On Directors
American Ring

by Karren Alenier

During a press conference held March 8, 2006 at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, DC, Director Francesca Zambello said she and her collaborators had not decided whether 'Valhalla' represents The White House, a factory, or maybe, the Twin Towers of the destroyed World Trade Center. Zambello will direct Washington National Opera's productions of Richard Wagner's four opera series Der Ring des Nibelungen, starting with Das Rheingold March 25 at the Kennedy Center (www.dc-opera.org). A co-production with the San Francisco Opera where David Glockley, the new SFO general director recently appointed Zambello as an artistic advisor, the entire Ring series will premiere in Washington.


Zambello and WNO General Director Plácido Domingo have been planning a multi-year set of productions of The Ring for some years. They tested DC audience reaction to Wagner in the 2003-2004 season with good success when Zambello directed Die Walküre (the second opera of The Ring series) at the theater of the Daughters of the American Revolution while the opera house at the Kennedy Center was under renovation.

At the news conference, Zambello's energy accelerated as she spoke about The Ring's themes of greed, power, and declining morals connecting to current day politics in the United States. Working on this set of operas in the Nation's capital and tapping into an audience that lives everyday with news from The White House regarding how our government interacts with other global powers add a more compelling dimension to Zambello's vision for an American Ring, the title by which she and Domingo agreed to promote this production. Likening American politicians to celebrity superstars, this international director says that our leaders act as if they were the gods of Valhalla. No newcomer to operas set in America or the subject matter of power, greed and morals, her world premiere production at the Metropolitan Opera of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy aired at the end of 2005.

"Audiences are hungry for big stories, for myth," says Zambello. "Sitting through Das Rheingold, a two hour and ten minute work with no intermission, should be no different than going to a film like Brokeback Mountain." Apparently, Zambello and Domingo fear that the operagoer in Washington, DC, used to sipping champagne between acts with  friends and business colleagues in the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center, will not happily tolerate the loss of time to attend to creature comforts and opportunities related to business or pleasure. Zambello expects the compelling nature of Wagner's music and drama to supersede incidental audience needs.

Image - Krin Cooper


If anyone is equal to the task of grabbing the full attention of Washington, DC movers and shakers, Domingo, by choosing Zambello, has acted wisely. Not only is Zambello (www.francescazambello.com/biography/index.html) an internationally recognized artist with such awards as the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her contribution to French culture and the Russian Federation's medal for Service to Culture, but also she is a popular director who is known for her ability to get outstanding performers to join her productions. For example, her recent WNO success with Porgy and Bess (see my review at www.culturevulture.net), an opera that has been done poorly so many times, featured American baritone Gordon Hawkins. Hawkins said in a press conference held at the WNO rehearsal studio October 12, 2005, that he had promised himself "never do this piece again." In an interview with Robert Wilder Blue for US Operaweb, Hawkins said, "probably my big break was doing Porgy and Bess at the Met with James Levine conducting." Because he trusts Zambello, whom he met when they were interns in an opera program at Vienna, Virginia's Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, he agreed to take the role of Porgy again.

Zambello, who has cast the 6 feet 2 inches tall Hawkins in the upcoming production of Das Rheingold as the dwarf Alberich, likes to break molds. Still, she derives strength from consistently inviting singers she has already worked with into her next production. British tenor Robin Leggate who participated in the Goethe-Institut press conference said, "Francesca Zambello lets an artist develop the role so that the artist feels he or she owns the production." In 2004, Leggate appeared as the tormented Captain Vere in Zambello's flawless WNO production of Billy Budd.


Zambello's interest in Wagner solidified when she did an apprenticeship at Bayreuth, the special festival opera house that Wagner had built for his Ring operas. Fluent in German, French, Italian and Russian, Zambello chooses to keep the text of Das Rheingold in the original German with English surtitles. She says not only is the language of Wagner highly poetic (and, therefore, hard to translate) but the best singers already know the German so it makes sense to keep the original words.

For the American Ring, Zambello is using a cast and production team who are predominately American and British because she said their sensibilities will help shape this production. Costume designer Anita Yavich who also worked on Zambello's WNO production of Die Walküre is assisting with an American look. The goddess Erda will wear a costume suggesting a Native American tribal connection. The costumes of the other gods will suggest American movie stars of the 1920s. The Nibelungen sport pleated rags.

According to Zambello, updating the timeframe of an opera debases the work. What she is most concerned with is appealing to the widest audience possible. And she says that live theater is an interactive event between artists and audience. Zambello wants her singers down stage in the audience's lap. She will also be the first to admit that Wagner's operas demand a lot from an audience. Furthermore, no singer on the stage can be passive because how a character on stage listens is how the audience will listen.

So how will Valhalla be depicted in Francesca Zambello's production of Das Rheingold? She said she was negotiating this with her collaborators, but she preferred something subliminal, such that Valhalla isn't physically shown at all. 


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©2006 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren Alenier is a poet and librettist and writes
a monthly column for Scene4.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the




april 2006

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