German composer Richard Wagner’s epic “Das Rheingold” (The Gold from the Rhine) will be performed for the first time in Dayton Opera history Friday, April 14 and Sunday, April 16 at the Schuster Center.
The first of the four operas of Wagner’s legendary “The Ring Cycle,” “Das Rheingold,” which premiered in Munich in 1869, is a grand look at power, greed, love and dysfunctional family dynamics. The action starts when dwarf Alberich renounces love and steals the magical gold guarded by three Rhine nymphs. Within the gold he secures a ring that gives him dominion over the world, drawing the attention of Wotan, the ruler of the gods. Wotan lusts after the ring and breaks his own laws to obtain it. Situations swell when Alberich puts a curse on the ring.
“‘The Ring Cycle’ changed the course of opera because it showed in a really new way what was possible,” said Dayton Opera Artistic Director Kathleen Clawson, who directs the production. “After this there was no going back. ‘Das Rheingold’ has all the things you love about opera but it’s also not what you think it is. There’s so much to see and experience.”
Film, literature and pop culture fans will notice the tale shares a kinship with J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic “The Lord of the Rings” saga. Wagner’s tale also inspired other modern-day fantasy stories such as “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” With characters drawn from Nordic and Germanic myths, “Das Rheingold” possesses an inherent whimsicality but remains impactful at its core as relatable storytelling.
“Anybody that knows ‘Lord of the Rings’ will find this story familiar but it will also appeal to anybody that studies mythology or Greek theater,” Clawson said. “Wagner thought we needed to get back to the power of storytelling. The purpose of drama is to have a cathartic experience as a group that would make us more aware of each other. If you love fantastical storytelling that is what ‘Das Rheingold’ is but it’s still something everyone can connect to because we can see ourselves in the characters.”
Baritone Lester Lynch leads the cast as Wotan, the ruler of the gods. Lynch made his Dayton Opera debut in 2002. Since then, he has performed with Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic eight times, including the 2021-2022 season as a soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and “Epic Opera.”
In addition to Lynch’s Wotan, the cast includes Christian Sanders as Loge, Aubrey Allicock as Alberich, Catherine Martin as Fricka, Lauren Decker as Erda, Adam Cioffari as Fasolt, Ben Brady as Fafner, and Mary-Hollis Hundley as Freia. The cast also features Dayton Opera Artists in Residence Artega Wright as Donner, Carl Rosenthal as Froh, Kayla Oderah as Woglinde, Madison Montambault as Welgunde, and Allison Deady as Flosshilde.
“We have big forces on the stage and a giant orchestra in the pit,” Clawson added. “Just to hear this music played live is special because it’s some of the greatest music ever written. You experience it in a different way because of the way the orchestra is used. One of the first times I heard one of Wagner’s pieces live I could feel the music in my body. It’s very resonant.”
Inside the music
Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman supervises Wagner’s masterful, moody score, which incorporates short musical phrases called leitmotifs to represent people, ideas and situations.
“Characters have their own motives but even in Wagner’s work, emotions have their own motives in the music,” Gittleman explained. “There’s a moment where one of the giants is about to speak to Loge, the god of fire, but before he speaks to him, we hear Loge’s music one bar before. So you know the giant is already thinking about Loge or is moving toward him.”
Unlike most operas, “Das Rheingold” requires seamless orchestral movement, allowing the orchestra to pull the audience into the story with non-stop emotional resonance from beginning to end.
“The orchestra is very busy through this,” Gittleman said. “They have so many wonderful things to do not just in support of the singing but also as part of the story. Wagner’s creations have so many innovations but one of the biggest innovations is the idea that the orchestra is there to tell the parts of the story that the singers don’t tell or to amplify it so the emotion, the psychology, (comes through).”
Assessing numerous Dayton Opera productions that have been accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic throughout his service as music director, Gittleman admits working on “Das Rheingold” has been a refreshingly unique assignment.
“Rehearsing this opera feels different because it all fits together,” he said. “This opera is all in one piece. The orchestra keeps the flow going. Wagner sucks you into the story in the same way a really good movie does.”
Advancing his cinematic perspective, Gittleman said Wagner would have been a perfect fit for Hollywood, passionately overseeing multiple components with a singular, demanding vision all his own.
“If he were alive today he would be in Hollywood making movies but he’d be doing everything,” he said. “He’d be the screenwriter, producer, director, composer and cinematographer.”
A regional blueprint
This production will feature new costumes by Kathryn Rohe, scenic design by Pam Knauert Lavarnway and the addition of video projections by Daniel Chapman that create a magical and mystical opera experience.
Originally from New Mexico, Chapman is excited to create his visual landscape, which includes creating a snake and a dragon among other digital and animated effects.
“Designing Wagner is a really cool opportunity,” he said. “Wagner was very specific in his writing. He had ideas of how he wanted to see it and it’s written into the music. You don’t get asked to do any of Wagner’s work very often just because of the sheer scope of it. But ‘The Ring Cycle’ is like the holy grail for a lot of people.”
Clawson is pleased to have Chapman aboard to heighten the storytelling visually.
“This to me has to be done with projections,” she said. “We’re bringing the stage in, making it smaller, but using what we have available to us in 2023, which I think Wagner would absolutely have done had he had projections and other modern things. This story is actually a small story. There are many scenes that have three or four people – it’s very small. We’re presenting it the way I feel makes sense.”
Due to the grandeur of Wagner, which can be taxing artistically and economically, it is rare for regional opera companies to consider producing his works. Dayton Opera particularly pondered a shortened, chamber orchestra version of “Das Rheingold” created by composer Jonathan Dove. But Clawson trusted her instincts and the appeal of mounting a production that could be seen as a regional blueprint.
“My hope was that we could build a production that would then be something regional opera companies could use,” she said. “‘Das Rheingold’ is not done in regional theater so there would be nothing for me to rent so we were able to build this world. One of the great joys for me has been imagining this world with other artists.”
“This is showing audiences what opera, in Kathleen’s vision, is – taking a standard work but doing it in a new and different kind of way here,” he said. “You don’t have to go to New York.”
Clawson hopes opera devotees and newcomers alike are eager to see one of the most beloved works in the canon.
“Unless you travel to see opera this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “This is an incredible work of art. I do believe this is a life-changing opera. Just as this work changed the world of opera, it can also change you.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Das Rheingold”
Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton
When: April 14 and 16; 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
More info: Call 937-228-3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org
FYI: The opera will be performed in German with English supertitles. This performance does not include an intermission.
Learn more about Dayton Opera’s ‘Das Rheingold’:
Coffee with Kathleen
Monday, April 10, 10 a.m. - Noon
Boston Stoker, 34 W. Second St., Dayton
Grab a cup of coffee and a tasty treat for a casual inside look at the making of “Das Rheingold.” Listen to Kathleen Clawson provide the background, vision, personal insights and challenges of creating a new production of the opera. You’ll get an up-close preview of the opera’s new costumes and speak with costume designer Kathryn Rohe and projection designer Daniel Chapman. Space is limited. To reserve your spot, visit: Coffee with Kathleen RSVP.
Take Note Talks
Friday, April 14, 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday, April 16, 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Take Note Talks provide an in-depth perspective of producing “Das Rheingold” from start to finish as well as insights on its history. Talks for “Das Rheingold” are held inside the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center one hour before each performance and are free to anyone with a ticket.
After each performance of “Das Rheingold,” Kathleen Clawson and Neal Gittleman host a discussion from the Mead Theatre Stage where they answer questions from the audience.