Das Rheingold
at the Edinburgh Festival
28 August 2000.

Interviewer: Ok. When you're ready. Could you just tell me in your own words, how did it all start?

Addict: A friend offered it to me. It was at a party. I said, 'No thanks. I'm not into that stuff. Not my scene, man.' But he kept on at me, 'Go on. Try it. There's no harm in it.' He said I wouldn't get hooked. He was very persuasive.

Interviewer: So you eventually gave in?

Addict: No, the bastard slipped me a Mickey.

Interviewer: Excuse me?

Addict: Slipped me a Mickey. A Mickey Finn. You know, popped one on me when I wasn't looking.

Interviewer: I see....I think.

Addict: Ecstasy.

Interviewer: Oh, you mean he gave you MDMA?

Addict: No, man. He gave me MCMB.

Interviewer: MCMB?

Addict: Yeah, Maria Callas's Madame Butterfly. Pure ecstasy. It blew me away, man. He just slipped it into the stereo when nobody was looking and that was it.

Interviewer: You were hooked after just, um, hit?

Addict: But man what a hit! - 'Un bel di vedremo.'

Interviewer: Yet, the experts say that it's not instantaneously addictive, that it takes a while to get hooked.

Addict: Huh! That's what 'they' say. But it was such a positive experience, man. Not what I expected. Y'see, the problem is, 'they'- you know, the 'experts' the media and the....the 'establishment' - they all give you the impression that it's, like, horrible or something. You know what I mean? They try to put you off by telling you that you won't enjoy it. Instead of giving us the facts about it. You should give us the facts about it. Just give us the facts, man!

Interviewer: OK. Take it easy. It's OK. So what happened after that first experience of it?

Addict: [Sniff] Well, I started experimenting, didn't I? All kinds if stuff. Nothing too heavy though, not at that stage. Just a bit of Boheme, or Carmen. Whatever was available. A bit of Offenbach, maybe. It was purely recreational, you understand.

Interviewer: Yes, of course.

Addict: The thing is, you don't realise you're getting in deeper all the time. I started hanging around shopping malls, record stores, hoping to pick up some stuff. At first I was happy with a few arias and duets on CDs. You know, just sampling a few things. Then I started doing 'Highlights' - it was just one big hit after another. I should've seen the warning signs, man. But I just didn't care, I was having a ball. Spent every penny I had on it. Before I knew it I was into whole operas in box-sets, books about composers, singers' biographies, libretto's and sheet music. It got to the point where I wouldn't think twice about beating up an old lady and stealing her purse, just so's I could get my hands on my next score.

Interviewer: Are you OK? Would you like to take a break there? Can I get you a glass of water?

Addict: No, I'm OK. I gotta tell my story, man. Tell it like it is.

Interviewer: Go on....

Addict: The people out there gotta understand, it consumes you, man. It takes over your life. You can't hardly think about anything else. You find yourself withdrawing into a world that's....kind of.... 'unreal,' man.

Interviewer: You mentioned 'warning signs'....?

Addict: You can spot an addict a mile off. You see them in the music stores, headphones on, glazed expression, faraway look in the eyes. Maybe even twitching or playing air-baton, in a world of their own, man. You see them late at night, coming out of the opera houses, high as kites. It's powerful stuff, man. I've seen grown men, hard men, reduced to tears by this stuff. But even then I thought, I can handle it.

Interviewer: And could you?

Addict: No. I wanted more. I had to have more. You see, once it gets a hold of you it just won't let go and, well....

Interviewer: So, what did you do?

Addict: I have that glass of water now?

Interviewer: Sure. Take your time. I know this must be difficult....

Addict: I decided it was time to try the Mainline.

Interviewer: 'Trainspotting?' Taking it directly into....?

Addict: Yeah. I couldn't help myself by this time. I just had to go for it.

Interviewer: But isn't that a big step?

Addict: Not really. Not once you're hooked. Y'see, once you're into this stuff, you can lose all your friends. You find yourself hanging around with all kinds of Opera Junkies. And they're all into it. With me it was a girl I was going out with. She said she'd been doing it for ages. She asked me if I wanted to try it and, well, like I said, by that stage I was game for anything. So, one evening she came round and said, 'Look what I got here.' She showed me these two little bits of, like, card. With these little.... like, symbols on them. And the next thing I know, I'm in dreamland.

Interviewer: Dreamland?

Addict: Yeah. I was gone, man. Transcendental transportation. The whole audio-visual-emotional experience. What a buzz!

Interviewer: You make it sound as though you'd reached Nirvana!

Addict: Naw, it was Covent Garden, man. 'Live' opera, it's the biz! Three hours on the East Coast Mainline and you're there.

Interviewer: What most people will want to know is: Why do you do it? Why do you put yourself through this?

Addict: People are always looking for reasons. There are no reasons, man.

Interviewer: But surely....

Addict: No, listen, man. You look for reasons in a guy's psychological make-up. Does he have a problem with his self-image? Was he an emotionally deprived child? Was it peer pressure that got him into this? Was he showing off? But the simple fact is, it's enjoyable, man. It's fun! So why do you need reasons for doing something that makes you feel good? Makes you feel alive?

Interviewer: But isn't there a price to pay?

Addict: You're damned right, there is. It costs an absolute fortune to....

Interviewer: No, no, what I mean is, there's no such thing as a free buzz, n'est ce pas?

Addict: Who's got a nice paw?

Interviewer: What I'm trying to say is, what goes up must come down, isn't that so?

Addict: It can be tough at times. Especially in a place like the Northeast of England. Months can go by before the next touring opera company comes to town. The withdrawal symptoms can be hard to handle. Sometimes I just can't take the cold Turco in Italia and I find myself heading for the big city - maybe Edinburgh, maybe London - just to see if I can find any action.

Interviewer: And do you usually find this....action?

Addict: No problem. Man. There's a lot of 'E' about, these days. Have you ever tried it?

Interviewer: 'E'? No.

Addict: ENO, yeah, they do it. Opera in English - it's good stuff. It's available in just about every major city and it's very accessible.

Interviewer: What do you think will happen to you now? Have you thought about Rehab?

Addict: Hell, no. To tell you the truth, I've been messin' with the heavy stuff. It's scary but it's exciting, you know what I mean?

Interviewer: Heroin?

Addict: Wagner.

* * * *

And so I found myself on the road to becoming an Opera Junkie - and on the road to Edinburgh again, in search of yet another 'fix'. This time the annual Edinburgh Festival was in full swing, the city gripped by carnival fever, entertainment everywhere - a severe case of arts-itis.

The famous Royal Mile thronged with visitors. The city's entire population, it seemed, had become entertainers for the duration. Even so, they were outnumbered by the visiting artistes, some of whom, judging by the accents, had ventured from as far south as Liverpool, London, Paris and Zimbabwe.

Out on the street, the talented and the talent-less vied for our attention and our pounds, dollars, yen, marks, francs - any currency accepted, just so long as it folds. One rather desperate individual stood on top of a traffic bollard and blew soapy bubbles out of a child's toy. A group of people, who otherwise appeared to be perfectly sane, tried in vain to beat a rhythm out of an assortment of trash cans, plastic containers, oil drums, etc. This ensemble called itself, very aptly, 'Trash Music'. A wino (not politically correct terminology but nonetheless accurate), affected by the heady carnival atmosphere and strong drink, emerged from the crowd and joined in with a troupe of African dancers giving a performance on the pavement. Well, when I say 'joined in', I mean he stood awe-struck in the middle of the circle formed by the spectators while agile, acrobatic bodies hurtled past him in all directions, like Fiats in Rome's rush-hour. Amazingly, he escaped uninjured. The dancers were magnificent. Clad in full African regalia, grass skirts, leopard skins and all, they performed their athletic routines while singing in close harmony, accompanied only by bongo drums.

On a street corner, a 'human statue', complete with green-black, metal-effect body paint and Admiral Nelson costume in identical colouring, had gathered a huge crowd. Standing stock-still under his three-cornered hat, liberally decorated with pigeon shit, he entertained his delighted audience using little more than eye movements and several unwitting passers-by.

A string quartet also drew a sizeable crowd. They added a touch of comedy to their music, doing things like going down on their knees and 'serenading' a blushing young woman at the front of the audience.

But all these enjoyable antics were just the hors d'oeuvres before the feast I had come to savour at the Festival Theatre. Scottish Opera's contribution to the festivities was a staging of Das Rheingold, as the first annual instalment of a Ring Cycle which will feature in the first four Festivals of the new millennium.

I was standing in the foyer of the Festival Theatre reading my programme just before the opera was due to start, when I heard music coming from outside. I went out to find a brass quintet standing at the top of the steps, just beside the main doors. Wait a minute. What's this? The Bayreuth touch? In Edinburgh? But no. Not unless Wagner wrote William Tell! It was just a bunch of lads from St. Petersburgh entertaining the waiting patrons, bringing a smile to the lips and a hand to the pockets.

I was excited about my first ever stage performance of Wagner. As I took my seat towards the rear of the orchestra stalls I noticed a minor TV celebrity being escorted to his place near the front. Emblazoned on my ticket - not the cheapest in the house but the only one I could get - was the legend: 'Restricted viewing. Supertitles may not be visible.' The key phrase here is 'may not be.' In actual fact, the low ceiling above my head extended so far forward I could only see the bottom 1/3 of the stage aperture. (Wotan's feet gave a splendid performance!) The ticket should have read: 'Restricted viewing. NO WAY can you see the supertitles. You will require a 30-foot long horizontal periscope if you want to see the supertitles!'

The only way I could have got a glimpse at that screen was if I'd body-surfed over about 10 rows of the cognoscenti of Edinburgh. I tried craning my neck, putting my head forward and down until it was resting in the lap of the woman in front but still no supertitles, just a smack in the mouth from a silk glove - Versacci, of course.

But never mind, I have done my homework on Das Rheingold (and my mouth will heal), so I am confident, nay, determined, that nothing shall detract from my enjoyment of this very special occasion.

The lights go down, the band strikes up, a rather shaky E-flat, but under the exhortation and guidance of Richard Armstrong they quickly warm to their task and soon the waters of the Rhine are swirling musically all around me. The curtain rises and I am somewhat surprised to find myself looking at a stylised set, with a few strips of wavy turquoise-tinted perspex slanting diagonally across the stage to represent said waters. I am even more surprised when, from amongst the perspex, a leg appears, a long and slender female leg, with stockings and suspenders. Purists and Puritans, prepare thyselves to leave. The Rhinemaidens are scantily-clad temptresses and Alberich appears as a dirty old man, complete with greasy coat, trilby hat and thick glasses. Surely this is not what the Maestro intended - or is it?

I can see where Director Tim Albery is coming from and, once I get used to the idea, I find this stylised version immensely enjoyable. By the time Alberich pulls off his gold heist I am completely engrossed.

Between the scenes the music transports me from the depths of the Rhine to the mountaintop. It lifts me up on a spiritual elevator from the depravity of Alberich's lust and greed towards the splendour and magnificence of Valhalla, the frenetic strings, as Alberich does a runner, rising and swirling until they are calmed by the woodwind, then comes the beauty of the harp, then the majesty of the brass, then …..the bastard with the mobile phone!

When I read in my programme a full-page advert saying, 'Switch off your mobile phone', I thought it must surely be an insult to the intelligence of this audience. But some idiot in the front rows had left their intelligence at home - where they should have left their bloody phone. They say those things can fry your brains. They gotta find 'em first!

I think mobile phones should be sold with a government health warning (or at least a tube of KY Jelly). Because if it hadn't been for the twenty rows of people between me and this moron…..well, let's just say he'd have ended up speaking through his backside even more than usual!

Yes, I'm afraid the spell of the musical levitation was well and truly broken. I was right back down there with the acts of depravity again.

But it didn't take long to put that annoying interruption behind me and get back into the action. This production was fascinating. Valhalla appeared as a modern skyscraper, more than a little reminiscent of the Empire State Building, which served appropriately to illustrate Wotan's ambitious desires. I note that some critics have drawn parallels between Matthew Best and Anne Mason's portrayal of Wotan and Fricka - and the Clintons! Thankfully, on the night, I didn't spot any such potentially irritating distraction.

As we descended into darkest Nibelheim, I listened carefully for the sound of 18 anvils. Sadly, not a one was in evidence but that scarcely detracted from this musical highlight. What were in evidence were the eyes of the Nibelungen, which shone in the dark. Little hooded creatures filled the dimly lit stage, the tiny beams from their eyes penetrating the clouds of dry ice. This was good stuff.

The dragon scene provided a memorable moment. When Alberich disappeared, Wotan was at one end of the stage, while Loge leaned nonchalantly against the wings at the other. Every pair of eyes in the house was focused centre-stage, waiting for a flame-thrower to exhale dragon-breath at us. It was delightful to witness the way the audience gradually became aware of the gigantic claw that was slowly and insidiously wrapping itself around Loge and eventually lifting him, kicking and yelping, off the floor. Wonderful theatre!

For the most part, Hildegard Bechtler's imaginative set designs worked very well. One exception though was her stylised depiction of the giants. When it came time for them to make their first appearance, a large sheet of shaped plywood was wheeled on to the stage. But what was the shape? Was it a face? Was it a double-facing head? Call me Phyllis Stein, but the significance of this piece of DIY carpentry-gone-wrong was totally lost on me. This 'thing' had two oval holes cut in it, one a vertical oval and the other horizontal. If they were meant to be eyes, they were 'football eyes' - one at home, one away.

But they couldn't have been eyes because, suddenly, two human faces appeared in them and eventually the owners of the faces - two tall, skinny men, dressed in navy-blue work coats and peaked caps - stepped out from behind the sheet of plywood. Fafner and Fasolt, I presume.

This whole scene was conducted in the manner of a workplace dispute. Wotan was having a spot of trouble with the unions. For me, this just didn't work (if you'll pardon the pun). It might have done if the giants had displayed some kind of powerful menace but these two were about as menacing as Laurel and…, Laurel. In fact, Fasolt was portrayed by Carsten Stabell as a rather sweet, if pathetic, lovestruck soul. Markus Hollop as Fafner was doing us all a favour when he beat seven shades of shit out of him.

The final scene was a bit strange. Instead of a rainbow bridge, we had back-lit transporter cubicles (of the Starship Enterprise variety) descending on wires to ferry the gods off to Valhalla. Fair enough, but since there was already some 'rocky' scenery on the stage, these props descended to different heights, some of them unreachable from the floor. So Loge goes off stage and returns with a step-ladder to help a couple of the gods get aboard. Comic irony? Perhaps, but the spectacle just didn't seem to fit with the majestic music which Wagner wrote for this scene.

What Scottish Opera set out to achieve was, presumably, to make a complex opera accessible and enjoyable to a wider audience. In this they succeeded admirably. Central to this success was Peter Bronder's interpretation of Loge as an impish Mr. Fixit. Harlequin-esque in red and yellow pants, yellow tartan waistcoat, black shirt and fur coat, the nimble fire god darted about the stage as he played Wagner's wit to the full. This provided the perfect contrast for Matthew Best's deadpan portrayal of Wotan.

I was also particularly impressed by the strong, resonant voice of Peter Sidhom and the quality of his performance as Alberich. The anguish and frustration of this hapless character were put across with a passion that made them almost tangible.

Rachel Hynes, as Freia, gave a reasonable performance in spite of banging her head on a rock while being dragged away by F & F and, later, having to dive to the floor to remain hidden when the newly-built pile of treasure collapsed. She suffered for her art.

Minor mishaps and dubious depictions aside, I thought this production was pretty damned wonderful. Perhaps one or two of the singers were not quite up to the task but that is hardly surprising, given the challenging nature of these Wagnerian roles. It was a first for Scottish Opera, and for me - both of us Wagner Virgins, you might say - and their achievement is to be applauded. Indeed it was, and warmly so.

I left the theatre feeling absolutely elated after my first taste of 'live' Wagner. It was a long slow drive home in the dark. The highway authorities' answer to the disgraceful carnage on the northern section of the A1 is to install speed-cameras every 50 yards. It doesn't save lives but it's cheaper than upgrading the road. I passed the time re-living the events of a fabulous day, particularly this exciting new operatic experience. More than once I caught myself saying 'Wow!' out loud. I was still as high as a kite when I got home in the wee small hours.

A few days later I was watching a TV programme reviewing the Edinburgh Festival. It included a discussion slot on Das Rheingold and there, sitting on the 3-person panel was the minor TV celebrity I had spotted at the opera.

Two of the panellists enthused about the performance. They talked about the richness of Wagner's music and about the integrity of this production. They praised the boldness of Scottish Opera in tackling such an ambitious project and they generally hailed it as a success. But Mr. TV Celeb (Minor) hadn't enjoyed it at all. He just thought the whole thing was 'dull' and 'awful'. He felt that Wagner's opera needed a few more glitzy gimmicks to liven it up.

Remember the bastard in the front rows with the mobile phone? - I wonder.....

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Ciaran McKeown

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