Imagine that you’re all dressed up and ready for opening night at The Dallas Opera. After enjoying a glass of wine in the lobby, you find your seat inside the Winspear Opera House and get comfortable just as the house lights dim. The first few soft notes of the prelude ring out from the orchestra pit, and the curtain slowly rises to reveal the actors on stage.
For spectators, this is merely the beginning. For the show's producers, it's the end of an interminable creative quest. Getting to this point in any opera production is a massive undertaking, involving dozens of specialists behind the scenes who work together to pull off a successful performance. Quiet often though, unless something goes wrong during the show, most audience members are none the wiser. The Dallas Opera’s latest production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold has been perhaps even more of a herculean effort leading up to the premiere on Feb. 10.
“It is always exciting for any company to tackle such an iconic piece,” says the Dallas Opera's music director and conductor, Emmanuel Villaume. “The production requires the biggest resources within the orchestra — we have 96 players for this piece — is extremely difficult to cast, and the visual magic must be present. Without the three, it is difficult to find success.”
That “visual magic” comes in the form of set designs and projections created by Erhard Rom, who's been working on this project since 2019. Of course, the pandemic threw off the original timeline, putting the entire operation on hold indefinitely during the height of lockdowns, when arts organizations around the world feared they may never be able to return to the stage.
“I feel like we've been dreaming about this thing forever, and I can't wait to see it now,” Rom says. “Wagner, specifically, has huge requirements for the visual world, the scenic landscape. He was thinking almost ahead of his time, like a film composer. Films and operas have a lot in common because film often uses music to reinforce visual ideas, just like opera does.”
Das Rheingold is the first of four operas in Wagner’s colossal Ring Cycle, which, when performed in its entirety, is more than 15 hours long and typically presented over multiple days. It’s an epic tale of a coveted ring, forged from Rhine gold, that grants its owner absolute power with one condition — they must renounce love. Sound familiar? That’s because it was the inspiration for another epic saga, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
For Rom, the process of bringing Das Rheingold to life began by discussing concepts for a shared ideal “visual world” with production director, Tomer Zvulun.
“Ultimately there's no way to sum up something like this piece into one simple idea,” Rom says, recalling his early conversations with Zvulun. “If you had to pull it down to its core — and we talked about this when we were meeting — there’s a conflict of humans battling with nature. And nature sort of wins.“
With that in mind, the team landed on what Rom called a “modern mythological landscape” as their overall creative direction. When it comes to the visual elements of opera, especially ones that are as well-known and frequently performed as Wagner’s, there are endless creative possibilities and different ways to approach the design.
“Many people do this with [Wagner epic] The Ring, set it in very specific contemporary settings,” says Rom. "We're really treating it as a mythology, but taking things from modern world and also giving them some mythological power. So for example, for the castle, Valhalla, which could be this sort of stone thing, ours … evokes contemporary skyscrapers in a way. So there will be things that you'll recognize as being from the world that we consider contemporary, industrial things, but it will feel overall truly like mythological landscape.”
Once the creative direction was established, Rom began the process of sketching and illustrating his preliminary ideas before moving on to creating 3D models, which he says helps him get a better sense of how the scenery will ultimately look. After that, he created digital renderings for each scene of the two-and-a-half-hour-long opera. “And then you have to do all the drafting, which is the technical drawings, laying out all the very specific dimensions of everything, just like an architect would do of a building, and then that is delivered to a shop,” Rom continues. “In this case, the Dallas Stage Scenery shop is building it, and they're excellent.”
Even though this production is led and produced by the Atlanta Opera, Dallas audiences will get to experience it first. With that in mind, a local shop made perfect sense, and choosing Dallas Stage Scenery, who have built several sets for The Dallas Opera in the past “almost went without saying,” according to Rom.
“I will say that you can have a terrible production, visually, and a phenomenal performance, and it will still have life,” Rom says. “You can't make up for what a performer isn't doing with design, but it can add tremendously to the whole impact when they have a space that's exciting and interesting and visually compelling.
“It's a huge list of people that work on these shows, but the audience experiences it as one thing, not as pieces,” he continues. “So the piece that I do — designing scenery and projections in this case — while, to me, it's everything and it's very important, I also know that what all the performers put into this will be what will make those things come to life.”
As for the performers, music director Villaume says that the cast that's been assembled is “absolutely thrilling.” He worked closely with the Dallas Opera’s general director and CEO, Ian Derrer, to find the best of the best for this production.
“We really worked together to make the production possible and took special care in casting the monumental piece, together with our casting consultant David Lomelí,” Villaume says. “You need not only to find a great Wotan, Fricka, or Alberich, you need to also find great voices and personalities that work well together. This talented group are going to sing that role for many years all over the world. Lucky for Dallas, they will hear them here first.”
Dallas opera fans will have four opportunities to see Das Rheingold, with performances on Feb. 10, Feb. 12, Feb. 15 and Feb. 18 at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St.