Skip to comments.'There's Something Bottomless About It' - Robert Spano on Conducting Wagner's Ring
Posted on 09/18/2005 5:55:05 PM PDT by sitetest
Robert Spano is zooming along in his life as a conductor, the lights all turning green.
Tonight in Symphony Hall, he conducts Mahler's monumental "Resurrection" Symphony and begins his fourth season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra a partnership that increasingly draws national praise.
Robert Spano (photo courtesy of the Atlanta Symphony) Spano comes off a summer at the Seattle Opera, where he led Wagner's four-opera, 16-hour Ring cycle. After more than two months of rehearsal, he led the cycle three times over three weeks and calls it a life-changing experience. A sign of success: He's already been invited back to Seattle to conduct the Ring in 2009.
We recently caught up with the 44-year-old conductor in a Midtown coffee shop.
Q: You received mostly glowing reviews for your first Ring. How did you feel about it?
A: It felt like a huge marker in my life. Not just as a conductor but as a human being. I feel like a different person. I'm altered and I'm grateful.
Q: What was so transformative?
A: For one thing the physicality, the athleticism of the Ring. In rehearsal, the first time we did Rheingold [Part 1 of the Ring saga] was the first time in my life I've had to conduct for 2½ hours without stopping. I made a point of not getting tired. I quit smoking, which I'd started at 17. I was going to the gym, doing Pilates. I went on a six-meal-a-day eating regimen, smaller meals. I took it very seriously. During the performances, I didn't get tired at all, didn't even think about it. But at intermission, and this was unusual, I'd be completely exhausted, physically and mentally. Sometimes I'd walk into my dressing room and have to lie on the floor to regroup, just so I'd have the energy to continue.
The other thing I hadn't expected, in the two years I spent in serious study [of the Ring score], was that everything took me twice as long to learn as usual. That terrified me. I'm usually a pretty quick study. Here I had to learn a whole new musical language Wagner's language which I'd been avoiding most of my life. No matter how hard I studied, I always had a thousand pages to go.
There is something bottomless about the Ring; it's such a vast and strange world. Fifty years before Freud and psychoanalysis, Wagner had it in the Ring. It goes very deep. Everyone who really knows the Ring will tell you that. But until you're inside it yourself, you can't quite imagine how such a thing could be true.
Conducting the Ring also, and this was really fascinating to me, warped my sense of time and space. Act 1 of Götterdämmerung [the fourth Ring opera] is two hours, which is as long as all of [Puccini's] Madama Butterfly, but I thought about it like 'an act of opera,' not in time but as units.
For long stretches I felt like I wasn't in my own body. I felt like I was growing with each performance, more than I'd grown in my entire life of conducting. It was amazing. And ridiculous, in a wonderful way.
Q: Did you take a nice break after Seattle?
A: No, I came right back to Atlanta to start preparing for the new season. I'll admit my first few days back I wasn't too functional. I'm not taking any vacation this year, but next fall  I'm taking a chunk of time off, to compose. I have several pieces I need to finish, and this summer made me all the more aware that composing is a part of my life that I have to pursue. As a kid, when I was 12, I thought of myself as a composer, but later sort of fell into conducting. It's clear to me that returning to composition is something I have to do.
Q: You open the ASO season with Mahler's Second Symphony. It's only about 80 minutes long. Does that now feel short to you?
A: He's the opposite of Wagner; it's so concentrated and focused. Mahler, no fool, gave us a clue to music and meaning, the eternal question. Mahler quotes from Act 2, Scene 2 of Walküre [the second Ring opera]. It's a loveless scene where convention and society choke-hold creativity and the loving possibilities of the individual. I was blown away when I realized that connection. I love that I better understand Wagner through the eyes of his descendants, like Mahler.
Q: Will Atlanta ever share in your Wagner revelations?
A: I'd love to do Tristan und Isolde [with the ASO], maybe done in separate acts, maybe just a single act. That's an opera I have always loved. It's a long way away, but we might be able to pull it off.
The Mahler 2nd is no walk in the park, either.
Classical Music Ping List ping!
This is a moderate volume ping list, typically several times per week to one per day or so. Let me know if you want on or off the list via FR mail. Thanks!
* snicker *
On the other hand, it would take a lifetime to fully appreciate the music of Wagner.
Stupid ring. Bad idea
It's good but overrated.
Give me the B-minor Mass anytime.
As for Wagner and Der Ring des Niebelungen, let me recommend Anna Russell.
With Wagnerian operas --- You don't have to watch. Just close your eyes and listen and feel.
I couldn't agree more.
Yes, but after the Ring, it's no thousand mile journey either.
"Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbitt, Kill the Wabbit, uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!"
I agree with all that The Ring is a mighty work. I'm just not always in the mood for a 4 night opera festival. They are certainly something, though.
I only mentioned the Mahler 2nd because the article said that was on the conductor's agenda, and then said little about it. There are so many high points in Mahler's 2nd, that it is very easy for a conductor (and orchestra and solosists and chorus) to fail to hit them all just right. I've been to two live performances of it, and both were tremendously exciting.
P*S televised the Ring over a week several years ago. Four operas later I was drained. It was in my dreams. Conducting it, and above all making the whole thing come together, must take a very special person...like me. I'd love to do it :)
If bottomless means the same as never-emdimg, I certain;y agree.
Mahler's 1st is my absolute favorite...
I stood in line for the Seattle Opera a couple of years ago and the whole dang crowd started singing "Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, the Wabbit must die..." Hope none of the cast heard us...
I'll contribute a dissenting view. I have grown to like Mahler and now really enjoy many of the symphonies. I have never liked Wagner with the exception of the Ride of the Valkyries theme used in Apocalypse now.
Saw a special on Discovery/Times network the other day (I know, I know). It was on occultism in the 3rd Reich. It was actually quite good and made many points not all of them can I summarize here.
One point it made however, was that Hitler was heavily influenced by Wagner - it might not be an overstatement to say that Nazism was the product of Wagner's aryan mysticism and Hitler's take on all of it. All the top Nazi's saw themselves as Aryan or Nordic knights that were going to find the grail or some such nonsense - all right out of Wagner. I'm sure intelligent people can differ but for me it just reinforced my already strong predisposition to not like Wagner.