Glynn Ross founded Seattle Opera in 1963, and twelve years later realized his ambitious plan to mount the entire cycle of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” in a week, in fact two cycles, one German and one English, back to back.
This idea was unheard of in the U.S. No one had done it like this here, indeed it wasn’t commonly performed this way anywhere apart from Bayreuth. For a then somewhat backwater town on the U.S. West Coast it was an extraordinarily presumptuous undertaking.
Ross went to Europe to find his singers, among whom was English bass-baritone Malcolm Rivers, chosen for Alberich.
“Glynn had this huge vision of doing the “Ring” in Seattle. There was no tradition then of singing Wagner in the U.S.,” says Rivers, who is here to take in the current “Ring” production. “American singers would have had to learn a completely new genre in two languages, German and English, so Glynn came to people already doing it.”
Now, he goes on, “it seems fantastic. Every major opera house in the U.S. does a Ring cycle.”
He is particularly pleased to see the cast and audiences for the 2009 “Ring.” That many of the cast are American singers, that much of the audience comes from Seattle and the U.S., he thinks is directly attributable to Ross in the first place and to Speight Jenkins’ building on what Ross began. “Glynn put Seattle on the map.”
Now 69, Rivers returned to sing Alberich every year except one from the first 1975 Seattle “Ring” to 1983, Glynn Ross’ last season at Seattle Opera. He wasn’t new to the role then, and has continued in demand for it ever since, including as recently as last May in Oxford, England.
“I was lucky,” Rivers says. “I had learned all my basic stagecraft in England”—he was by then with English National Opera, having worked with Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh—“and here was George London stage-directing the “Ring” in Seattle. You couldn’t get anyone better in the world.”
They had, he says, four weeks’ rehearsal, in both languages. “So we’d be singing on stage in German at night and rehearsing in English during the day. It’s easier for me to sing in English, but better for the music for me to sing in German.”
His ideas on Alberich have changed over the years. “By and large, singers don’t get the option to have their own view. You follow the director. As you mature you begin to think for yourself. Of all the “Ring” characters, Alberich is perhaps the simplest. He tries to bully his way through life. For years I’d thought Alberich was a bit overawed by Wotan.” A director in Arizona changed this thinking. “You know Wotan is finished. You know once you get the “Ring” you’re going forward. So you look at him like an equal and talk as equals, but you know you are the stronger.”
The whole thing about Wagner, he says, is that it’s all there in the music. “If you feel it in your body, you get it. From the orchestra, through your body and out it comes. That’s how he wrote the character. But if you try to do it intellectually, it’s just on the surface.”
Rivers has found that the physical surroundings on stage make a difference to his performance. “Sometimes you stand there and think, What’s here to give me any help? I was in a production in Marseilles where we were lucky to have a sword and a ring, practically no scenery, though Pierre Cardin suits for us and dresses for the women.” He says philosophically that perhaps the budget had been tight.
Rivers is now chairman of The Wagner Society in England, and artistic director of The Mastersingers Company, founded in 1998 to develope and train young professional singers in the Wagner repertoire. “We’re thinking of taking it further and setting up a vocal academy. These singers develop so much later.” He describes a ‘hole’ for them at around age 25—their voices not mature enough to handle Wagner without hurting the voice, but not right for lighter roles either. He’s particularly pleased that two of his Mastersingers were joint winners of the first International Wagner Competition mounted by Seattle Opera in 2006: Miriam Murphy (who sings one of the Valkyries this year) and James Rutherford.
“And we have four or five who will be ready for the next competition in 2010,” he says with pride.