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Seattle Opera Creates Backstage Magic For "Ring Cycle"

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KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman

If a Hollywood filmmaker decided to make a movie version of composer Richard Wagner's epic "Ring Cycle," he would probably have the latest computer wizardry at his fingertips. But the "Ring" is performed live onstage, featuring more than 15 hours of music spread out over four nights of opera.

In addition to the music, Wagner's masterwork has everything: fire-breathing dragons, flying river sprites, sword-wielding giants and Valkyrie warriors.

Seattle Opera's backstage crew instead brings this epic to life the old fashioned way: with people power.

Seattle Opera technical director Robert Schaub worked with the company's artistic staff and designers to carry out their vision for the "Ring Cycle." The initial project began more than a decade ago and it was a massive undertaking.

Schaub calls the "Ring Cycle" the Mt. Everest of operas, both for its length and the complexity of its story. Based on Norse mythology, the four operas tell the story of a magic ring stolen from a trio of Rhine maidens by a greedy dwarf. Equally greedy gods steal the ring from him, setting off a series of conflicts between themselves, their wives, and their potential lovers and friends. The most sensational television soap has nothing on these operas.

Most of the backstage work is done by hand. Schaub says more than 50 crew members do everything from moving scenery to making sure the live horse is escorted safely onto the stage, then back to his temporary grazing quarters outside McCaw Hall.

Ten people work below the stage in the trap room. The trap is an industrial elevator that transports singers up onto the stage, then back down again. In the production's final scene — the end of the world as the gods know it — singers fall backwards into an opening in the stage, onto a mattress sitting on the trap. It's a sequence fraught with potential dangers. Schaub and his crew do a dry run of the scene, without musicians or singers, to make sure they've got every move choreographed.

He explained that whenever a big hole in the middle of a dark stage is opened up, the main focus naturally becomes safety.

Schaub has tried the mattress drop himself. So have the two stagehands who will whisk the singer and the mattress off the trap, so that a half dozen Valkyries can take their place and be hoisted up to the stage.

This scene lasts about three minutes in real time, but it takes Schaub and his crew about 90 minutes to finish a dry run. By opening night, the crew and singers will be on their own.

Schaub watches the operas from the front of the house, with the rest of the audience. Unlike the casual opera fan though, he sometimes holds his breath during the tricky bits. Will the onstage fire go out on cue? Will the flying Rhine maidens land safely in the wings? Schaub believes everything will go as planned, but he still worries.

"We've invested so much of ourselves that on opening night, I just don't want that not to pay off big time."

Schaub and his crew don't take a bow at the end of the "Ring Cycle." If they do their jobs right, the audience never sees them. But as the last strains of Wagner's score die out, rest assured that the crew is sharing high fives and smiles of relief down in the trap room.

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