Interview: Ben Woodward. "Bayreuth? They stole our idea!"

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 18 October 2013 | 11:00:00 pm

One would have to admit that in UK this year those with an interest in Wagner have been well served - with the exception of the UKs two largest opera houses, whose Wagner has been conspicuous by its absence. Opera North continue with its semi staged Ring Cycle, WNO treated us to both a new Lohengrin and a new translation of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, while the Proms gave us perhaps one of the most exceptional  Ring cycles of many years - certainly of this centenary. And lest we not forget Longborough who, despite many early doubters, concluded an entire, fully staged Ring cycle in a theatre, like Bayreuth, built specifically for that reason. However, to me one of the most extrodinary productions has been Fulham Operas Ring cycle that was begun in 2011 and concludes - at least the format of, roughly,  one work a year, with November's Götterdämmerung. 

I was thus more than pleased to be able to catchup with FO's Music Director to discuss this years Götterdämmerung, two new complete Ring cycles next year, a new Parsifal and how Frank Castrof may have borrowed more that just the gold from a little church in Fulham

TW: I think we have now spoken every year since Fulham’s first Rheingold but for people new to the Fulham Ring cycle, could you just take us through the history and background of  the production so far?

BW: Fulham Opera and its Ring Cycle came about around Christmas 2010 when I was conducting a performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors", and our dear late friend Robert Presley was singing the middle King. He came up to me afterwards and suggested we do "Rheingold" next, as he had always wanted to sing Alberich.  At the time my Wagner knowledge was in its infancy, but this sounded like fun.  I asked Fiona Williams to direct it, and it happened in August 2011.  

To everyone's great pleasure and surprise, the Rheingold was a great success, drawing attention from the London Wagner Society, and several delighted reviewers.  The Board met and decided we had laid down a gauntlet, and we now had to continue the Ring.  Die Walküre happened in May 2012 (over Wagner's 199th birthday, inclusive of cake) and Siegfried in February 2013.   The final conflagration will happen on 8, 10, 15 and 17th November, starting at 5pm.

TW: How difficult has it been to find performers  for what are considered some of the most difficult works in the opera world?

BW: Far from easy!   The main problem we encounter is that people who can sing this repertoire already are doing all across the world and are commanding huge fees for doing so!   We sell ourselves to singers by saying that we are providing their initial Wagnerian experiences; much as graduates looking for jobs are often turned down for not already having experience, Wagnerian voices also run into this problem, of having little experience of the repertoire in order to get into it! We provide that.
We also attract singers who absolutely adore this music and wouldn't miss it for the world.  Wild horses (Grane...?) wouldn't drag our Brunnhilde - Zoe South - away from completing this Ring.  I'm tremendously grateful to all of the cast, naming any of them individually would be disingenuous - but they and I all work hard to make it an enjoyable experience.

TW: How are you funding this and has it proven difficult? Indeed, if anyone would like to help with this, how can they do so?

BW: I am most grateful to four significant funders for their donations to this project.  We've also done an online "wefund" campaign, but this year that only raised £100.  Those contributions more or less cover our costs for the production before paying any of the singers (or myself or Fiona).  That means that every ticket sale will be directly be split between all performers.  The more we sell, the more they make!
That said, any contributions would be extremely gratefully received.  Cheques payable to Fulham Opera can be sent c/o St John's Church, SW6 1PB, PayPal payments to ian@fulhamopera.co.uk or cash contributions after the performances will be most welcome.

TW: You have continued to play the score yourself throughout. Have you been tempted to call anyone else to  assist or take over?

BW: I do get great joy out of playing the scores myself; the colours you can drag out of the piano in this repertoire particularly make for a fun challenge.  That said, on this opera I definitely needed an extra pair of hands:  I recently went to watch some opera scenes at the Royal Academy of Music and one of the pianists, Nick Fletcher, was playing the Witch's Ride from Hansel & Gretel.  He played with great colour and understanding, so afterwards I found him on Facebook and took him for a couple of beers.  Nick has come on board embracing the challenge, being invaluable: taking notes and playing various rehearsals.  He will play the third show, and in all of the shows, we will play the Rhine Journey, Funeral March and Immolation in a four-hand arrangement.  We also have the services of 3 horn players, a flautist and a harpist, building on the Siegfried experience using one horn and a flautist, so this should be musically really very colourful. 

TW: Can we expect a full chorus? After all not even  Longborough managed that?

BW: I'm very glad you asked about this!  After our Rheingold, a member of the audience came up to me, grinning from ear-to-ear, and said "I'm the bass representative in the London Gay Men's Chorus; if you get to Götterdämmerung can we be your vassals?"

And sure enough this has happened and he had kept his word.  We have 24 members of the LGMC lustily giving their all, and they have been a joy to work with.  They have kept a blog of rehearsals on their website (Ed: Click here to read), which is hysterical and quite indicative of the enjoyment they are getting from this, and indeed how they are finding the experience quite new, and for some of them, this is their first ever experience of opera, let alone Wagner.

TW: Visually, what can we expect of this years production? Perhaps the most difficult of the works to stage?

BW: When we did Das Rheingold and Die Walküre we simply used the features of the church already present.  For Siegfried we acquired the use of a staging system and a variety of more interesting lighting effects.  In Götterdämmerung we have the stage back, and also a significant set built around - and in order to hide - the features of St John's Church.  There will be use of advanced lighting and projection as well in this; each production we do our production values go up and up.  This show will be very special.

TW: It is impossible for me to view this years Bayreuth  Ring and then see yours without finding great similarities - even if yours lacks the narrative inconsistencies that have marred Castorf’s in many eyes. Has anyone else made this comparison and if so what has been your reaction?

BW: I was away on holiday when Castorf's Ring was playing, but one of our cast did email me a couple of the reviews accompanied by the words "they stole our idea!"  
Our Ring is set loosely in America, initially in Texas; Wotan is an oil baron (think JR Ewing) and Fricka is a Sue-Ellen archetype.  In Walküre, Wotan has moved his oil money to Hollywood and is making a movie about Siegmund, whose destiny is slipping from his control.  Sieglinde escapes to an out-of-the-way place - think Amish - to raise Siegfried, who in Götterdämmerung leaves for new challenges.  He finds himself in Washington DC, where complete worldwide anarchy is the final culmination.  It speaks to a modern-day audience in a way that perhaps a more "traditional" production might not.

TW: What is next?

BW: First up on Sunday 8th December we are running an orchestral repertoire day on Act 3 of Götterdämmerung.  We already have about 70 musicians signed up, including full triple wind, and full brass (8 horns with several in reserve).  That's open to the public to come and watch a full run through at 7pm at St James's Church, Sherriff Rd, W Hampstead (St John's Fulham is not big enough for a full orchestra).

Then we are reviving all four productions and putting on two complete Ring Cycles.  Details of that will appear once Götterdämmerung shows have begun.

After that, we've been approached by Adam Spreadbury-Maher of The King's Head Theatre and Opera Up Close if we'd be interested in him directing us producing a Parsifal in February 2015.  I'll keep you updated on progress as we go.  A remarkable journey.

Indeed it is and for more information please visit: Fulham Opera