When opera veterans Hege Høisæter and and Magne Fremmerlid give their final performance at The Norwegian Opera this week, it’s with a 80 minute version of Wagner’s massive work The Ring of The Nibelung.
Normally it takes four nights to see all of Richard Wagners Der Ring des Nibelungen. I had the opportunity in the mid 90s, when my mother invited me to see it at the Norwegian National Opera, but though I enjoyed going to the opera with my mother, this was a bit of a stretch. So I declined, which I deeply regret today. This is the only time that Wagner’s momentous work has been performed in Norway in it’s entirety and because it’s such a massive production, it’s not played that frequently in other parts of the world either. When it’s performed, people might put themselves on a waiting list for years to get tickets.
It’s really no surprise that The Ring Cycle, as it’s often called, has gained cult status. It’s full of the same stuff that make Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones such a delight: Gods and fantasy creatures. Magical objects that can transform you into whatever you wish, make you invisible or give you the power to rule the world. But then there are also the problems of everyday, the mundane: Overhanging debt. Rebellious teenagers. Unfaithful husbands. Stepchildren and half siblings.
– I’ve become more and more fond of Wagner as I have sung his music, it really speaks to me, says Magne Fremmerlid.
The 55-year-old bass sits in the cafeteria at the Norwegian National Opera dressed in a lace shirt and black suit. After the intermission, he’s going to strip down to his underwear and sink into a bathtub on stage while singing. When Fremmerlid and colleague Hege Høisæter bid their final farewell, it’s with something as rare as an intimate version of The Ring Cycle.
– You really have to get down to the essence of it, both in terms of content and music, says Fremmerlid.
– I think we’ve managed to do that, it sounds like Wagner, although we have made some rather large adjustments to make it all hang together. I don’t feel that we tamper too much with him, though some Wagner puritans may wrinkle their nose.
Fremmerlid plays Wotan, king of the gods. In the first scene in the mini-version we meet him and his wife Fricka while they are looking at drawings of the new, nice house they built themselves, Valhalla. But Valhalla is heavily mortgaged, the security for the mortgage being Fricka’s sister, Freia, the goddess of love and eternal youth. There is something that is worth more than Freia, however: A ring that gives all power to the person who wears it. Wotan decides to get hold of the ring to pay off the debt. This is the starting point of the 80-minute journey of the ring, where the concept of wanting more is as present as it is in Tolkien’s famous story.
There are dragons and other fantastic creatures, bathing virgins and a huge ring of fire on stage. Wagner didn’t make things easy for whoever was going to put up a production of his massive work, but then he did use 26 years himself to write it. At the Norwegian National Opera, the stage decoration is simple: A long table, a chandelier, a few chairs. A bath with claw feet. The orchestra is reduced to half the size and Fremmerlid and Høistær are the only ones on stage.
– It’s very exciting to work with the material on such an intimate level, she says, currently dressed as Fricka in a sixties dress and red-haired wig.
– Yesterday, for example, we had an idea for one of my characters, and we were able to change things at the last minute, even though opening night is just a few days away. Usually in an opera the production is so big that your little chamber play isn’t considered all that important.
– With Wagner it’s often about singing on a large scale and acting from a distance. This time we get to do something that is far more intimate and direct.
– What do you think is the best thing about Wagner, then?
– The music, says Fremmerlid.
– The music, says Høisæter.
– But it’s also a very fascinating world he has created. And a very strange language.
– At the same time there’s a lot of depth in his work and characters that are easily recognizable, says Fremmerlid.
– I have two daughters myself and can really relate to having a child that doesn’t behave the way you want or refuses to believe that she’s wrong. A lot of the themes here are highly universal, and I find that very exciting.
The Ring in 80 minutes is performed at The Norwegian Opera & Ballet from June 1. to 3.