A Wagnerian Interview. Ben Woodward, & why its good to be compared to Bayreuth

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 11 February 2013 | 2:53:00 pm

Ben Woodward
We noted Fulham Opera's continuing Ring cycle as one of the highlights of Wagner in London last year. A production without the funding of any other company and with a spirit that is truly "Wagnerian". Nearly two years on from when we first spoke to him, Fulham Opera's Artistic Director, Ben Woodward, managed to take time out of a schedule that would make the Wagner's at Bayreuth blush, to discuss the cycle so far, this months Siegfried,  the future for Wagner at Fulham  and it would seem, being "referenced" by Bayreuth. Ben was also able to provide us a series of rehearsal photos "fresh off the press".

TW: Ben, its been I think. now 2 years since we first spoke and  two years into your Ring project. With that in mind, can you tell me how things have developed and if things have gone the way that you thought they would?

BW: It's been an incredible journey from Rheingold back in August 2011, which was then reprised for the London Wagner Society in June 2012, and we did our full Walküre in May 2012, over Wagner's 199th birthday - we had a cake!

Musically speaking, I've been so impressed with the continued commitment of cast and crew in putting this most unusual cycle together. All of them recognise we have started something very special here, and it is worth their time and not inconsiderable effort.

Due to Fiona Williams having availability issues, this instalment is being directed by Max Pappenheim - who will later also revive Fiona's Rheingold when we do a complete Ring Cycle.  Max has been absolutely tremendous, bringing enormous amounts of enthusiasm and a real love of Wagner's music to this, the "scherzo of the Ring".   Fiona will be back to direct Götterdämmerung in November.

Alberich (Robert Presley) and Mime (Peter Kent)
Has it gone the way I expected it would?  It's been just as much hard work as I expected, yes!  Siegfried is another level up in difficulty from a musical perspective than Walküre, especially once we get to the post-Tristan/Meistersinger music of Act 3.

TW: Indeed it is! Talking about Siegfried. it is often considered one of the most difficult of Wagner's works to cast - especially the role of Siegfried. As you know, most, if not all, major companies struggle with this particular role; often with different artists taking over as others drop out for various reasons. Could you tell us a little bit about your Siegfried : who is he, how you found him?

After putting out many feelers, a recommendation led us to ask Philip Modinos to come and audition for us.  We were in the middle of our Gianni Schicchi final technical preparations at the time, and in the midst of various bits of technical chaos going on around the space, he sang us the most beautiful Tanhäuser monologue, and we knew we'd found a simply world-class Siegfried in the making.  Philip is Greek, though he grew up in Switzerland and went to Trinity College of Music here in London.  He recognised the importance of this project, and also that this was a role he needed to learn, and will inevitably sing all across the world.

Philip looks like you'd want a Siegfried to look, he has an astounding instrument that could sing the role twice if he really needed to, and is also (how unlikely is this for a potential Siegfried...) a trained swordsman.  He's been a real find, and I am convinced the Wagner-loving world will know about him for this role within the next decade.

We will expect an interesting confrontation with "The Wanderer" than! And you have many people returning, Zoe South. Ian Wilson-Pope and Robert Presley. I assume keeping the same key performers in place helps with the cycles development?

We're certainly trying to keep the same members of cast as much as we possibly can, yes.  Zoe and Ian are the key players across the cycle, as is Robert Presley, our Alberich.  Philip is on board to do our Götterdämmerung, which is clearly excellent news.  We have really chosen to do this repertoire because we have the singers who can sing it and want to sing it.  It's a fantastic place to be and a marvellous niche to have.

TW: I think it would be true to say that there seems, from what we know of it,  similarities between the over-ridding themes of your cycle  and Bayreuth's new Ring. Could you remind us a little about this so far and how these concepts will be integrated into Siegfried?

Siegfried (Philip Modinos)
When Fiona first took on Rheingold, she placed us in Texas, where Wotan was (loosely speaking) a JR Ewing archetype oil magnate.  Fricka was a bit like Sue-Ellen, and Donner and Froh were cowboys.  In Walküre, Wotan had moved his oil wealth to Hollywood, where he was trying to control the actions of his movie-in-the-making, "Siegmund".  By Siegfried, our director Max Pappenheim has moved us to somewhere remote, perhaps in an Amish-style community outside Chicago, where Mime brings up Siegfried away from the modern world, though it is clearly not very far away, as we find when Siegfried battles Fafner in Act 2.

I understand that Bayreuth are doing something similar.  As with our cushion hire, I welcome the comparison!

TW: Staging a Ring cycle is of course a financial strain on the biggest company. With this in mind how are you funding it and again,  have things in this regard gone as you might have expected

BW: I am extremely grateful to all our artists for realising the value of what we are doing here, and as such, we manage to work the company on a co-operative business model.  The artists and crew each get 10 tickets to sell, which forms the core part of their fee, and then, after production expenses are taken into account, everyone gets an equal share of what monies remain.  We've managed to secure a reasonable amount of sponsorship from the London Wagner Society, as well as from a couple of private donors, to whom I am extremely grateful, as their donations mean that the eventual shares for all cast and crew become closer to a reasonable fee.  Whatever we do, there is simply no chance that anyone is going to make anything close to a professional fee for a 5 week rehearsal period and three performances, but we do what we can do!  With that in mind, I've set up a wefund "crowd-funding" page (link here) which will take any donation over £1.  Everything helps, and everything goes towards the performers themselves.

TW: Götterdämmerung is next this year I believe. What can you tell us about this?

BW: We have decided to put Götterdämmerung in the calendar for November, and split it up over two nights each, doing two complete performances.  We will do the Prologue and Act I on 13th November and then complete the opera on 16th, and then do the same on the 20th and 23rd, which we think is the best way we can perform it in our space.  As per our website, the casting is almost complete; I'm hoping to confirm with a simply magnificent Hagen shortly after Siegfried, and the London Gay Mens Chorus approached us about being our Vassals, which is very exciting.  I've already started typing up the surtitles!  Other than that, we're still in relatively early planning.

Wanderer:  (Ian Wilson-Pope)

TW: And finally, I have heard rumors that Fulham Opera will be involved in Wagner 200. Can you tell us anything about this?

I think I can confirm that we're being involved in the W200 celebrations on 22nd May, yes!  What we are doing is slightly adjunct to the main celebrations that evening in the RFH, but we're definitely going to be there in the afternoon.  I think I should keep any further details quiet and not spoil the surprise at this point, but yes, book out the entire day for the South Bank.

TW: Ben, again thank you for taking time out of a very busy schedule indeed. 

If you would like more information about Fulham Opera's Ring cycle or would like to book tickets for this months Siegfried please visit: Fulham Opera