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An Opera Director's Norse American Itinerary
Zambello Is Right At Home Setting Wagner's 'Walkure' On These Shores

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Washington National Opera's new production of "Die Walkure" ("The Valkyrie"), the second installment of Wagner's four-opera epic "Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung"), will run through April 17 at the Kennedy Center. Created by director Francesca Zambello, it features a cast with assured Wagnerian vocal chops. Tenor Placido Domingo (the opera company's director), sopranos Anja Kampe and Linda Watson and bass-baritone Alan Held return to the roles they filled in the company's heralded 2003 production of the opera at its temporary digs at DAR Constitution Hall.

Zambello, a New York native and frequent WNO collaborator, created the DAR "Die Walkure" using a completely different concept. At 50, she is now setting Wagner's expansive drama with images and scenery drawn from American history and iconography. Whether the interpretation will live up to the company's billing of the cycle as an "American Ring" is still a matter of debate after last year's premiere of "Das Rheingold," the opening opera of the series, which featured the same American images.

Last Saturday over coffee at a hotel near the center, Zambello discussed her vision and background.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Q. What brought you to Wagner as a director?

A.I think Wagner is always something you hold out as one of the great challenges. He is one of the great composers and the great humanists. . . . "The Ring" is not something you think you are going to direct when you are 25. It's something, when you get a little bit older, that feels like a subject matter you can understand better.

Where does "Die Walkure" sit within the "Ring"?

It is the most familiar of the "Ring" operas. Half of its music has been used in everything from cartoons to films. I think that part of what makes it such a popular piece is that at the core of it is the family -- the family of the god Wotan, his new wife Fricka and their stepdaughter Brunnhilde. The central, second act -- how they all connect with one another -- is a family drama with epic music.

What is your approach for "Die Walkure" and the larger cycle?

If a "Ring" cycle is well-directed and well-conceived, you can be engaged for 20 hours. If not, it's like torture. A cohesive whole is what I have worked very hard on giving with my team.

I wanted to look at American myths, the American visual world, our environment, and the issues that are important to us today that have a direct parallel to much of Wagner's. . . . The whole notion of myth was so much part of Wagner's world.

Is there really anything American about Wagner?

Look at the themes in the "Ring" of greed, corruption, love, destruction of the environment. . . . All of these themes are integral to the work and to each of the character's journeys. . . . These things are human nature and human instinct, and we can apply them to any culture, to any civilization, any time.

To couch the themes in a way where we see some visual world that we think is parallel with our own, to me, is exciting. . . . We give it a realistic edge when we create a landscape that people may be familiar with, but also set it in a fantastical way, so that we are true to the fantasy and myth of Wagner.

We have had wonderful response from the public. . . . It makes it available for a wider audience, which is very much what opera should be doing today in general.

Are you discouraged by the Washington National Opera's decision to postpone "Siegfried," the third installment of the cycle?

I am very discouraged that they had to put it off. Financially, they didn't have the money to do "Siegfried" next season, but we are assured that we are going forward. We are going to do "Siegfried" in 2008-2009, finishing it all off [with "Gotterdammerung"] in fall 2009. We'll catch up, but it will be hard for all of us.

People don't realize, but it's a huge

financial commitment for a company

to do a "Ring." But it's a great benchmark. . . . This demonstrates that Washington National Opera is an international company on the level of many of the great companies of the world, and you wouldn't be if you didn't have your own "Ring" cycle.

How did you come to be a director?

Theater was part of growing up. My mother was an actress. My father was a businessman. We lived in Europe. I was around world culture a lot. I went to the theater a lot. . . . I was always interested in the big picture, the storytelling and the fantasy. That's why I think I got into directing very early.

My break was when [the late director Jean-Pierre] Ponelle hired me and brought me back to Europe. I was also artistic director of a theater called the Skylight Music Theater in Milwaukee for seven years. I worked there six months of the year, and the other six with Ponelle. I had this mix of great international theater with at-home theater in Milwaukee. . . . You learn by being around it and then you learn by doing it.

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