle, “The Ride of the Valkryies,” which comes in the next Ring installment. But “Rheingold” has plenty of memorable musical moments, including the famous prelude, which evokes the very dawn of time. (Wagner thought big.)
As far as the plot goes, the greedy dwarf Alberich steals the magical Rhine gold and forges a ring. The ring is stolen by Wotan, the leader of the gods, to pay a debt to the builders of his new fortress, Valhalla. Alberich puts a curse on the ring that causes anyone who doesn’t have it to want it – enough to kill for it.
Schober describes it: “Das Rheingold sets up the scene for the trilogy that follows while being a complete story all on its own. There are thwarted desires, jealousy, seduction, mermaids, legal contracts, gods and giants, dwarves, Loki, power plays, abuses of power, the first death because of the cursed ring, a warning of ultimate destruction, Thor, and, of course, the gorgeous music that underscores it all.”
It’s in German, of course, but supertitles and a narrator help keep audiences in the thick of the action.
“The Ring” has more in common with contemporary storylines than you might think.
Mezzo-soprano Alexandra Jerinic, a familiar name to California Opera goers over the years, has enjoyed diving into what Garabedian calls “Das Rheingold’s” connection to the “outer world” – the way that music, literature and cinema can all share a common bond in mythology.
“The Ring Cycle is thematically very similar to Tolkein’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the movie adaptations of his novels,” says Jerinic, who plays the role of Fricka, wife to Wotan. “They are based on the same source material, Norse mythology (which has a lot of overlap with Germanic mythology). They deal with the same themes – lust for power, love and redemption –, though each approach them in unique ways. The characters and plot points are very different, but you see the same themes come out.”
Other popular titles associated with The Ring cycle include the “Star Wars” franchise and the Marvel universe. Want to get a young person’s attention? Tell them that Loki, the god of mischief, makes an appearance in “Das Rheingold.”
California Opera has big plans for the rest of the Ring Cycle.
This concert performance is what Schober calls the completion of the first phase of the Wagner training program. Garabedian plans to present a fully staged version of “Das Rheingold” in Los Angeles and Fresno sometime before next summer. (The timing is tight because Garabedian plans to move on to the second in the Ring series, “Die Walküre,” for summer 2024.)
“Audiences will experience a range of singers’ work from those who have never sung in an opera to the work of seasoned professionals who are refining their craft,” Schober says. “You get just a hint of what it takes from the beginning through years and years of dedicated work to become a performer in a Wagner opera.”