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A New London Ring Cycle? An interview with Ben Woodward

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 27 August 2011 | 12:09:00 am

Ben Woodward 
Sometimes it would seem that there is a certain level of insanity in those who obsess, as many of us here can seem to do on occasion, over Wagner’s works - or at the very least that there is a certainly level of eccentricity. Go hunting for every performance recorded of Tristan? Check. A Wagner library that matches the size of one’s professional library? Check. Spend clearly ridiculous amounts of money on catching that “perfect” Wagner performance? Check.  And so it goes on.

But surely these people, and one thus assumes most of us, are nothing compared to those outside of the major opera houses who plan Wagner performances: John Christie with Glyndebourne, Wasfi Kani at Grange Park, and the Grahams at Longborough - to name a very select few in the UK. Insane or geniuses it is difficult to say but the world is surely a better place for them. And now to this list we must add the Artistic Director at Fulham Opera - Ben Woodward and the team he has assembled London

I recently had the opportunity to catch-up with Ben and discuss Fulham Operas first fully staged Das Rheingold premiering this August in the unlikely “venue” of St Johns Church Fulham (more details here). During this, Ben discussed the origins of this project in New York in 2008, the unique nature of the production, receiving advice from the Head of Music at Covent Garden, Naomi Said’s chorography, Fiona Williams’ production and much else. Perhaps more surprisingly plans for Die Walkure in 2012 and most tantalizing of all, the possibility of a complete Ring Cycle in the near future? Read on for more.

But before hearing from Ben himself exactly who is he?

Ben was born in Staffordshire, and was educated at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, and was then Organ Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. Immediately after Cambridge, Ben moved to New York City, and was Assistant Organist at Christ Church Greenwich, CT, and latterly Director of Music at St Mary's RC Church in Stamford, CT. Here he directed a professional choir and made several recordings including a world-premiere recording of a Mass by JD Heinichen (1683-1729), which he edited himself from source. Much reknowned as a continuo player, he is a member of the New England Baroque Soloists, with whom he was visiting professor of harpsichord at Williams College, Boston USA.

In 2007 Ben became Organist and Director of Music at St John's Church in Fulham.  Since being in Fulham he has instituted a recital series, conducted and played several operas, the Mozart Requiem and St John Passion, and two performances of Tallis's 40-voice motet, Spem in Alium for Fulham Week.

Ben Woodward/The Wagnerian

TW: Ben, you have already staged parts of Walkure and Parsifal in the past at Fulham.  These of course are massive achievements for large opera houses with accompanying resources - and now Rheingold complete and fully staged. Even Glyndebourne took nearly 80 years before it touched Wagner.  The obvious question is why?  And what is your affinity for Wagner?

BW: I've loved Wagner since I was first introduced to it at Chetham's School of Music, and it was explained at little more to me at Cambridge, but it was always something that I'd expected I would tackle much later in life. In 2008 in New York, I repetiteured and chorus-mastered Peter Grimes with tenor Jon Morrell.  I had helped Jon prepare the role and the two of us became good friends.  When I returned to the UK, it was him that suggested we put on the Walkuere Act I, as a single-act show.  Jon's long time colleague Nina Lorcini also came over to sing Sieglinde, and I asked Fiona Williams to direct it; she and I had done a Cenerentola together in 2007.  

Robert Presley
The show was a success, and a year later, Jon and Nina suggested the Parsifal Act II, as a similar stand-alone work.  Both of these shows we did with me playing the piano, and I absolutely loved playing these big colourful scores.

At Christmas at St John's, we mounted Amahl and the Night Visitors by Menotti, which Fiona also directed.  After that show wrapped, Robert Presley (who will sing Alberich) and I were mulling over what to do next.  Robert and I still argue about who uttered the word "Rheingold" first - I think it was him - but when it was mentioned it just seemed like a fantastic idea worth running with.

TW: What were people’s reactions when you first announced you were producing a staged version of Rheingold?

BW: It varied from "you're mad" to "okay, I can see how you might tackle that".  It is to her credit that when I mentioned it to Fiona initially, she did not miss a beat.  The church in Fulham have been extraordinarily supportive about everything that I have mounted in the past 4 years, and I am grateful to them.  They have seen incest on their altar (as in the Walkuere), a Spear being caught in mid-air (Parsifal) as well as the St John Passion and Spem in Alium, so they're quite used to my ideas for big productions!

TW: Have you had any help from other opera houses in London?

BW: This past year I've bitten a bullet and (despite being 30) have been back to "school" and have got my postgrad from the Guildhall's Opera School, and many of the coaches have been very helpful to me with musical ideas - three of them have themselves assistant-conductor-ed or repetiteured Rheingold at ROH and ENO, so they've been very helpful.  I also took it to the Head of Music at Covent Garden, who gave me some invaluable advice.

 TW: You are using the piano score.  With a full cast assembled – and a staged production – how does this change the “dynamics” of the drama, voices, etc? In other words, the overall feel of the opera?

BW: St John's Church is a very live space acoustically, and from the moment I walked in four years ago, I could tell it would be magnificent to sing into.  Though it would be geographically almost impossible to fit in an appropriate sized orchestra, it would also be overwhelming to both singers, and especially audience - the piano supports the singers perfectly well, and it feels like the audience are an integral part of it all, as they are really not very far away.

TW: As I am sure you are aware, there is always anticipation about the “concept” of new productions of the Ring. Could you tell us a little bit about Fiona Williams’ overall concept? Is this a straightforward reading of the text or will the production be more interpretive?

Fiona Williams
BW: I am (possibly obviously) loathe to give away her concept, which is really very cool, but I will say she has kept away from any similarities to (sorry) "Lord of the Rings", as it was felt that, especially given those recent Peter Jackson movies, that we'd run into all sorts of style minefields!   Our production is incredibly stylised, and Fiona has brought in the services of movement coach Naomi Said, who recently worked with her on Holland Park's production of Figaro.  

 TW: On the subject of the production, how has the “geography” of St Johns itself limited or defined the production - if at all? For example, when St Endellion performed their only semi-staged Walkure last month, they had Walkure running up and down the pews and sword fights around the font! Can we expect anything similar?

BW: I understand that St John's is a similar size to St Endellion - to give you an idea - and we have a large marble altar right in the middle of our "stage", that apparently weighs the same as two double-decker buses!  There is certainly movement through the entire space, yes!

TW:  Can we expect the entire Ring Cycle in the future?

The next things from Fulham Opera will be Suor Angelica on 7 & 9 October, and then Gianni Schicci is pencilled in for Spring. Then, yes, we are currently looking to find dates for a Walkuere, likely in July 2012.  Watch this space.  Siegfried summer 2013, Goetterdaemmerung summer 2014...??  "The Fulham Ring"...  Hope so...

Catch this very unusual production: 30th, 31st August, 2nd & 4th September. 19:30 Start

For more information visit Fulham Opera. Tickets are only 10 pound – that wouldn't buy you a couple of coffees and a cake at lunch time. How could you not go?