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Monday, June 13, 2011

Francesca Zambello Faces her 'Opera Armageddon' in Directing Wagner's Ring Cycle

Posted By on Mon, Jun 13, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Francesca Zambello rehearses with Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen, left) and Gerd Grochowski (Gunther) from the Ring Cycle. - KRISTEN LOKEN
  • Kristen Loken
  • Francesca Zambello rehearses with Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen, left) and Gerd Grochowski (Gunther) from the Ring Cycle.
100 Profiles: SF Weekly interviews 100 people in San Francisco arts and culture.

No. 85: Francesca Zambello

Tuesday marks the opening of the first of San Francisco Opera's three performances of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. Commonly known as the Ring Cycle, this series of four operas requires superlative talent in all facets of the production, beginning with the director's coherent, probing artistic vision.

This Ring is in the capable hands of Francesca Zambello, a renowned director of theater and opera whose 27-year career includes productions at the Met, La Scala, and Covent Garden. It's telling that even someone with Zambello's résumé would only half-jokingly describe the Ring as a director's "Mount Everest, but also Opera Armageddon."

Francesca Zambello at work with production designer Michael Yeargan - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Francesca Zambello at work with production designer Michael Yeargan
"It's one of the great challenges of your career," Zambello acknowledged. "[Ring Cycles] don't come along very often. And it's a lengthy commitment. It's a very exciting project, one that allows you deep thinking over a long period of time."

Interestingly enough, given the Ring's imposing nature, Zambello realized early on that she needed to access the work's human dimensions. "When I first did the Ring [with Das Rheingold at Washington National Opera in 2006], I really thought about the audience," she said. "That audience probably hadn't seen it a lot, and I had to do it in a way where they felt connected to the [characters]. I think it's the same way here, though San Francisco has a very rich Ring tradition. But I think that people who have seen it a lot are going to be pleasantly surprised by this production."

Balancing the needs of Ring newcomers against the demands of aficionados is an acute yet potentially generative challenge. "Wagner attracts neophytes and Ringheads, who are like Deadheads," Zambello chuckled. "That's a really accurate analogy; these are people who know every word, every note, and have strong feelings about how every aspect of it should be. They're a minority, but they're very verbal. But this production is quite accessible. It's very geared toward storytelling, toward the characters, toward telling intimate personal dramas in epic settings. I think it's the kind of thing everyone should do once. It's like, let's drive to the Grand Canyon -- do that once, do this once."

Melissa Citro (Gutrune, center) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen) rehearse with Zambello. - KRISTEN LOKEN
  • Kristen Loken
  • Melissa Citro (Gutrune, center) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen) rehearse with Zambello.
Along with its appealingly human focus, Zambello's Ring is also distinguished by its American aesthetic, with each of the four operas drawing on the look and feel of a different period in U.S. history. If last summer's preview of Die Walküre (the cycle's second work) is indicative, this trans-historical interpretation feels remarkably organic -- something that Zambello insists on when conceptualizing how to stage a work.

"I don't think you wake up and say, 'Oh, let's set it in the 1920s,'" she explained. "It has to grow from the story. And you have to have committed actors. No matter what I do, I'm always trying to make performers inhabit the piece that they're in." (To that end, Zambello provided Ring performers with artifacts meant to evoke aspects of their characters; click here to see a few examples.)

Zambello sees the Ring as the sort of work that can inspire commitment in everyone it touches. "I think as a director you always treat each work with great care and love," she said. "I don't direct any work unless I love it, and unless I feel passionate about it in some way. I think we're here to convey passion. That's one of the great things about opera -- for people who have never been, it's that incredible whack in the head of great music and passion and drama. Particularly in something like Wagner, the music is all-enveloping. It's like a drug-addicted state. People are addicted to this music -- you can't get enough of it."

The San Francisco Opera
's production of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung runs Tuesday, June 14, through July 3 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove). Tickets are now available for individual operas within the cycle.

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