November sees the release of Siegfried, part of the ongoing Naxos recording of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle. For this month’s blogs, we go behind the scenes of the finished product to meet some of the orchestral players involved in the project. We asked Natalie Lewis, a former member of the orchestra, to strike up the conversations.
“During my time as a French horn player with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Naxos undertook a project of monumental proportions with the orchestra: recording a concert version of Richard Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in its entirety…LIVE. Four operas, sung entirely in German, ranging in length from 2.5 (Das Rheingold) to 4.5 hours (Götterdämmerung), with a dream team cast of vocalists, an orchestra of nearly 100 musicians, and the music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden. I’m proud to say you can hear me on the first two installments: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.
With this month’s release of the third installment, Siegfried, I can’t help but get a little emotional recalling how I parted company with my friends and former colleagues as they prepared to undertake the final two operas. I caught up with a few of them to see what we can expect from this hot, new recording.
First up, we have none other than the concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, man-about-town, Mr. Jing Wang. Born in Guilin, China, Jing came to the Hong Kong Philharmonic from the Dallas Opera. We bonded over our mutual love of the bottomless sushi brunch at Zuma in Hong Kong!”
By now, you’ve performed and recorded 3 out of 4 operas from Wagner’s Ring. How is Siegfried different from the first two? What are some of the characteristics that distinguish it from Das Rheingold and Die Walküre?
JW: Siegfried is by far the darkest sounding opera compared with the other three in the cycle. I find certain moments in the opera to be quite atonal and very different compared to the raw beauty of Götterdämmerung or the majestic tonal qualities of Die Walküre. Having said that, there are, of course, many magical moments in Siegfried, such as the appearance of the woodbird song in Act II, a very notable and memorable melody.
You played a lot of opera during your time in Dallas. When performing live opera on stage as a symphony orchestra, do you approach it differently from sitting in an orchestra pit?
JW: Yes, it is very different. There is a mental challenge in performing a staged opera where all of us need to be constantly ready to adapt to the singers. When you are playing a four-hour long piece where a lead singer is told how to act, how to walk, what objects to pick up and throw, believe me, it is not easy for them to memorise all that and watch the conductor at the same time. Too many factors can go not as expected, but that is the beauty of a live opera performance. I would say that you do have the luxury of the “cruise control” in a symphonic performance.
As the concertmaster, charged with leading the orchestra and acting as the primary conduit between the conductor and orchestra, how does this role change in a concert opera setting?
JW: For me, having done both, I don’t like to think of my job as any different. I tend to lead more with gestures in opera because I need quick reactions from my peers. In a symphonic concert, I tend to let the section play and trust our chamber music skills during the concert, and not drag the section with me too much. It is a very fine line and an important balance to keep.
As concertmaster, were you also in charge of the string bowings for the entire opera? How long did that take?
JW: I had bowings from Bayreuth which helped a lot, but most importantly, having my section using the right tone colour during certain passages, playing on a specific string on the instrument, is what defines this recording. Our sound comes from that.
How did you prepare for Siegfried and when did you begin your preparation?
JW: Listening to recordings, literally WRITING notes in the music actually helps much more than raw practice for me. I try to break it up by doing a couple of pages a day. I cannot retain things if I practise and learn too much at once.
How much of your practice time is dedicated to an opera as big as Siegfried?
JW: It took about one month to learn this piece, which is quite a lot for me personally.
How did you celebrate the completion of this recording?
JW: I will celebrate next year after Götterdämmerung!
Next week, we’ll catch up with two more friends from the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what you can expect from Naxos’ recording of Siegfried!