GÄRAGEDÄMMERUNG Part 2: SUMMER 2020

Yuval had chosen the musical scenes from Götterdämmerung principally for their psychological strength in moving the condensed (and slightly contemporized) narrative. These were:

  1. Act I scene 2: Waltraute’s description to Brünnhilde of the stricken state to which their father, Wotan, lord of the gods, has been reduced.
  2. Act II scene 1: the eerie nocturnal colloquy between the dwarf Alberich and his half human son Hagen, responding in a granite, somnolent monotone to his father’s frenzied exhortations that they must regain the all powerful ring at any cost and wreak vengeance on their foes.
  3. Act III scene 1: the Rheinmaidens’ colloquy with Siegfried, warning him of the curse imbued in the ring he possesses and urging him to save his own life by returning it to them and the Rhine river which will cleanse it, a plea Siegfried blithely disdains.
  4. Act III scene 2: Siegfried’s death hymn to Brünnhilde.
  5. Act III scene 2: an abridged version of the Immolation Scene.

These music scenes were to be interspersed with live narration, and the transition from one level of the garage to another accompanied by soundscapes created from relevant sections of the score by Los Angeles-based composer Lewis Pesacov. Ultimately these live narrations proved too time consuming and were incorporated as part of the inter-scene audio feed.

As the arranger and orchestrator, the project presented me with a few challenges from the outset:

The biggest was ascertaining how many instrumentalists would be at my disposal, what  instruments they would play, and how many to allocate to each scene. Commencement of my work was delayed over the summer as discussions went back and forth between the opera and the local musician’s union about possibly prerecording the tracks for the singers to perform with live, which would have put a total of 22 at my disposal for all four scenes. Word was that the orchestra was leery of performing live, given the continuing uncertainty  about pandemic protocols, not to mention the prospect of playing almost continuously some fairly demanding music 12 times consecutively in a largely outdoor space in a potentially chilly Midwestern autumn.

Ultimately agreement was reached for live instrumentalists to interact with the singers, which turned out to be the artistically superior solution. This left us back at a total complement of 18, which had to be divided in various strengths across the five scenes.

In addition, MOT wanted to highlight their strongest players, a list that changed with almost every conversation, as some of the orchestra had decamped for other career opportunities in states with reduced covid inhibitions.

The original idea was for standard orchestral instruments, with special requests for English horn and tuba. But as Yuval expounded on his vision of an updated, timeless production concept, and explained that the poetic narration provided by Marsha Music would be in contemporary vernacular, it occurred to me that the unusual allure would be enhanced if I used instruments outside of the traditional symphonic complement.

Yuval and I began by agreeing on an increasing number of players per scene: one for the Waltraute scene, three for the Alberich and Hagen scene, and eight for the Immolation Scene. This left five, which would be challenging to allocate to the two remaining scenes. It then occurred to us to piggyback those scenes, since in the original opera they occur in fairly quick succession (well, quick for Wagner). This would also allow us some breathing space across the performance span.

Ultimately my instrumental decisions were a mixture of bravado and practicality. A solo cello accompaniment for Waltraute was almost intuitive given the personal, haunting tone of the scene: I scored it with Britten’s canticles in mind. The aquatic timbre of vibraphone and marimba for the Rheinmaidens was perhaps my earliest idea, and would dovetail nicely with Siegfried’s death. The harp’s prominent role in the original score in the latter scene was an easy addition. A violin was included for melodic grace, and a horn moved from the Immolation allotment to this scene for richness.

For the final scene, a fairly standard but rich complement was agreed of flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and bass, beefed up with an electronic keyboard.

With fifteen instruments therefore allocated, this left me with three instruments to choose for the Alberich and Hagen scene, complicated by its being arguably the most rhythmically complex scene in Wagner’s output. To depict Alberich’s manic, desperate state, Wagner writes him a frenzied vocal line with almost no anchoring to a downbeat, other than harmonic shifts. These harmonies weave in and out of the foundations of some of the cycle’s most tonally elusive motifs, limned by ghostly motival figurations in the winds. Most challengingly there’s no discernible – and more importantly vocally reliable – beat. This is difficult enough when you have a 106-piece orchestra providing foundation and a conductor visibly signaling the beat. Designing this scene as a free form chamber piece with the five performers interacting sympathetically was going to require some reinforcement. I wound up creating a previously non-existent bass line so the singers – particularly Alberich – would have some sense of location. 

The choice of electric bass was to some extent inspired by the casting as Hagen of the incomparable Morris Robinson, a bass voice that I wanted to give full room to shine with just the barest accompaniment. This meant eliminating Wagner’s omnipresent churning harmonic background in his passages, but that could be retained for Alberich and provide a vivid sonic contrast between the two characters. 

So I needed a portable polyphonic instrument for Alberich’s sections: a keyboard of some sort. Which couldn’t be an actual keyboard as one was already designated for the Immolation scene and we wanted to avoid duplication. I think I proposed an accordion half facetiously… a distilled beverage may possibly have been involved. In hindsight it proved a weirdly effective choice. The bass clarinet was a holdover from Yuval’s interest in having this scene feature low instruments, and it didn’t hurt that the player was one of the orchestra’s top. (Alex Ross’ description of this scene as “superbly clammy” in The New Yorker may well stand as the highlight of my career.)

It only remained to make all these ideas work on paper.

September, 2020: Meta orchestration geeking: helping to host a master class with one of Broadway’s most legendary orchestrators, Jonathan Tunick, while listening to the master discuss his incomparable art, WHILE working on the Twilight: Gods orchestrations.

GÄRAGEDÄMMERUNG Part 1: SUMMER 2020

It’s been difficult to coherently organize all my news since my last post. Life since the winter of 2019 has been, to put it mildly, chaotic. Many accomplishments, many reversals, some reversals which turned out to be accomplishments. Which is a post in itself.

For better or worse, it seems that at the height of chaos, the Universe or the Force or however you care to regard it has a tendency to throw me a psychological lifeline. Which, bizarrely, most often centers around Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra

In September of 2014, struggling with a fairly flattening romantic situation, I was approached by a small New York opera company to undertake an edition of Elektra for considerably reduced orchestra. (Read all about it on my Elektra-lite blog!) While the company wound up backing out of the project, my pursuance of the edition and publicizing of it brought me two other orchestration assignments – one of them actually involving the full scale Elektra

Work on this reduction eventually came to the attention of the peerless dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, an artist I’ve admired since her days as a lyric soprano with a renowned stage presence and sense of humor, qualities that have only heightened over time. Her Armida in Rinaldo in 2000 left me both enraptured and doubled over. And her much heralded transition to the major heavyweight roles, particularly in the Wagnerian rep and its ilk, has put her in the top ranks of her fach. There never has been, nor currently is, another artist who so completely realizes both vocally and dramatically the title role of Strauss’s harrowing opera.

The above panegyric will give some indication of my astonishment when, in June of this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic having shut down the entirety of in-person performing arts across the U.S.,  Christine herself contacted me with a proposal:

Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit was shortly to announce the hiring of a new artistic director, Yuval Sharon – the recipient of widespread acclaim for his work both at his self-founded Los Angeles opera company as well as some of Europe’s most hallowed venues, including Bayreuth.

As his inaugural project, Yuval wanted MOT, in a joint commission with Lyric Opera of Chicago, to brave the new and still tricky world of safe in-person operatic experience with a reimagining of Wagner’s six hour (if you’re lucky) Götterdämmerung, the final opera of his titanic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungs. Naturally with Christine performing her matchless Brünnhilde.

Yuval specifically conceived the production to be performed live by an opera company, or at least by operatically trained singers, and to utilize – and more importantly provide employment for – an opera company’s stage crew and orchestra. His idea was a one-hour condensing of the opera centered on four of its key scenes, with the extensive narrative material supplied by Detroit poet Marsha Music. It would be staged in the parking garage MOT owned across the street from the Detroit Opera House, one scene per level. The transition between scenes would be by Marsha’s narration and sound design by Lewis Nicolas Pesacov based on Wagner’s score.

The singers would perform Wagner’s original music with a new English translation by Yuval to make the experience less distancing for the local audience. Each scene would be accompanied by a small chamber group of instrumentalists, conductorless, working symbiotically with the singers. Would I be interested in abridging and reducing Wagner’s monumental soundscape?

In order for the production to make even partial financial sense, a minimum number of ticket holders / cars would have to be accommodated across the planned three hour span of each evening. The computations wound up at 8 cars per rotation, 12 rotations running simultaneously across that three hour period, with a 30 minute break in the middle. Meaning that each scene would be performed 12 times in quick succession every night. (On opening night, this was increased to 14 rotations due to the high demand for tickets.) Each scene could not be longer than 8 minutes so as to keep each rotation within the overall 55 minute cap. (Think the narrative rides at Disney World).

Which posed all sorts of challenges for me as the arranger and orchestrator to make each scene fit within the inflexible parameters while not being overly taxing for the performers.

Still, the chance to work with arguably one of the most imaginative directors living? On a piece I love? To help restore some work to the performing arts, and confidence to its patrons? AND TO WORK WITH CHRISTINE GOERKE?

Reader, I allowed myself to be persuaded.