An epic opera in Bendigo? Wagner’s ‘monumental’ Ring Cycle takes over a regional town

With 130 performers and crew, five tonnes’ worth of set and a 15-hour show on loop, it’s an unprecedented – and ambitious – five weeks for a company to take on

The sheer scale is hard to fathom: Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen – affectionately known as the Ring Cycle – is a four-opera retelling of a grand Nordic myth that runs for about 15 hours, has an orchestra of nearly a hundred and recounts a story that moves from the depths of the Rhine all the way to the halls of Valhalla.

No opera company in the world embarks on a Ring Cycle lightly – Sydney has never seen a fully staged Ring – so it was something of a shock when Melbourne Opera announced it was staging one – involving 130 performers and crew, and five tonnes’ worth of set – in the rural Victorian town of Bendigo.

Opera in country Australia is rare; opera this grand in a regional centre is unprecedented.

Christine Kloner and Noel Hewitt – from Bristol, Rhode Island – arrive at Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo for opening night
Christine Kloner and Noel Hewitt – from Bristol, Rhode Island – arrive at Ulumbarra theatre in Bendigo for the opening night of the Ring Cycle. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

“It fits,” is the reason the director, Suzanne Chaundy, gives for the decision to decamp the operation to Bendigo, after a logjam of commercial theatre in Melbourne forced the company to explore alternatives. “We always thought we’d do maybe one cycle in Bendigo, but then we began to think, maybe it would be great to premiere the season there. Creating a whole festival environment in a relatively small town gives it a concentrated hotbed feeling.”

Beginning last weekend, the operas will be performed in three cycles over six weeks – the first two in each cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, on a Friday evening and Sunday afternoon; the second two, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the following weekend. Beyond the operas themselves, Bendigo has programmed a suite of events aimed at expanding the city’s knowledge of Wagner through concerts, masterclasses, and even a performance down in the Deborah goldmine from the soprano Lee Abrahmsen.

Flautists tune up in the orchestra pit
‘I’m not going to say it’s the most luxuriously spaced orchestra pit’: flautists tune up before the show. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

While the streets aren’t exactly bustling with opera aficionados, bumping into fellow Ringnuts (as we’re affectionately known) around town feels like being part of a secret society, little nods of recognition passing between us like code – and opening night buzzed with the kind of anticipation you see at a footy grand final. Audience members either dressed in tails and gowns, or went with a sophisticated druid look, lots of runes and totems adorning black evening wear. At Die Walküre, famous for its Ride of the Valkyries, Wagner Society members donned both plastic and hand-knitted Viking helmets – cheaper perhaps than the shimmering ones designed by Harriet Oxley on stage, but charmingly homespun nonetheless.

Leigh Hammond (Beechworth) and Bernadette Brennan (Melbourne) enjoy a pre-show drink
‘Bumping into fellow Ringnuts (as we’re affectionately known) around town feels like being part of a secret society.’ Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian
A Ring Cycle installation by Bendigo artist Steven Stanley
A Ring Cycle installation by Bendigo artist Steven Stanley can be found greeting arrivals in Rosalind Park Piazza. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

Bendigo has spent more than a decade building the cultural cachet needed to pull off an event of this magnitude. The 500-seat proscenium arch Capital theatre turns 150 this year, but it’s really been the Bendigo Art Gallery and its winter blockbuster exhibitions that have put the town on the national tourism map. The massive Ulumbarra theatre, where the Ring Cycle is being performed, was converted from the old Sandhurst gaol in 2015 – the stage is only 25cm shy of Melbourne’s cavernous State theatre.

“It was the size of the stage and our scenery capacity that secured the production for us,” says Bendigo’s manager of venues and events, Julie Amos. There is, however, a slight catch: “We don’t have the same capacity backstage, so the sets have to be shipped off to a depo between each opera.” Given the production’s specs, this is a wearying thought. Andrew Bailey’s monumental set – with its massive hydraulic platform, towering flats, 450 rigged lights and elaborate props – takes four semi-trailers to shift.

Rebecca Rashleigh (a Rhinemaiden, Woglinde) warms up in a backstage practice room with head of music Raymond Lawrence.
Rebecca Rashleigh (a Rhinemaiden, Woglinde) warms up in a backstage practice room with head of music Raymond Lawrence. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

Wagner cared deeply about the Ring Cycle’s design elements and the text calls for several high-impact coups de théâtre. Chaundy opens hers with two aerial artists suspended on poles, Rhinemaidens in one opera and Valkyries in the next. There is a ring of fire in one key scene of Die Walküre, and later in the cycle there is a dragon slaying, a great flood and an apocalyptic immolation that consumes the heroine. It isn’t exactly minimalist, although Chaundy manages to show surprising directorial restraint in a show that often inspires profligacy.

The size of the orchestra pit is equally important. Wagner revolutionised the orchestra for his Ring Cycle, sometimes inventing new instruments such as the Wagner tuba (which makes a sound somewhere between a french horn and a trombone), sometimes incorporating objects like the anvils that appear in the first opera, Das Rheingold. Any theatre that produces a Ring has to be able to accommodate the 90-odd musicians Wagner demands, which is the reason Sydney has never been able to stage one.

Rheinmaidens Rebecca Rashleigh (Woglinde), Naomi Flatman (Wellgunde) and Karen Van Spall (Flosshilde), below the sway pole performers
Rheinmaidens Rebecca Rashleigh (Woglinde), Naomi Flatman (Wellgunde) and Karen Van Spall (Flosshilde), below the sway pole performers. Photograph: Robin Halls

“I’m not going to say it’s the most luxuriously spaced orchestra pit,” Amos concedes, with a wry wince. “We’re probably doing a few things that nobody ever thought anyone would ever do.” It’s certainly a tight fit, with the conductor (the internationally renowned Wagner expert Anthony Negus for the first two cycles, and David Kram for the final one) surrounded by the Melbourne Opera Orchestra in crowded configurations. In an unusual move, the percussion sits behind the conductor, with the brass also behind and to the sides. This gives the strings prominence, and if the placement mutes the overall sound a little, it means the singers are rarely overpowered.

And it’s the singers who are most exposed in any Ring Cycle. Melbourne Opera – who receive no government support and exist solely on patronage – have employed an entirely Australian cast. Having appeared together in a swath of Wagner productions, they function now almost like a repertory company, incredibly supple and attuned to each other’s talents.

Lee Abrahmsen (Freia) has her crown removed in the makeup room after the curtain falls on opening night
Lee Abrahmsen (Freia) has her crown removed in the makeup room after the curtain falls on opening night. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

Antoinette Halloran plays the central part of Brünnhilde, her first foray into Wagner after a career of lighter, brighter repertoire. “I was usually cast in Gilbert and Sullivan and Mozart, what we call soubrette roles, but always felt that I was pedalling backwards in it,” Halloran says. “When I would hit my straps and sing out, people would say, ‘Don’t over-sing.’”

No one is saying that now. Brünnhilde is arguably the character in the Ring with the grandest arc – moving from impervious Valkyrie to ecstatic lover to spurned wife and finally to a kind of exalted martyr whose self-sacrifice brings about the destruction of the gods – and Halloran is a powerhouse.

Antoinette Halloran as Brunnhilde (centre)
‘It’s sort of like normal singing on Viagra’: Antoinette Halloran as Brünnhilde (centre). Photograph: Robin Halls

Dramatically it’s a challenging role but vocally it’s fiendish. “It’s a crazy, crazy role,” she says. “The range is ridiculous – there are tops Cs and low As. Usually, if you’re doing a very dramatic role the range will be smaller … [Brünnhilde] is sort of like normal singing on Viagra.”

To survive the role with her voice intact, she has to pace herself. “You need recovery time,” Halloran says. “It’s like if you play a game of football, you can’t play another the next day. It’s not just the voice, it’s the body. Because the body is working like massive bellows and it just gets tired.” This is the primary reason the operas are scheduled with long gaps in between: to rest the singers as well as the audience.

Scenes from the Ring Cycle in Bendigo
‘You do come away feeling you’ve had a life-changing experience.’ Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

It can sound thoroughly overwhelming – even vaguely nightmarish. But there’s also something cosmic and wondrous that takes place inside a theatre during the Ring, a sense that we are all fringing the divine. You don’t really watch a Ring Cycle; you live inside it.

“It’s so monumental,” Chaundy agrees. “You do come away feeling you’ve had a life-changing experience, one way or another.” The magical elements – the stolen ring of power, the dwarves and giants and dragons – are mythic and primal, but Wagner draws so profoundly on universal human emotions that it often feels like a family drama. “There’s this amazing mythical canvas but the big themes – betrayal and greed, love and family relationships – are at the core of it.”

As to the success of the Bendigo Ring, it depends on how you measure it. While 5% of the audience is coming from overseas, some as far as Rhode Island, only 9% are made up of local Bendigo residents. Critics could argue this treats the regions as a plaything for metropolitan Melburnians with money to burn, and that the ticket prices – while you can buy single tickets for $205, a full cycle will set you back as much as $1,500 – alienate some local audiences.

Conductor Anthony Negus with admirers in the foyer after the show
Conductor Anthony Negus with admirers in the foyer. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian
Tom Sinclair (cellist) and Simon Baldwin (contrabass trombone) enjoy a drink after the show.
Tom Sinclair (cellist) and Simon Baldwin (contrabass trombone) enjoy a drink after the show. Photograph: Steve Womersley/The Guardian

This argument is valid but it overlooks the genuine pride of those locals who have embraced the production and brought it to fruition. Amos sees it as an opportunity to showcase a town that has spent “the last 10 to 15 years establishing itself as a cultural tourism destination”.

For Chaundy, it’s a gauntlet thrown down to any doubters. “The crew [made up largely of locals] were just so thrilled when we got to the end of the final tech rehearsal. ‘We’ve done a Ring Cycle,’ they said to me. ‘If we can do that, we can do anything.’”


Tim Byrne

The GuardianTramp

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