Horns and helmets

Wagner deliberately set out to revolutionise opera with his epic 'Ring'. So shouldn't a new production be staged in the same radical spirit, asks Anna Picard. Or is there only one, true way?
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It is 10.30am on the morning of 15 November, and the cast and crew of the Royal Opera House's forthcoming production of Das Rheingold - the first and shortest of the four operas in Wagner's monumental 18-hour tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen - are gathered for the director's talk-through. Twenty odd seats are lined up in a rehearsal room dominated by designer Stefanos Lazaridis's vast, dark, sharply raked set; now covered in industrial-strength cling-film to protect its lacquered finish from human and superhuman traffic.

It is 10.30am on the morning of 15 November, and the cast and crew of the Royal Opera House's forthcoming production of Das Rheingold - the first and shortest of the four operas in Wagner's monumental 18-hour tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen - are gathered for the director's talk-through. Twenty odd seats are lined up in a rehearsal room dominated by designer Stefanos Lazaridis's vast, dark, sharply raked set; now covered in industrial-strength cling-film to protect its lacquered finish from human and superhuman traffic.

On a table to my left, there is a revoltingly realistic latex toad; in front of me, a model of the set that I am sitting on, and a wall plastered with Marie-Jeanne Lecca's variously Victorian, fin de siècle and 1930s costume designs for the gods, giants and dwarves who populate the first, and probably the only, opera that opens with 136 bars of a single chord. A film-crew from Alan Yentob's BBC series Imagine... lurk at the side of the room. Conductor Antonio Pappano greets the singers as they take their places on the plastic chairs, on the edge of the set, and on the rake itself. Though this structure has been 18 months in the making and this production several years in planning, it is day one of the project that will make or break the reputation of Pappano's close friend and collaborator, director Keith Warner.

In two hours, stage rehearsals begin. And, though Warner tells me later that the talk-through is "the most nerve-wracking part of the whole process" he acquits himself well. As he introduces the seductive and hellish imagery of the production, and states his interpretation of Wagner's argument, the buzz in the room is positive. For a boy who grew up on a Finchley council estate, Keith Warner has come a long way.

Born the son of a barber whose business went belly-up with the fashion for long hair, he had little exposure to live theatre in his early years. A chance hearing of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell on the radio caught his attention at the age of seven, and "from then on, these incredible words, this idea of a debate that somehow involved imagination, that wasn't just people sitting down on and lying about politics, entranced me." Shortly after this, while stealing flyers from the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall with a school friend, he came across a flyer for The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. "I remember noticing that it was six hours long. And I thought, how can anything last that long? Life isn't six hours long! So I got my parents to give me 10 shillings, and I went, and that was it. That did it. It was Wagner right at the very beginning."

Today Warner's voice has not a trace of Finchley in it. As a teenager, he spent his evenings and weekends at drama classes run by Muriel Jobson, a teacher who gave free tuition to children from the local Methodist church. By the age of 17, he had played "most of the major Shakespeare roles" in Jobson's classes and seen Solti, Downes and Goodall conduct Wagner at Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells: none of which could have made for an easy passage through the social pressure-cooker of secondary school, but might explain the curious alchemy of donnish and streetwise elements in his adult persona.

As might his dalliance with the Methodist ministry. Though middle age has blessed Warner with a Friar-ish tonsure and waistline, a "road to Emmaeus" experience while preaching to a congregation of eight in an Oxfordshire village saw him reject a career in the church for a career in the theatre: "I just suddenly thought, I don't believe a word of this." (The sole hangover from this period is a tendency for his less successful work to be what he describes as "preachy" or "proselytising".) While studying English and Drama at Bristol University, Warner won a scholarship to Friedelind Wagner's summer school in Stockton-on-Tees, in which every student took classes in singing, conducting, designing and directing opera. This then gave him access to the dress rehearsals for Patrice Chéreau's groundbreaking centenary production of the Ring at Bayreuth: a production that Warner describes as "Absolute genius. There can't be anyone involved in the theatre that hasn't been affected by it."

After a stimulating apprenticeship as a staff producer during English National Opera's "powerhouse" years, Warner's work took him abroad: to America, where he ran his own opera company for a while, to mainland Europe, and the Far East. And there he stayed for the best part of 20 years, directing and translating. During Pappano's tenure at La Monnaie in Brussels, they worked on eight productions together, and in 2003 Warner produced Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Earlier this year he completed the last opera in his "bright, primary coloured, neon-lit" Tokyo Ring cycle (designed by David Fielding). But success in his native land remained elusive. Warner has directed but a handful of operas in Britain over the last decade; Manon Lescaut (2000) for English National Opera, God's Liar (2001) for Almeida Opera, and Wozzeck (2002) for Covent Garden being the most recent.

Rumour has it that collaborating with Warner on this Ring cycle, Pappano's first, was a deal-breaker when Pappano was approached to succeed Bernard Haitink as Music Director at Covent Garden. If this is the case (and Warner says he "would like to think so" but cannot confirm the rumour), Pappano has immense confidence in his friend's abilities. Discounting artists' fees, which, with a cast including Bryn Terfel, Lisa Gasteen, Philip Langridge, John Tomlinson and Placido Domingo will be immense despite Covent Garden's strictly capped fee structure, staging a Ring cycle is a phenomenally expensive business. Add moving parts such as lifts, revolves and the like to a minimum of two basic sets per opera, and the production budget can rocket. So how much does it cost to stage a Ring? "As much as any opera house is prepared to pay" is the coy answer from my mole at the Royal Opera House.

Somewhat startlingly, the top tickets for Das Rheingold (£175) sold out within hours of their release. Equivalent seats for the entire cycle will cost £600, though as Warner observes it is hardly ideal material for corporate entertainment: "If they take the message of Das Rheingold to heart, it'd be the end of capitalism as we know it." Part soap-opera, part psycho-drama, part political manifesto - think Douglas Sirk redrawn by Karl Marx and Alfred Hitchcock - the Ring is Wagner's most ambitious, provocative and ambiguous work. It took him more than 25 years to complete the cycle, the revolutionary nature of which is impossible to overstate either in musicological or philosophical terms but hard to translate in a drama that calls for giants, dwarves, dragons and all manner of magical devices that a modern audience may have difficulty swallowing. Special effects in the theatre remain woefully crude by comparison with cinema. Despite this, Warner, who confesses to have "moped for nine years" over not pursuing a career in film-making, says that what remains in the text itself is "more controversial and shocking than any production possibility".

Warner describes Wagner as "a terrorist", and "a zeitgeist who pulled in all the good and bad of his age". To him, the central issue of the cycle is one of facing a world without the crutch or handicap of religion; a question that he regards as more imperative today than at any point since the work's 1876 premiere. Indisputably, Wagner sought to overturn operatic convention with the Ring; speaking of burning the score to avoid turning it into a cult, and suggesting that tickets should be free. Ironic, then, that for most operaphobes, the fat lady in the winged helmet and forbidding breastplate remains iconic of the very artform Wagner sought to revolutionise. Ironic too that this sepia-tinted archetype of the Victorian era even now has her followers among those who profess to love this work the most.

Consider the outrage over Calixto Bieito's production of Don Giovanni at ENO, double it, double it again, and you may have an inkling of the passion and fury aroused by what some call the "combat fatigue" school of opera direction. Nearly 30 years after Chéreau contextualised the drama within the industrial revolution of the time of its creation, for many Wagnerites the ultimate Ring cycle is one that preserves in aspic the aesthetic of its 1876 premiere: a school of thought that Warner has described as "positively necrophiliac". Otto Schenk's oft-revived, highly conservative, late-1980s Ring cycle for New York's Metropolitan Opera - dubbed "animated Arthur Rackham" by one disaffected audience member of my acquaintance - is the current favourite among traditional, or "horns and helmets", productions.

Horses for courses, you might say. But there is no room for pluralism here. As Richard Jones, who directed the contentious 1994-95 Covent Garden Ring tells me, "It's like there is only one debate, which is, why can't they make it like Mum used to make it?" And this is why I am backstage on the first day of rehearsals. At Warner's request, I am to ask the questions for his public interview in front of The Wagner Society. Or, as he puts if, to be "the Ernie Wise to my Eric Morecombe". The talk-through is my preparation.

One of several dozen such organisations across the world, the London branch of The Wagner Society was formed in 1953. For its members, it is a forum to discuss the music and theoretical writings of their favourite composer, and a leg-up through the long waiting list for tickets to Bayreuth. For aspiring Wotans and Brünnhildes, it is a potential lifeline; offering handsome scholarships to singers whose fach - or voice type - is often unclear until they're past the upper age-limit of most postgraduate programmes. (Wagnerians are late starters.) For directors, however, The Wagner Society's public interviews are gladiatorial experiences in which they are expected to debate the merit of their own productions with those who are often their loudest detractors. Phyllida Lloyd's recent interview with them was rumoured to be typically combative, while Jones still shudders about his own experience a decade earlier. Cannily, Warner - a friend of both directors - has insisted that his interview take place before the opening night of Das Rheingold.

Walking along Southampton Row on my way to meet The Wagner Society in the subterranean conference suite of a mid-range hotel a week later, I scan the faces of those I pass. I am looking, I realise, for visible signs of eccentricity. It's not that I expect to see a group of people trouping through Bloomsbury wearing winged helmets. But I'd assumed that some of the more distinctive characters you find at the first nights of Wagner operas would be here: the man who never wears socks and drinks milk from a carton in the intervals, the woman with Morticia Adams hair. As it happens, neither of them are present, though I discover later that Jeremy Rowe, The Wagner Society's genial Programme Director, is engaged in the same game of Spot-the-Wagnerite at the hotel entrance. Interestingly, none of the audience for "An Evening with Keith Warner" wants to look like a Wagner nut. As Jeremy puts it "I ask them whether they're here for The Wagner Society, and they say 'Does it show?'"

The answer is, it doesn't. There are maybe 40 people gathered in the basement; most of them at or near retirement age, at least half of them female. There is a redoubtable quartet of feisty middle-aged women at the front, what looks like a barrister with two of his pupils, a few gleefully garrulous old gentlemen who are determined to make as much trouble as possible, a couple of eminent Wagner scholars, and one quietly spoken young man wearing a yarmulke. Put these people in an identity parade and their devotion to the music of Richard Wagner would not be apparent. As Jeremy lists the society's future events, promising an evening of "rare recordings of Götterdämmerung", I smell no bloodlust in the air. Perhaps they've mellowed?

The Wagner Society chortle contentedly at Keith's impression of Wolfgang Wagner (voluble Intendant of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and grandson of the composer), and listen attentively to his recollections of staging Lohengrin there. They nod encouragingly as we rehearse Keith's childhood anecdotes and discuss his years as a house producer at ENO. Though I sense that the reasons behind Daniel Libeskind's withdrawal from designing the sets for Warner's Ring 18 months ago may be more complicated than we have been led to believe, no amount of prodding will persuade Warner to stray from the official statement of "creative differences". Either way, he is clearly delighted to be working with his replacement, Lazaridis: a frequent collaborator and a man who is "even more gloomy than me!"

Slowly, very slowly, we inch towards the issue of "interventionist productions". But only when asked for a show of hands as to how many of them would like to see what I clumsily refer to as an "authentic" Ring, does The Wagner Society really come to life. Gentleman at the back: "What do you mean by authentic?" Me: "One that looks like the engravings". Gentleman to the left: "Do you mean a production that follows Wagner's stage directions explicitly?" Keith: "That's impossible!" Lady in the middle: "Do you mean a production like The Met's?" Me: "Er, yes. Like the Met. Horns and helmets." Gentleman to the left: "Horns and helmets aren't authentic!" Gentleman at the back: "Define authenticity!" Keith: "Actually, I think Wagner is quite clear about a winged helmet." Of course, The Wagner Society know darn well that Keith isn't going to do it like the Met. But even those members who would wish it otherwise - approximately half of this evening's audience - are genuinely interested to find out why.

"Because I don't think that's authentic to Wagner at all," says Warner. "Because you're dealing with somebody who, if you really cared about what he said, then you'd have to read a lot of his writings about performance and opera as drama and take them as seriously as you would the operas. His writings are full of encouragement to think other and do other; stating that theatre is essentially a forum of social, political and sexual debate, and that it is essential to the society in which we live. It's not about whether Wotan has a helmet or not - it's about whether this piece has power in our society. That seems to me to be much more authentic to the man than any 19th-century stage direction. You'd be doing Wagner a huge disservice if you made it comfortable, bourgeois entertainment. Because that's exactly what he wanted to blow out of the water."

At this point, I start to appreciate how useful Keith Warner's unusual early experiences are to this debate. As Jones later tells me, "all directors are opera nerds" and Keith is no exception. Thirty-seven years of listening to Wagner's operas and discussing them with people he met on the tube back home to Finchley have put him in a uniquely strong position to argue his case with The Wagner Society. As have Muriel Jobson's classes in voice projection. And his brief career in the pulpit. "How do you interpret a god in a modern way?" he asks. "Tell me. What does a god look like? We live in a world where, as we speak, people are slaughtering one another over these very ideas."

Having established to everyone's satisfaction that Wotan will not be wearing combat gear (Warner regards flat references to "Blair's Britain, Clinton's America, or Iraq" as "dangerously limiting") and teased the audience with a coy description of "certain giant aspects" to Fasolt and Fafner's appearance (ingenious solutions, should they work as well on stage as they do in Lazaridis's model), we are able to move on to the question of how he begins to develop his ideas. To the obvious relief of the audience, Warner's answer is "With the music. You have to work on a line, a bar, a scene, bit by bit by bit. You can't just sit there in reverence, you'd get nowhere. You have to say, well, what does this mean? You have to let the music tell a story to your imagination." But is this a visual thing or a mood thing? "Mood." says Warner. "And visual. Sometimes an image comes whamming into your mind. And then you re-read the libretto and, obviously, you don't do something that is completely inappropriate. But at least that instinctual response to what a composer has done gets you somewhere that is just beyond the literal or logical. Which I think is very important for opera."

As we leave The Wagner Society, I get the impression that however much they may enjoy or dislike Keith Warner's Ring when they see it, they have warmed to him as a person. So, one Ring done. Another started. Another (scheduled for 2008) turned down. Has Warner tired of it yet? Apparently not. "The thing about the Ring cycle we did in Tokyo was that I was so aware, as I have been with all the Wagner operas as I've done them, that there's this other production going on in another part of my mind," he tells me. "I think I'm probably the luckiest guy alive that I could do this. The richness of the ideas and the music and the text means that I think you could do a dozen Rings and it would always be different. Works that are that rich, there are always possibilities." *

'Das Rheingold': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), Sat to 10 Jan