Working on Wagner: experiences of Das Rheingold

Lilli Paasikivi, who sang Fricka in FNO’s production of Das Rheingold (September 2019), shared some thoughts at the time on rehearsing and singing in Wagner’s operas. It was the first production of the new Der Ring des Nibelungen at Finnish Opera House, and initially it was planned as a collaboration between theatre director Anna Kelo (who studied at RATI/GITIS, Moscow) and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. At the moment, due to unexpected changes of schedule, Die Walkure is being rehearsed by Susanna Malkki and is expected to be premiered in February 2021.


Lilli, could you describe Wagnerian roles in your career?

The first one was actually Rossweisse in Die Walküre in 1996 here at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB) in the old Ring Cycle by Götz Friedrich that we did here – that was my first Wagnerian role. After that I have sung Fricka quite a lot, and then I did the Second Norn – Waltraute – in Die Götterdämmerung. Then I have done Brangäne in Tristand und Isolde and Kundry in Parcifal.

What is most challenging in preparation of Wagnerian roles?

Well, I think that preparation-wise all roles have their own challenges. I don’t think that Wagner or Verdi are different in this respect – you have to learn the music, you need to make it yours vocally, you need to work on the text and interpretation and movements and behaviour on stage together with the director, and to do other preparation. But Wagner encompasses such a deep, complex and multifaceted world. It is a really rich world which you can dive into and read about. It includes an endless amount of layers, and it is really interesting for the artist to move about in these works – especially in the Ring Cycle. Although one does may be only a small role within it, but it is a cornucopia of symbols and references and stories. It is a really interesting process to discuss it together with people who are as enthusiastic about it as you are. It is the whole universe in itself.

At the time I noticed that you were putting online drawings and paintings of previous productions. Were you researching them?

Those were from a book. I remember when I was in Salzburg, I bought a book with Wagner operas’ libretti and their translations, leitmotifs and analyses of the works – so I just photographed these pictures and don’t have their originals unfortunately (laughs). There is a lot of interesting literature on Wagner, surely.

Das Rheingold at FNO. Photo: Ralph Larmann

Did you watch previous interpretations of your role – Fricka – before you started rehearsing Das Rheingold?

I have seen several productions, naturally. But I don’t concentrate on Fricka only. I am interested in the whole production – I have several videos at home. I have the Centennial Ring, I have the Ring from the Metropolitan Opera, and so on. It is quite nice in these days, when you have so much material online – you type Fricka on YouTube, and have millions of results and versions of the role. So that is never a question that there is not enough reference material. On the other hand, it is really nice to have an open mind towards the director whom you work with and not to have to much access baggage from previous productions.

You also had the wealth of knowledge of planning and preparation of the Ring Cycle. You knew about the concept of the whole production earlier than others. But how did other colleagues find out about Anna Kelo’s vision of the new Ring Cycle?

We have a certain process here. As an Artistic Director I have discussions about productions in due time – surely, they are presented to us well in advance. When the singers start to be involved, there is a collaboration period from the early stages. For example, about 6 months before the rehearsals start, the concept is presented to people in the house. In the case of the Ring Cycle we had lots of freelancers so they were not necessarily present there. So some of them find out about the concept only when rehearsals start, but after the in-house presentation it is free information within the team.

Are you aware of the development of your character and its visual presense in all operas of the Ring Cycle according to current concept, or do you compartmentalize your tasks and only concentrate on Fricka in Das Rheingold?

Well, the director Anna Kelo has in a few situations already referred to the future. For instance, the end of Das Rheingold when Fricka sees the Walhalla rising, she is worried about Wotan and future. It is not a joyous moment – although she is happy to see her husband, she also partly sees their future or is afraid of it. So Fricka in Die Walküre is already a very different person.

So what I can see from your answer is only in some moments of each production you can see references to the future, but in general each production is separate from another.

As a viewer, you can see and understand these references only afterwards, as then you can look back and see the reasons it was like this in Das Rheingold. Anna Kelo has of course a very clear picture of the whole travel till the last opera – Die Götterdämmerung, but we now, in Das Rheingold, follow her instructions and try not to make too many references (laughs) – anyway, at this point. It is always easier to make references backwards rather than forward.

Can you please describe how opera singers work with the director during the rehearsals, and with the conductor, and then at some point with both of them?

Singers working with director – when we start the rehearsal period, we first do something called blocking. Basically you define the main points and geography of the production – where people come in, where they stand, where they go out. It is some sort of positioning. And layer by layer, rehearsal by rehearsal, you add more detailed work to it. Directors work in a very different way. Some people want to go very much into detail very early on. I personally like the way of rehearsing when with each time you add something to your character. You really have to know the basics, the positions, a bigger scale of the production. You have to also find positions that are comfortable for your singing and where you can see the conductor, and you sing out in a way so that acoustically it is more favourable. Little by little, you add more detail. During this process, the performer perceives external information and makes it into his or her own interpretation. It is never forced onto you – you have to have a right to artistically digest it and make it your own. And in the best situation in the end you feel that the activity on stage comes very organically from your own emotional chart. Then it is really nice to discuss with director why your character is doing what she is doing, why the relations are as they are. It is nice to have an interactive dialogue with the director so that the performers can also suggest something. Anna Kelo is very interactive in that way: she knows us very well, she knows what are capable of and she has worked with us many times before. She trusts us, and we trust her, so it is really a wonderful and fruitful collaboration with her. And then in the end, when everything becomes logical, you recognize and accept and ‘sign’ under the chosen interpretation, things become extremely clear, organic and believable. It is easy to be on stage when the interpretation feels almost to be impulsive and not ‘one, two, three, turn left’. It becomes part of you and that is a really optimal way to be on stage.

Das Rheingold at FNO. Photo: Ralph Larmann

Working with conductor – we first work with repetiteur and we might have music rehearsals with in-house conductor and we learn the structure of music in relation of one character to another after our own private musical work. We know the places that are extremely important – we hear them from the orchestra – and we learn to navigate the music in the same way that we learn to do it with stage. We have monitors, and we also have souffleurs, so in a way you always keep the conductor on the side of your eyeline. When Esa-Pekka Salonen joins us, it is really important that you establish the tempo that is comfortable for the singer and also is acceptable for the Maestro and his interpretation. Esa-Pekka has given a very intense and forward-leaning, active touch to the first Ring opera which I love. He has got a very good drive in music, and I like it when everything is not static and moves on. There are moments when you have lots of stage activity, when music still has to come first. It always comes first, in my opinion, and however many things you are doing on stage, you have to leave some space to check that you are together with the conductor. In Esa-Pekka’s case, it has been a very rewarding experience. He is very encouraging, very supportive, very clear and also gives you space. If you have a moment when in a live performance you feel like singing sligthly differently, he follows – it is never a tight leash, and it is very inspiring.

How do you distinguish his cues – are they done for specific singers at exact moments?

It depends on a particular case. If we are in accordance and everything is secure and clear, then you don’t need huge traffic police situation, but sometimes – if someone comes in a little bit too early or something unexpected goes in the orchestra, then he needs to give some additional cues. However, he is not a windmill always in the same place. If you have a hundred people in the pit and ten on stage, and something happens, then you have to make a clear sign that this is a downbeat, end of discussion (laughs). But Esa-Pekka is not traffic police, it happens only in emergency situations. It is a wonderful dialogue between the stage and the pit, and everyone understands each other and can do things together. Esa-Pekka is a master in reacting and creating special moments in a musical performance.

It so happened that after a rehearsal cycle you went with the production of Das Rheingoldt to Stockholm and did its concertante version first, with the fully staged production second. Could you compare the performance at Baltic Sea Festival and the premiere in Helsinki?

Well, the reason why we did this performance in Stockholm is that Esa-Pekka Salonen has a long relationship with Baltic Sea Festival and we were approached by their management with the suggestion to do this. So we left out one dress rehearsal – instead of two we had only one last one, we completely ready and needed an audience at that point. To do a concertante like that – a little bit before the actual staged premiere – and mind you, it was the first time I had ever done it in this order (laughs) – was really inspiring for everyone. It was like returning back to basics – you don’t have the costumets, the set, the director’s concept. In a concertante situation you can fully concentrate on a musical side of it and you mentally go through the staging when you are standing in front of the orchestra. Everyone felt inspired and happy that we had a chance to do it like that before our final dress rehearsal. I think the audiences in Stockholm also felt that this group of singers and musicians were really knowing what they were doing. The intentions were very clear. Although we didn’t have costumes and didn’t move on stage, everyone knew what was going on.