For a man who has already directed a 22-hour opera The Ring Cycle should be a doddle. Der Ring des Nibelungen by 19th century German composer Richard Wagner is a mere 15 hours or so.
Easy huh? But maybe not. It’s known as “the Everest of opera”, which suggests it is the operatic version of extreme mountaineering.
But Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng has already summitted, with a Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion, which at 22 hours long must be the longest in the world. Most people think The Ring Cycle is but that’s because we see things through a Western lens.
One of the reasons to be excited about Opera Australia’s new Brisbane production of The Ring Cycle, coming to QPAC December 1, is that we get to see this opera anew – partly through a Chinese lens. Not a purely Chinese lens though because Chen, whose biographical details online describe him as “about 60”, is also westernised and has worked extensively beyond China where he started out as a singer in traditional Chinese Opera.
Chen, who is from Hunan province originally, lived in New York for many years but is based in Shanghai now with his wife (“she is Shanghainese,” he explains) and that means Brisbane is a bit closer than it would be if he was still in The Big Apple.
Right now, he’s in Brisbane preparing to summit again, working with a cast of a couple of hundred singers, dancers, musicians and crew.
And he’s loving being in the Queensland capital.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful city,” Chen says when we meet behind the scenes at QPAC one morning. “The weather is amazing and the size of this city is perfect. And I can smell the most fragrant flowers … what are they?”
“Frangipani?” I guess “Jasmine?” Well, whatever fragrance it might be, it’s lovely, he says.
We first met a few years ago when the former artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, brought Chen Shi-Zheng to town to announce The Ring Cycle for Brisbane.
Terracini has a soft spot for Queensland, being a former artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival and Brisbane Festival and a rugby league tragic.
That was as a fleeting visit and was followed by the pandemic and two cancelled seasons. A lesser company might have chucked in the towel but full marks to Opera Australia for going on with it.
But The Ring Cycle has been done before in Australia, right? Well, yes, but this is the first time anywhere in the world that it will be a fully digital production with vast LED screens taking us to Valhalla and back.
To do it this way was, Chen says, Terracini’s idea.
The two knew each other because Chen had directed Turandot for Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.
“I did Turandot with him and we became friends,” Chen recalls. “He came to me the next year to talk about doing something together. I said to him – you know, I have this Chinese face and I’m always asked to do Turandot and Butterfly.
“But I didn’t want to do just that. So, I said to him – why don’t you give me something big I can chew on? Like Wagner.
“The following year he flew to New York City and he said – I have something for you. We should meet. It was his idea that we do a digital version of The Ring Cycle. He’s a visionary. It was on my bucket list but I didn’t expect to actually do it.”
As well as being steeped in Chinese Opera, Chen Shi-Zheng has had broad experience in music, theatre and opera. He has even done a version of High School Musical in China and says “it’s good to mix the high arts and the low arts”.
He has worked with major opera companies around the world and that 22-hour opera of his, The Peony Pavilion, (which, he adds, has 55 acts and 200 characters) played at the Lincoln Center in New York and toured internationally.
He’s refreshingly honest about his approach to opera, even confessing that he hasn’t actually seen a full version of The Ring Cycle.
“I have mostly watched glimpses on YouTube,” he says with surprising candour. “Opera as a performance, as theatre, isn’t my cup of tea. It’s the music I love. I normally don’t even go to the opera but the music, well, that gives me great emotional satisfaction.”
Maybe some of his cast will be surprised to hear that, although by now they should know where he is coming from.
He says some have reservations about having digital screens rather than sets but he says theatre and opera have always used the latest available technology.
He first started down this track using video imagery in a production in Germany 20 years ago.
Despite the technology he says his version of The Ring Cycle will still be as “primal” as Wagner meant it to be, and powerfully symbolic, metaphoric and mythological.
European mythology rules but there may be hints of Chinese mythology too (dragons are common to both traditions, he says) and other traditions. Chen Shi-Zheng is steeped in mythology and has spent a lot of time buying up old books on the subject at New York’s historic Strand Bookstore.
“I’m a history buff and a mythology buff,” he says. “And in my reading, I have found all these similarities between different mythologies.”
The Ring Cycle story revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world (Tolkien must have got some inspiration here). The ring was forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold he stole from the Rhine maidens in the river Rhine.
The story around this ring involves humans and gods, dwarfs and giants, and dragons and those incredible Valkyries (the ones in this production will wow everyone) who guide the souls of dead warriors to Valhalla, a kind of heaven.
The main characters are Wotan the chief Norse God (baritone Daniel Sumegi), the heroine Brunnhilde (sopranos Lisa Lindstrom and Anna-Louise Cole), our hero Siegfried (the German tenor famous for this role, Stefan Vinke) and a host of other characters drawn from European mythologies.
The Ring Cycle is really four operas – Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung and the whole thing took Wagner almost 27 years to complete.
It premiered as a full cycle in 1876 and is regularly performed all over the world. Fans of the opera, sometimes known as “Ring nuts” travel the world to see productions of it. This first digital version should have them winging their way to Brisbane. Chen Shi-Zheng certainly hopes that is the case.
“I’m hoping you get enough tourists coming to see it,” he says. “There will be the usual Wagner fans but we want people who don’t know too much about it to come too.”
The Ring Cycle is on at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, December 1-21.
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