Interviewer Deborah Humble finds herself in the pits, as Associate Principal Violinist for the Ring Cycle, Matthew Hassall, talks about seeing Wagner from “the best seat in the house…”
Out of all the people involved in the Ring, you will probably be one of the hardest working. What is it like to play so many hours of music in a week or so and then do it again and again and again and again?
I find the heaviest time of the Ring isn’t the performances, it’s the rehearsal period. Working in an opera and ballet specialist orchestra, it is common to perform 8 shows in a week of various operas or ballets and after years you build up stamina for long performances. The rehearsal period of the Ring, however, is incredibly intense. The violin parts are full of very difficult and technically challenging passagework that take hours of practice to master. You can have four days in a row with six hours of rehearsal every day of three different operas while doing hours of practice in between. This “homework” on top of the rehearsals makes it a very busy time indeed. Once performances start I find you get into a ‘groove’ where you figure out what you need to do every day to prepare for the performances and as rehearsals have finished you have more recovery time after playing.
Can you tell us what the experience from the orchestra pit is like? How did you find it in 2013? Can you see the drama and is there the same sense of excitement below the stage as above it?
2013 was my first Ring Cycle and I really didn’t know what to expect. I have performed most of the independent Wagner operas, many of them a few times, but I found performing the Ring a totally different experience.
Apart from the obvious huge workload, there is such a huge buzz surrounding this project. Due to the size of orchestra needed, my orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, has many guest artists come from all over Australia and the world to perform with us. This alone creates a real festival atmosphere, working with so many new people. There is also nothing like the energy you get from an audience of devoted Ring fans! I will always remember the beginning bars of my first Rheingold performance as one of the most emotional and electric moments in my whole career. All that work finally coming to fruition in a moment of such beauty mixed with the anticipation of what was to come. It was magic.
One good thing about being a violinist is that we get to sometimes see a bit more of the stage than other sections of the orchestra. The pit is also altered for the cycle which makes it much bigger, higher and more in front of the stage which makes it easier to see some of the action. There are also some sections, usually when Wotan is singing, where the violins get to count a few bars and have a peek at the stage while the violas, cellos and basses slog away. I don’t want to give anything away but there are many stunning moments in this production. I also try and see some of the piano stage rehearsals when I can as I find it really helps to understand the colours and effects needed in the music. When you play these operas you really can see where a lot of film composers got their ideas. It’s so full of musical depictions of what is happening on stage that I find knowing what the characters are singing and doing really adds to my performance of the score.
Does a string player ever experience a sense of fatigue? How do you prepare for these long evenings? What do you do in between performances?
Performing these operas is a real test in stamina as much as anything else. Mentally and physically they’re a total workout. Wagner often leaves some of the most challenging music to the very end of the opera, look at the violins in the fire music at the end of Die Walkure, so you need to pace the evening so you have something left to give at the end. Everyone is different but on the day of a performance my routine usually involves gym, a massage, a couple of hours of practice to get things settled and a good nanna nap. Looking after yourself physically is a must, it’s a big part of being able to get through these operas.
Can you tell us what it’s like to play Wagner’s music? How is it different from anything else you do? Is there a great sense of achievement involved?
Every time I start the rehearsal process of a Wagner opera I think, “How am I going to be able to play this?” then you get more into the musical language and it really becomes a part of you. The countless hours of preparation it takes to get a Wagner opera to opening night is so daunting at the beginning but so rewarding in the end. I don’t think I’ll ever finish a Wagner opera and not think of the many things I could have done better, passages come and haunt you in the middle of the night, but that’s what makes it such a challenge and such a thrill to be part of. One thing that does become clearer to me every time I work on a Wagner score is that you can be your worst enemy in a performance. If you just play what he wrote, it works.
What are the benefits of working with a large group of musicians such as the number of musicians required to perform the Ring Cycle?
There’s no way you could take on a Ring Cycle without great colleagues around you. Orchestra Victoria is a very friendly and dedicated bunch of musicians, many of who have worked together for many years. The ability to nearly read each other’s minds helps when you are getting such a big project up and running in such a short time. We also know how to have a laugh and that can help relieve tension when people get a bit stressed. It’s already been a very busy year and the last few months have been filled with two ballet seasons, an opera, many concerts, education programs and a recording, many of them overlapping each other. Lucky we get along! We violins are also always asking each other how we are getting around certain passages; sometimes you just can’t figure something out by yourself.
Can you share a favourite memory from the last Ring Cycle?
One thing I loved in the last cycle was meeting some of the many audience members that fly in from all over the world to see it. People would just come up during the dinner break, in the lift, on the tram or lean over the pit and start chatting. My favourite was a very elegant lady who had come from San Francisco and had seen over 100 Ring Cycles! She was so charming and had such a passion for the music. I hope I see her again. It really is an incredible thing to be part of, it’s just a shame every audience member can’t come and sit in the pit and experience a huge Wagnerian orchestra in full flight all around you. Best seat in the house.
For more on Matthew follow this link: https://australianballet.com.au/artist/matthew-hassall