In the current naturalistic production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle going on in Seattle, it was necessary to have the three Rhinemaidens swimming underwater as per Wagner’s instructions.
So this production starts with a scene in which the Rhinemaidens are apparently swimming in a watery environment up to thirty feet above the stage. Brilliant work by stage director, set and costume and lighting designers, not to mention the six stage hands and busy stage manager who for 20 minutes have to keep all three women in mid-air moving constantly without running into one another and spinning uncontrollably.
What do the Rhinemaidens feel about it?
“I’m proud of it,” says soprano Julianne Gearhart, singing Woglinde and the Forest Bird this year.”It’s been such a long journey and process to get here, and being able to do it and having people respond.”
It all starts with the casting of singers with voices mature enough to sing Wagner, but young and athletic enough to cope with the extraordinary physical demands of the roles.
The three singers, two of 5’2” and one of 5’7”, came to Seattle Opera a full eleven months ago for a week, when the technical crew did the original fittings for their flying harnesses, each one tailored individually. They also met with personal trainers, from whom they learned exercises and a regime to strengthen the necessary muscles. “They gave each of us a suitcase as extra baggage to take everywhere we went all year, with mats, rubber balls, resistance straps and so on.” None could work consistently with one trainer during those months as they were all over the world, singing in or auditioning for other operas.
They came back for a week in January and then arrived a week before full rehearsals started in May.
The harnesses hurt each singer differently and were padded or had holes cut in them accordingly. Tight around the thighs, loose enough for breathing purposes around the waist, suspended from the hips at each body’s fulcrum, with three layers of straps, one around the knees to keep them from splaying out. There is nothing supporting the body on either side of that fulcrum so the harnesses have to be perfect for each singer. Master Stage carpenter Charles T. Buck designed them and Assistant Master Stage Carpenter Scot Allison actually built them, continually refining them to be as comfortable and safe as possible, one of them being redone four times from scratch.
“It’s a constant struggle to keep the lower back strong and safe, when you are horizontal and holding up your head and legs,” says Gearhart, the reason why none of the singers is really tall as it increases the likelihood of back injury. “Your arms weigh about thirty pounds and you have to hold them up the whole time. My harness was comfortable at the beginning but I couldn’t sing in it, and then I had some trouble with pressure on lymph nodes (which resulted in cut outs), and ended up with no skin on my hip bones.”
It’s not waist muscles but hamstrings which hold the whole body weight and they get tight. Seattle Opera has massage therapists and chiropractors there to help, and gym memberships.
In their harnesses, the Rhinemaidens begin to fly, to start with just a few feet off the ground. “The first time you go right up in the air it’s terrifying,” says Gearhart. “It activates the fight or flight syndrome. You feel you can’t save yourself, there’s nothing to grab onto. And as soon as you get used to it, they make you do something else, like dive.”
The Rhinemaidens never stop moving in both “Das Rheingold” and “Gotterdammerung.” In the latter, says Gearhart, “we have to keep looking as though we are in a pool, crawling under the sheets of water and popping back up. It might feel funny to stand and sing it, now we’ve got used to that motion and fluidity.”
She’s so used to it, she says that she feels ‘a bit topply’ when taking bows.
She’s proud, she says again. “People don’t just do this role. It’s such hard work.” At this point, she’s very tired but happy to be here in her first Wagner role ever.