Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

Ring in D.C.

My association with the Washington National Opera has dominated a great percentage of my career. I first came to this company in 1987 after a summer as an apprentice with the nearby Wolf Trap Opera Company. The Kennedy Center has been my operatic home for so very long. I can’t imagine not having this wonderful edifice in Foggy Bottom as my musical base.

My history in the theater, however, goes back even farther--15 years earlier to June 17, 1972. I was a 12 year old tuba player in the Junior High School Band of America. We came to Washington to give a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. This was such a privilege and honor for such a young boy. I remember, however, being too nervous to actually walk up the steps of the Memorial to view the incredible statue of Abraham Lincoln as he sits staring out over the Mall. It was so intimidating for a fellow citizen of Illinois as nobody else seemed excited to make the climb.

After the concert, the leaders of our organization decided to treat us all to a performance at the newly opened Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The dedication had only occurred a few months before. I remember we went to see a concert opera (I don’t recall what it was--possibly Rossini?) but I do remember the red motif, the bust of JFK, the long central grand hallway and the Halls of States and Nations with their incredible display of hanging flags. I also remember how fatigued I was from our journey and falling asleep on the shoulder of the complete stranger that I was seated next to. I’m sure he didn’t expect to have this young, pre-adolescent farm town kid from Illinois spoiling his evening at the opera--thankfully, he never complained. I remember him being very nice.

Oh, but one other important aspect to that evening..remember, it was June 17, 1972. At the very same time that I was “enjoying” that concert, a little nefarious activity was going on right next door at a pretty significant office complex called...The Watergate. Sometimes, I feel like my life is like that of Forrest Gump.

I only bring up these events to show how long I have been associated with this company and The Kennedy Center. I have sung over 30 productions in the D.C. area over these decades in hundreds of performances. One project, however, that has occupied so much of my time has been the preparation and presentation of Richard Wagner’s
“Ring off the Nibelung”. We started this project in 2003 with “Die Walküre” at Constitution Hall as the Opera House in the Kennedy Center was under renovation. It was an extremely interesting concept by Francesca Zambello that was magical to the artists and the audience. Because of the space, the orchestra, led by the late, GREAT, Heinz Fricke, was behind a scrim and behind the singers. We were thrust well into the audience, surrounded on all four sides by either opera patrons or musicians. It was magnificent and so very intimate. Placido Domingo played my son, Siegmund. Try having him die in your arms and not feel just a bit tinged by emotion. (We worked together, for the first time, with this company back in 1988.) It was decided during that run that Washington should attempt to complete an entire Ring production....exciting times lay ahead.

During that 2003 run, my wife and I were blessed to have our baby girl, Lydia arrive from South Korea. She arrived on a Thursday evening. Our family met her at the airport in Newark but then I had to drive directly back to D.C. for a performance the next night. Talk about a little “Leb Wohl”! I had another week of performances before I could get back home and spend time with my three boys and Lydia. I had a completely different outlook on singing Wotan now that I had a daughter.

In 2006, a new production of
“Das Rheingold” premiered. I was not in this initial run as I was already committed to Pizarro in “Fidelio” at The Met. The wonderful Robert Hale was the Wotan for that first installment of the Ring. I did, however, make it back for “Die Walkure” in 2007. Then, our project started to face some headwinds. “Siegfried” was delayed until 2009 (“Der Fliegende Holländer” filled its spot in 2008). And, because of financial difficulties facing the company as well as the country, Götterdämmerung, was presented in concert rather than in a full production. Still, those concerts were outstanding. They were also lead by our current wonderful Maestro, Philip Auguin. What an impression he has made on us all.

The Fall of 2009 was to be when the complete cycles were to be given for the first time. Unfortunately, the continued economic downturn cancelled those runs. When I first heard the news, I was devastated. We had poured so much into presenting these cycles that were not to be.

In 2011, the San Francisco Opera took up the charge and did present complete cycles--including a fully staged
Götterdämmerung. How I hated sitting on the east coast knowing they were doing “my” Ring!!! But, not all that long after that, we started hearing rumblings that perhaps complete cycles might actually occur in Washington. The big questions were when, where, and who. Would it be all new artists? Would it be at a time when I was still actively singing? Would I want to reserve so much time yet again and then perhaps not see it all come to fruition?

It was worth the wait. This past February, we all gathered to proceed with our journey. No two cycles are ever the same due to personnel, interpretation, dedication, execution, and so many other things. Many, who have been involved with the project for some time, returned. The rehearsal period was so rewarding and well handled. I don’t recall Ring Cycles ever coming together with less rancor. It has been a joy. I have been involved in something like 12-13 different Ring Cycles around the world. This one is VERY special.

And, three weeks ago, the task that inspired “Vollendet das ewige Werk” was accomplished here at The Kennedy Center with the Washington National Opera. Two Ring Cycles have now been completed and we are half way through #3. What a success it has been despite battles with allergies, injured sopranos (I’ve had four different Brünnhildes in the last four weeks due to cast changes and injuries). The audiences have been amazing in their attention and response. I’ve never heard such disciplined and receptive audiences. The orchestra playing has been beyond anything I’ve ever heard the Kennedy Center Orchestra achieve. The staging is compelling and meaningful. The singing? Gorgeous!!! It has been an honor to be a part of all this. A 13 year journey is almost complete.

And, how do I feel about that? Well, I have to say that saying “Leb wohl” is going to be difficult tomorrow night as I sing my last performance in the project. There will still be one more performance following my last
“Siegfried”---“Götterdämmerung” awaits on Sunday. By that time, I’ll be home in Kansas to celebrate my youngest son saying “Leb wohl” to his high school career. I will greatly miss my colleagues, this production, the staff, the orchestra, and everything about being a part of this incredible saga. It has been an amazing journey--a fulfilling and rewarding ride with the valkyries, dwarves, gods, and mortals. And it has been an honor to perform once again at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts--my operatic and theatrical home.

I always like to remember the words of John F. Kennedy that are engraved on the exterior west facing wall at the Kennedy Center. May they remembered, and treasured:

I am certain that after the dust of centuries
has passed over our cities,
we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats
in battle or in politics,
but for our contribution to the
human spirit.