Playing in Wagner's World

by Erik Ralske, principal hornist

This article originally appeared in Allegro, the magazine of Local 802, as part of a celebration of Richard Wagner's 200th birthday in September, 2013.

Three years ago, I began a new job as principal horn of the MET Orchestra. Up until then, I had spent my entire career as an orchestral player, including 17 seasons with the New York Philharmonic. Symphony orchestra players usually only dine on small appetizers of Wagner - four or five overtures and a few opera excerpts. These are delicious and satisfying masterpieces for sure, but they’re never the experience of a full Wagnerian meal.

In college, we were all taught about Wagner the revolutionary, who changed the world of opera with his new concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) and who changed the world of music by virtually ending tonality with his never-resolving Tristan chord. But until I began to play these mammoth works in their entirety, I’m not sure I appreciated how Wagner really stands alone as a creative force in the late 19th century.

Appreciating Wagner requires total immersion, which is how Wagner intended his works to be experienced. Rather than attending a lengthy performance after an equally lengthy day at the office as audiences currently do, he wanted his audiences to set aside a period of time to attend a festival of performances, much as the ancient Greeks presented festivals for their performing arts.

My immersion into the world of Wagner began in my first season (2010-2011), when the Met introduced the new Robert Lepage productions of the first two Ring operas - Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Since then, we introduced the final two operas of the Ring - Siegfried and Götterdämmerung - with a half-dozen performances of each. Ultimately, we’ve presented seven complete Ring cycles since the spring of 2012. By luck, my debut at the Met was Rheingold with Maestro James Levine conducting - definitely a performance I’ll never forget. I remember thinking at the time what a marathon the piece is! While it is a bit over two and a half hours without intermission and is considered the longest single stretch of unbroken music in the Western world, I hadn’t yet played any of the other three Ring operas, which log in at over five hours each. (I learned an important lesson during the live HD performance of Rheingold in my first season about performing any Wagner opera: never over-hydrate before starting!)

Luckily, the mental endurance needed to focus for so many hours comes easily when you are surrounded by a stellar cast and a brilliant and experienced orchestra, all led by a conductor who so clearly understands every note of the piece. On top of that, I simply find the world of Wagner’s music to be so intoxicating. For me, it’s not just the incredible range of expression, drama and originality within these monumental works that moves me. As a horn player in the world of Wagner, you have no choice but to be focused because you’re just so busy and challenged most of the time.

Wagner’s affinity for the horn - and his incredible understanding of the potential of it - is probably only matched by Brahms and Mahler. It seems that no matter what emotion he’s trying to express or what kind of sonic atmosphere he’s painting, he so often reaches for the timbre of the horn. In doing so, he not only added to our rich repertoire, but also pushed beyond the boundaries of how most composers utilized the horn.

By way of example, most players consider the Mount Everest of horn excerpts to be “Siegfried’s Horn Call” from Act 2 of Siegfried. I can’t think of any other orchestral work or opera where everyone stops, while the unaccompanied, offstage solo horn takes over for two minutes. In my uninitiated opera days, I got very used to pacing this two-minute solo on my own. What I learned in a dozen performances of this solo is to be ready for anything as far as pacing goes: you have to follow the tenor who is miming it onstage by watching an all-too-often tiny monitor. The other lesson is that casts change from performance to performance, so you don’t always have the same Siegfried leading you each night.

Along those lines, a more significant change came when Maestro Levine injured his back in 2011 and had to bow out of the second half of the Ring presentation. On short notice, Fabio Luisi took over to finish the rest of the Ring performances, leading very different, but equally committed interpretations. As he could not cover all of Levine’s performance dates, assistant conductor Derrick Inouye bravely conducted one performance of Die Walküre and Siegfried - without an orchestra rehearsal. It’s never a dull moment in the world of opera!

Wagner not only expanded the role of the horn in his operas, but also the role of horn players themselves, by including the Wagner tuba in his orchestrations. He intended the unique sound of this instrument to bridge the perceived tonal gap in the brass family between the brighter trombone timbre and the less direct horn sound. As they have the same range as a horn, Wagner tubas are played by horn players. His Ring operas are scored for eight horns in the pit, with four doubling on Wagner tubas. He spent years trying to find the right sound in a world where brass instruments were not standardized and still evolving. He visited the instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, in Paris and thought the “saxhorn” (a marching instrument) was the right instrument. Later, he decided to commission another maker to design a similar instrument, which came to be known as the Wagner tuba.

The first time we hear the Wagner Tubas is in the Ring cycle, in Rheingold, playing the motif of the golden castle of the gods, Valhalla. It has been a great pleasure to hear them so expertly played over the course of these Ring cycles by my horn colleagues Javier Gandara, Brad Gemeinhart, Michelle Baker, Scott Brubaker, Barbara Joestlein-Currie, Anne Scharer, Julie Pilant and substitute players Tony Cecere and Stewart Rose. These same expert players double on horn throughout the Ring as well.

It would be unwise and probably impossible for one person to play first horn and the main offstage solos on all the Ring operas during a cycle at the Met. Last year we had Britten’s Billy Budd, Janacek’s The Makropulos Case and several standard operas to play on the off nights. This year, Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites and several repertory works were woven into the Ring schedule. Thankfully, I get to share the principal duties with Joe Anderer, a wonderful hornist and colleague. We tend to divide each cycle roughly in half and still it’s a battle to stay fresh and healthy during the run, especially since we still do seven performances a week during the Ring cycles, with other challenging repertoire on the off nights. This is not an unusual arrangement at most major opera houses.

My newfound passion for Wagner stems not only from the Ring experiences at the Met, but also from a series of awe-inspiring performances this past winter of Parsifal led by Danielle Gatti. This religious work was Wagner’s last. The holy and reverential atmosphere easily sweeps both audience and performers into meditative state, with over five hours of mostly gentle, transparent lyricism. One cannot resist being deeply affected by the profound beauty of this masterpiece. For me, it’s just one of the reasons that I don’t miss my old life onstage. Luckily, I won this job in time for the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. Happy birthday, Wagner!