‘About as big as it gets’: behind the scenes of Wagner’s The Valkyrie at English National Opera

This is about as big as it gets, says English National Opera’s music director Martyn Brabbins. Wagner’s Ring Cycle – the Mount Everest of opera, is about 16 hours of music in total, and the ultimate challenge for any company. Director Richard Jones is staging all four operas in new English translations over the next few years. The cycle begins en 19 November at the London Coliseum with the second in the tetralogy, The Valkyrie – which is about five hours long. Brabbins will be conducting almost 100 musicians, so many that the boxes closest to the stage will accommodate four harps, timpani and percussion; cast and crew number many more. The Ring is a miraculous piece of work, says Jones. “I’ve always enjoyed thinking about it. I adore it. I’m addicted to it.”

The Valkyrie (Die Walküre) is often staged as a standalone work. Its third act opens with Ride of the Valkyries, one of opera’s best-known moments, depicting the eight Valkyries – warrior sisters of Brünnhilde, our heroine and daughter of Wotan, ruler of the gods – bearing heroes slain in battle to Valhalla. But there are several hours more, involving incest, asesinato, passion, traición, batallas, loyalty and love.

Nicky Spence (debajo, front), like most of the cast, is making his role debut. “I’m singing Siegmund. I’m a misanthrope who never seems to be able to get things right and seems to piss off everyone else along the way, until he meets Sieglinde – who he doesn’t know is his twin sister. They are both dealing with huge abandonment issues. They don’t really know where they’ve come from, where they fit in. En realidad, they need to put their emotional baggage issues in the hold. This is all unfurled in act one, gloriously. Siegmund has got some of the most lyrical, beautiful music Wagner ever wrote. I feel so lucky.”

At this tech rehearsal, the cast are in costume – which is contemporary dress – but not wigs or makeup. Most wear Covid masks when they’re not singing, as does everyone around the building. “It’s so nice not to be put in a crazy costume, says Spence. “My wig is good, though … a kind of 90s Keanu Reeves sexy Bear Grylls survivor look.”

Matthew Rose sings Wotan, one-eyed king of the gods. Tell us the story? “A brother and sister meet and fall in love not knowing who they are. Entonces, in act two, Siegmund has to be killed because incest is wrong. I tell Brünnhilde he has to die in battle, but she goes against that because she believes in the love he and Sieglinde have. So Wotan has to turn up and kill him. Act three is basically Brünnhilde being told off, but I’m distraught to have to punish her. She has to lie on a rock with fire around her until a hero can rescue her. It’s actually a pretty simple story for five and a half hours.”

“It was 25 years ago that I first heard this piece and I knew even then it was something I would love to do,” says Rose. “The music affects me so much. I was due to sing the role in January for a concert performance that was, por supuesto, cancelado, but Covid at least means I’ve had 18 months to work on it and really think about it and absorb it. I must have 53 recordings of Die Walküre. I’m a bit of a geek like that. It’s nice to go back to the score and, having heard where the trees have sprouted up in the performance history, just to clear all that out and do it afresh.”

"It is a such a privilege to work with Richard,” says Rose. “Every word, every nuance, everything has such meaning.” “Richard makes it all about the characters. He’s got such a sexy mind,” says Spence. “We’ve had reams and reams of notes. Because the set is not flashy it’s all about the interaction between the characters. Where have they come from, where are they going, and the relationships between them.”

The cast is all British, and most are making their role debuts. “That meant they brought a freshness and curiosity to the rehearsal room, and a need to be really nourished as to what I think the scenes are about,” says Jones. “But once you get on stage, they’re bombarded with technical stuff and I’m saying things like ‘Put your foot there. Stand like this.’”

The day of the tech rehearsal, Jones and his team are grappling with bad news from Westminster council, which has just vetoed all the fire effects on stage. “The first line of the play is: ‘This fire isn’t mine so I’ll stay here,’ and the last line is: ‘I will surround you with my magic fire,’ says Jones. “It’s really serious. I don’t know what we are going to do … there’s councils of war going on as we speak.”

How much sleep are you getting? “This week? Not much! You do say: ‘I will never have a sleepless night over a show.’ I’ve vowed that so many times… but yes, the Westminster council thing is a blow. Your mind does race.”

In the props room, things are relatively calm, if bloody. The team are prepping the dummies that represent the fallen warriors that lie across the stage as act three opens. “Compared with a show like Satyagraha [Phelim McDermott’s spectacular staging of Philip Glass’s opera has just finished a run] it’s quite prop-light actually,” says senior prop technician Katie.

Everything is made in house by the ENO props team. The dummies are all fully articulated so that when they are up in the flies they hang and swing like real corpses. Some have been given names. I’m introduced to Marty (sobre), so named because the team think he looks like Marty McFly. Boris lies on a nearby shelf, union jack flag defiantly in hand. He’s part of a different production – HMS Pinafore. “He used to scare us every time we walked into the room.” It’s a firm no to my suggestion of sneaking him on stage as an additional fallen warrior. “They’d have an apoplectic fit.”

There’s red grape juice for the wine, but the tinned fruit? It turns out that in part of the action, Hunding and his men have to rip open and eat what looks like a tin of dog food. “We prep it with a hollow bottom and put mandarins in instead,” says Katie.

The spears are very delicate and risk losing their tips if they fall over. The team have to make sure the fake one one is given to the right person to be thrown on to the ground as the “real” ones would smash into pieces.

Act three features 25 minutes of black snow falling from the skies. The plastic has been treated to be non-flammable and is being recycled for re-use in each show. The props crew laboriously sweep it up and return it to bin liners.

“It gets everywhere … stuck on bodies (real and fake), in hair, on clothes. I’ve swept this floor five times already. "

Brünnhilde is brave and strong, but she is a teenager who doesn’t know very much about human love, says the soprano Rachel Nicholls. “She takes it upon herself to disobey her father’s orders at enormous cost to herself. And yet I think she’s more emotionally intelligent than him. She makes her case for herself very well and gets her punishment commuted into something she can cope with. Although she’s going to be abandoned on the rock, Wotan is going to surround her by a ring of fire so only a hero brave enough to fight through can wake her.” (Alerta de spoiler: that comes in the third opera, Siegfried.)

“The way we’re representing this in this production is I’m flown on wires about six or seven feet above the stage, just suspended by Wotan’s big cuddly red coat, which he’s been kind enough to wrap me in before he’s put me to sleep. I’m supposed to be in a state of suspended animation until the next opera and so it’s poor Matthew (Wotan) who has to be responsible for clipping my harness to the wires. We’ve practised it a lot. The aerial stuff is super exciting.”

Brünnhilde’s horse, Grane, is brought to life by dancer Lauren Bridle, pictured here backstage being helped into the headdress.

“The thing to remember about the Ring operas is that most of the musical interest is in the pit,” says conductor Martyn Brabbins. “The singers sing great words and great melodies, but most of the drama and emotion and characterisation comes from the orchestra. It’s this amazing web of seamless creativity. Everything is characterised brilliantly, from darkness to light, anger to happiness, love and beauty, to all kinds of dramatic interactions between the characters, and the vast majority of it is done by the orchestra. Which is great for me!

“It’s a huge span of music that you really have to pace. A conductor’s job when he or she has a really great orchestra, like I do here, is to set things in motion then off it goes, then you reset, and off it goes again. You need to know when to inject the energy, the pace and the colour. It’s nearly four hours of music and you’ve got to get it just on track all the time otherwise it derails.If you get one bit wrong the next won’t connect.”

“We’ve got an amazing wealth of talent within such a relatively small talent pool here in Britain. It’s wonderful to have an all-British cast, todos, apart from Rachel (Brünnhilde) and Brindley Sherratt (Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding) making role debuts. Vocally, it’s massive for so many of them. But it’s been a complete joy.”

Backstage, sweeping up black snow, Bradley says: “I’m not used to opera – I worked for many years in the West End on shows including Les Mis. It’s very different here, a lot quicker, the shows change constantly and you move from one thing to another. I got a bit blase about hearing people sing really well, but here, standing in the wings, listening, it’s like WOW! It’s so good. The music is awesome!"

”When this was first scheduled, says the bass Brindley Sherratt, “I wasn’t able to be in it because I was committed elsewhere. In the darkest days of the second lockdown I had Covid quite badly, so did my wife and my daughter, and my work for the rest of the year had all just disappeared. Then my agent called and said: “They’re now putting on Walküre in the autumn and this time you’re able to be in it.’ It was a light at the end of the tunnel. Just fantastic, and so bold to announce that you’re doing the entire Ring Cycle when everybody else was just like, ‘We’re all going down the pan.’”

“Wagner was a theatrical radical. I think he is the most influential modern artist. More than Beckett, more than Pirandello,” says Jones. “The Ring is like great Greek drama. Since it was first performed in 1876, there has never been a period when it wasn’t germane to the contemporary world.”

“I’ve done a Ring Cycle before, and if you’re involved with something so huge and so technically difficult there’s always a real sense of collegiality, but what’s so special about this particular project is that we’re all – director, conductor, cast, crew – from within these shores. We’re all knackered but we’re all clubbing together. Come and see us. It’s going to be epic!” Sherratt adds.

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