“For us,” Philippe Auguin told the orchestra on the first day of rehearsal for the Washington National Opera’s “Ring” cycle, “between now this first minute, when I address this to you, and the last note of the last ‘Götterdämmerung’ on the 22nd of May, we will have lived together a fantastic adventure. Humanly, musically, artistically: something we will never forget in our lives. So let’s be aware of this, so that we can really be aware that it’s a privilege in the life of a musician, and we do it together.”

That privilege has extended to audiences in performances that represent that rarest of operatic pinnacles: a fusion of great directing by Francesca Zambello, great casting, and great conducting. Before the cycle opened, I spoke to Auguin at the Kennedy Center at some length about the “Ring.” I have excerpted quotes from the interview in a couple of places in my prior coverage, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to post more of it online for those who have also been enjoying Auguin’s conducting this month.

I have liberally edited and condensed and corrected, and removed Auguin’s frequent, and gallant, apologies for talking too much. I did not, however, make much effort to clarify points about the operas for readers who are not already familiar with the “Ring” — though some of this interview could serve as a study guide for anyone who wants to plunge in.

[Wagner’s “Ring" at WNO: a quick guide.]

ALM: How many times have you done the “Ring?”

PA: I tried to count but each time I come to a different result. It comes to perhaps 12 or 13.

ALM: Is it a new journey each time?

PA: I got new scores, because I wanted to make this journey again from the beginning. I invested, obviously, several months. I wanted somehow to be nearer to the text, if it’s possible to be. Wagner is a composer who not only wants to have active listeners: he asks you to be an interpreter. Every single element, he has a very idiomatic view. And he knew perfectly the limits of the instruments. It’s extremely demanding. Even “Walküre” is very demanding, because for the strings it’s written like Schumann. In “Götterdämmerung” he writes with more practicality for the strings, but then he wants to put it to the maximum: he’s like somebody who would come after Franz Liszt.

And the length of a phrase for a brass player is always measured exactly by what is possible on the instrument. It is a hint he gives you. You have to figure out if the tempo he writes is the actual tempo or only the Characterbezeichnung, an indication of the phrase’s character. You have to figure out whether it needs to be conducted slowly, or just sound slow; or if it needs to be conducted fast or simply sound fast. For the awakening of Brünnhilde, in Act III of “Siegfried,” he writes a slower tempo than for the funeral march in “Götterdämmerung.” But if you see what the strings have to play in “Götterdämmerung,” you see the tempo has to be slow and subdivided. While for the soprano he wants to give an impression of endless phrases — and at the same time it has to be doable, for the voice.

So in studying the score, one really has to do philological work, to question. For example, he writes lebhaft (lively), schnell (fast), rasch (quickly). [Each one is different.] And lebhaft is not Allegro. It’s like the tempo that was used in the time of Mozart, Allegro ordinario, where actually it’s a calm beat, where all the elements fit inside.

Wagner wrote a very interesting letter about the “Meistersinger von Nürnberg” overture. Because he heard that people booed his overture, conducted by another conductor. He was very surprised. His music was not supposed to get booed. So he asked what the conductor did, and he learned that the conductor simply conducted what is written. And he wrote a letter where he says that, you know, he wrote “mäßig” (measured), but it should be a broad Allegro with a big sound. And when the theme of Hans Sachs comes in the middle of the overture, it’s a large Alla breve in the character of Baroque music.

So it’s interesting to see what he reads from his own indications. While somebody like Mahler will write exactly, directly what he wants, Wagner gives you less precise hints. And then it’s your job to understand by comparing the articulation in the strings, the length of the brass phrases, and what is humanly possible to sing. So it is all a fantastic inner journey that one does to go through this.

The giants make their entrance in “Das Rheingold” at WNO. (From L to R: Ryan McKinny as Donner, Julian Close as Fasolt, Soloman Howard as Fafner, Alan Held as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, and Melody Moore as Freia.) (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)

You know when you have the entrance of the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, in “Rheingold.” Of course I know, like everybody, that it is extremely slow, extremely loud. And he writes simply Sehr zurückhaltend (very restrained). He writes this only when he wants it, and “Rheingold” is written in such a way that the pulse stays always the same, and he wants simply this, two times slower. Not four times slower. If you try to forget what you’ve heard in other performances and you just read the score, you see the way it’s built. It’s like an aria. You have an introduction — when Fasolt begins to sing it is a type of recitative in tempo — and then there is a type of aria, with A, A and B, like what Hans Sachs tells Walther in “Meistersinger” that a song should be. And at the end you have two bars of Nachspiel (coda). So it’s very clear. And he doesn’t write a new tempo when Fasolt begins to sing. So I was always surprised when listening to some interpretations that you had this huge introduction, very slow of course — in the moment the effect is overwhelming — and then when Fasolt opens his mouth, because it’s been four times slower than the Allegro that preceded it, the conductor has to go again in only two times slower, so it sounds Allegretto, and suddenly it’s like Fasolt is a bass in an operetta. And then the connection when his aria begins is so much slower than the tutti of the orchestra that the proportion is lost.

Wagner, you see, presents somebody musically and also as the character. Fasolt is honest, and when he hears that Wotan doesn’t want to respect the law, a world for him is collapsing. So it’s also a way to present somebody square. And if you do the orchestra introduction in the same tempo as this recitative and aria, when you come to the end of the two bars of Nachspiel, you have an impression of completion. So that you have the musical feeling of a form that is enclosed.

The giants’ theme:

Of course my brass was expecting [he sings the Giants theme very slowly]. I said look, it will sound brassy and fortissimo, but let’s do what I think is the correct way. I don’t do this to prove anything. Simply the text calls me, and I have come to a moment in my life where, somehow, it makes a difference if you do what you are convinced is right.

And then you come to extreme moments like the awakening of Brunnhilde in Act III of “Siegfried.” When suddenly Siegfried sings “Durch das Feuer” (through the fire), it is written slow. Wagner could have written belebt, for you to go faster, to help the tenor. He didn’t write one word. If Brünnhilde sings such a slow phrase, he was surely also expecting Siegfried to reach the same acme of maestoso (majesty), like the destiny of the world. Of course you have to talk to the tenor, who will say, “I need it faster.”

Or, for example, the scene in “Rheingold” when Fasolt tells Wotan, “Look at what we’ve built.” Instead of writing the Valhalla theme for the Wagner tuba slower, Wagner writes schwer (heavy). He knew that if you give enough space for the tuba, you will have exactly the tiny difference of tempo between the words of Fasolt, this evocation, this episode, and then going back in again. So he’s very precise when he wants you to change something, and when he didn’t write anything.

The first time you conduct the “Ring,” I feel you need to know it from memory. If you want to be able to create what you think is right, you have to be able to be completely with the other people when you are rehearsing, and not busy with yourself.

ALM: You mean you have to already have internalized what you need to do so that you can be with them.

PA: Oh, yes, completely. It is not an opera as such. He wants to create something else, so you have to approach the piece in a different way than other pieces that you know.

The first thing is you have to go by the text, what is sung and what is happening in the orchestra. In some places, it is very clear what’s happening. But other places, he chooses the proportion. He has the idea of what he wants to bring and he chooses how much time he needs. Other composers would say, “No; the scene cannot be so long.” The miracle of Waltraute’s scene in Act I of “Götterdämmerung:” with just one of the timeless moments in that scene, another composer would have said, “It’s good enough, now I go back to the action.” But with Wagner, there is one of these hypnotic moments, and another one, and another one, and another one. We are already near to the second hour of the opera, but he has a very clear view about the ups and downs in the tension. That’s the reason he wrote “Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt” (Siegfried’s Rhein Journey, an orchestral interlude in Act I of “Götterdämmerung”). It’s not only for narrative reasons that it is so developed; it is to boost the energy. So Wagner has a very clear view of how one goes through the piece.

Look, I have a personal idea — I didn’t read it anywhere, and perhaps I’m wrong. But you know that the first ending that Wagner wrote was optimistic. When he was reading Feuerbach, he thought that art could change society. And then, although he was very close to Ludwig II he was hoping that Berlin would give him a major role politically, and they didn’t like him. And after the first festival, it was Ludwig who ended up paying the debt, and not Bismarck and the Kaiser — who came to the festival.

The gods ascend the “rainbow bridge” in Francesca Zambello’s production of “The Rhinegold” at the Washington National Opera. (Alan Held as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, Richard Cox as Froh, Melody Moore as Freia, and Ryan McKinny as Donner.) (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO.)

You know that in the first version of the text — he never wrote the music for this — Siegfried is dead, and Brünnhilde wakes him up. I can assume that he would have used the same music as Siegfried waking Brünnhilde when Brünnhilde wakes Siegfried, coming back from death, to bring him as a hero to Valhalla like the other heroes, because she would still have this magic and she wanted them to go to Valhalla, walking over a rainbow. So I think the end of “Rheingold” was the music he wanted to put at the end of “Götterdämmerung” — perhaps. Perhaps I am wrong.

And the way to approach the work, it’s really different from other works. First is the connection between the sung text and what the music says. Then, Wagner really wanted a talking orchestra; he wanted the orchestra to be like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, anticipating, showing, commenting on what happens. Leitmotifs existed before him, but he invented the talking orchestra. And the reason you know at the end of the cycle that it is finished is that he uses every single leitmotif in any possible variation. So when you come to the end of the piece, because you have heard all these themes in all possible permutations, you have a feeling of musical achievement.

Eric Halfvarson as Hagen (photo: Kate Warren for The Washington Post.)

The more Wagner continues in the piece, the more he uses the themes not for their semantic connection but for their coloring. He wants you to be aware that the theme of the Curse is the same thing as the theme of Siegfried. And he brings it to your full consciousness in “Götterdämmerung” when Hagen greets Siegfried for the first time. “Heil, Siegfried, teuer Held” (Hail, Siegfried, dear hero.) The trombones, fortissimo, play the Curse, put together with the theme of Siegfried, and you see that Siegfried is the one who will accomplish the malediction; he’s the one who brings the bad luck. Before that, you think he’s the one who will bring a solution.

Or take the theme of Valhalla. At the beginning, that motif is Valhalla, because it’s connected with the picture of the castle. But later it is associated with Wotan, who is in no way his own castle. And then it’s brought more and more simply. When Hunding sees that Siegmund and Sieglinde look strangely alike (in “Die Walküre”), the orchestra gives you the clue and the bass clarinet plays [sings Wotan’s spear theme]. If Wagner had thought of immediate semantic connections, then you would hear the theme of Valhalla. But obviously, he thought that would be too obvious, and only wrote this line of the bass clarinet, in pianissimo.

So, there is first the work of text and talking orchestra. Then the second level, when you study this, is the musical form, because there is always a form. You know this huge monologue of Wotan in the second act of “Die Walküre” has a very strict structure. It is the only way for the piece to survive. You think the music disappears behind the text, but actually, it’s always connected with a larger form. It’s all bound with one tonality, it’s D minor with F Major, and you have, always, this connection of the Curse motif with Wotan’s grief. That comes back, and he uses it in several ways, and it is actually this old German form that he loved to use: AAB, with an introduction. The only way for him to be able to keep the discourse going is to have very clear enclosed moments, and he didn’t want to have this old form, you know, introduction-recitative-aria-cabaletta.

So you have to do this work and then you go into the orchestration. Because one cannot say that “Rheingold” is simpler than “Götterdämmerung;” simply that he wants to reach a poetic dimension in “Rheingold.” “Rheingold,” even in the scenes that are dramatic, is written partly for the love of poetry. For instance, when Loge says that the world would never renounce love — this has no dramatic reason whatsoever. It’s simply a song, and at the same time it is an evocation of something else.

I was very happy in one rehearsal about what we reached with the orchestra, with the horns, when the Gold in “Rheingold” wakes in the first scene, because he writes sehr ruhig, and it’s like Time stands still. The second horn, then third horn joins it, then the first, then the fourth. It takes the time to have this build up to present you with this type of magic, and it’s pure poetry. And if it’s well done, the tempo doesn’t change, the rhythm doesn’t change. Obviously the leitmotif stays the same, four times, and the dynamic doesn’t move, it’s all pianissimo. And then when the crescendo comes, you have one trumpet that plays the theme, and you never forget this moment.

And “Götterdämmerung” is something else, it’s so much over the top.

I would say technically the most difficult thing to convey is the finale of “Siegfried.” Because it’s perhaps the most difficult thing to play for the strings: they have to play the last 30 minutes; also the prelude of the third act; also the Wotan-Erda scene. It is more difficult than two major violin concertos. With the difference that in a violin concerto, the conductor helps the soloist. And when you’re in the orchestra pit, the tempo has to adjust with the singers, and Wagner asks you to be a very vertical conductor and then suddenly he wants you to understand a huge rubato.

There is this type of structure in nature like this shell animal, the nautilus. And you see that in “Siegfried.” He takes one small cell and the strings play this, and this one thing develops into something incredible, and he adds more information, more notes, more dynamics, more intentions that he wants the strings to play in one bar: slow, fast, forte, staccato. So your job is to give enough space to this, and still remain coherent for the larger picture.

So when you have done these three levels of studying the instrumentation, then you have to learn the piece. You have to be able to react quickly in a rehearsal and say, “Third trombone, you have mezzoforte while the second one is forte.” Because of course a musician is used to being in an orchestration where the group has one color, and Wagner uses many colors. The magic of the Valhalla theme in “Das Rheingold” is the way he uses the color of the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet, trumpet, trombone, contrabass tuba, with the harp to give this yin element — you know, yang and yin? So he makes out of the brass music that should be yang, that should be associated with something strong and loud, a moment of yin music: softness, warmth, and so forth. And the way he writes, the second trumpet begins piano, the first trumpet, mezzo piano, the bass trumpet — the blending is a miracle. To rehearse this, you need time.

When people ask me, “Oh, how is it, to have so much rehearsal time?” I say, “Look, the days are very long. Six weeks of orchestra rehearsal are very short.” And you cannot even count the six weeks because there’s makeup, dress rehearsal, and that’s it. “Das Rheingold” is perhaps twenty minutes longer than “Tosca.” “Das Rheingold” is technically at least two times more difficult than “Tosca.” When you prepare “Tosca” with the orchestra, you have six orchestra rehearsals. That would mean you would need 12 for “Rheingold.” [And we didn’t have that many.] We had one Sitzprobe, a rehearsal with singers and orchestra, where I worked for the half of the time only on the Niebelheim scene. Because I want to have the tempo, the virtuosity and the type of comedic character that he wanted. So proportionately, I invested six times more time on this Niebelheim scene than on the complete second scene when the gods are alone, because what he wanted needs such a level of virtuosity and holding the tempo while people are moving around, so it keeps this feverish quality.

I had to develop strategies with the orchestra. Not to go from beginning to the end from day one. I began with the most demanding things for the orchestra. Siegfried-Brünnhilde at the end of “Siegfried,” the beginning of “Götterdämmerung.” The Rheinmaidens, beginning of the third act of “Götterdämmerung,” it is unplayable for the strings, actually.

Daniel Brenna as Siegfried. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO)

About what people would say is interpretation, one small example. In the moment at the end of the first act of “Siegfried,” when Siegfried forges the sword, it’s always, [sings] “Mime, schau, So schneidet Sieeeeeeegfried.” It’s always this way. But Wagner doesn’t write any fermata for the tenor. He writes, immer schneller (faster and faster), and then when it’s tutti orchestra, so schnell wie möglich (as fast as possible). You see he wanted something extraordinary. I rehearsed with Daniel Brenna and, I said, “If I don’t let you do two fermatas, people will think that I don’t like you. But do you want to try it the way it’s written?” and we were doing, “Mime, schau, so schneidet Siegfried,” [sings, without holding out the word “Siegfried”], and it functions perfectly. I don’t do this to get away from tradition, you know, “MY readings.” Simply, I see the text; I have a tenor who’s willing to try what’s written. And somehow, everybody’s happy about this.

By the way, I don’t know if you know this, but one can find on the Internet an excerpt from the movie “Magic Fire,” a biography of Wagner from 1955. You see Erich Wolfgang Korngold conducting in Bayreuth as Hans Richter, with a beard. And the “Ring” in five minutes. It’s very interesting because you see the visuals. Of course it was not the Bayreuth staging of 1955, but they simply put together something based on Wagner’s original plans. And when Siegfried goes through the fire, you have pink, blue — it is a type of fairy tale. Light, and fairy tale music. The element of fairy tale in “Siegfried” is very important. It’s not only dark; it’s really from darkness to the sun, and Sleeping Beauty, the kiss. And because the camera is in the orchestra, you see Korngold conducting with the same technique as Richard Strauss. It’s like in a time capsule.

ALM: You’re talking about the level of detail he writes into the leitmotif. One of the things about “Götterdämmerung” is that it becomes a piling up of motif, where it becomes almost cinematic. Do you see it that way?

PA: Til the 1950s, you had the tradition in Europe of organists who were able, given a theme, to improvise a prelude and a fugue and a symphony that would last 45 minutes. And that’s Wagner as a composer. I try to answer two ways. As a composer, he wants to use the full range of all these beloved elements he creates. You see his attachment to them. When you see Valhalla for the last time in “Götterdämmerung,” when the Valhalla theme comes, it comes piano. And you are projected to some place else.

And I think that the Ring is also a diary of Wagner. He did not know if he would compose anything after this. As a composer, for him, it was his legacy. So I think he wanted to show his compositional skills. The virtuosity lies not only in putting the themes together: it’s that the themes are still recognizable. At the end when the Valhalla theme comes, I feel personally a man who says, “The next five minutes are perhaps the last five minutes I will ever write.” Valhalla was the dream of Wotan. And at the end it is Wagner saying Farewell, to his beloved child. And each time it appears, he gives you enough of the theme so it’s clear that’s Valhalla. And immediately it dissolves into this pianissimo. And at the end he transforms it in the same way that he put a definitive ending on “The Flying Dutchman,” for this transfiguration music.

So all of this I think is for a composer one level further than using the leitmotif for dramatic reasons: it’s also to make the most beautiful music he can write. When you see “Götterdämmerung,” it’s always beautiful. “Siegfried’s” first act is metal music, drama: you see that he wants to reach a dramatic goal. And in “Walküre,” he wants the characters to be at the center. Sieglinde, Siegmund, Wotan, Brünnhilde, Fricka — the scene with Fricka is absolutely fantastic. In “Götterdämmerung,” perhaps his own feeling of achievement takes over the narrative of the drama.

[From 2009: The Washington National Opera’s “Götterdämmerung."]

ALM: You came to Washington with the “Götterdämmerung” in 2009 in concert without the staging, and of course that was such an amazing evening. Do you have a sense of coming full circle with this?

PA: Oh, yes. Absolutely. At the first rehearsal with orchestra I began again with “Götterdämmerung” for this reason, and I took the time to talk to the orchestra. I told them, “Look, I’d like to be aware of two things. For us, between this first minute, when I address this to you, and the last note of the last “Götterdämmerung” on the 22nd of May, we will have lived together a fantastic adventure. Humanly, musically, artistically: something we will never forget in our lives. So let’s be aware of this, so that we can really be aware that it’s a privilege in the life of a musician, and we do it together.”

David Cangelosi as Mime, trying to forge Siegfried’s sword in Act I of “Siegfried” at WNO. (Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO.)

And I said that for me personally, the 2009 “Götterdämmerung” was very important. I told them I would see how the work together that we had for the last six years, how you changed and how I changed. Of course I meant also on a technical level and the improvement of the orchestra. Every single musician is excellent. What makes an orchestra is the preparation. The preparation has to be something that allows a moment to be created during the performance. It’s something that the actor Mark Rylance tells his young actors: we are not here to make a demonstration of what we rehearsed over six weeks. Everything is preparing for a moment; in this moment, nothing is more important, and we should create something unique. Because of course music is ephemeral, but if it’s connected with a feeling in the moment it stays forever.

And they anticipate my work on dynamics, and the sound of the strings and the woodwinds, so we were already ahead by the first rehearsal. And they know that I take my own person out of the discourse. I always say, Look, I’m not here to make decisions, instead of Wagner. If he writes this, who am I to do something different? But you have constantly to have to understand on which level Wagner is talking to you. It is the spirit, the Geist. The Idee. You know, the Funeral March, he writes, feierlich (festive) — and now, deal with it.

Take a painting like “The Marriage at Cana” by Veronese. When you have a painting, you can bring all the characters at once, and then you wait for the viewer: “Oh, there is the focus here; I begin with this, and I see the odd elements.” And everybody has their own timing. [In music, you have to choose for them.] You have for the Funeral March to know OK, for this phrase, four beats [snapping his fingers], that’s the frame. On the fourth beat, Wagner writes 16 notes for the first violins. And he didn’t write this for you to squeeze it in. So you have to decide, OK, my role is to bring this to life, to give enough space, changing the beat, telling the violins, “You know the last three notes of this articulation has to be stronger than before.” And sometimes his indications are very strict; and sometimes it’s “feierlich, deal with it.” That’s the reason why you hear so many different interpretations.

In the prelude of “Rheingold,” there is not one pianissimo. When we listen to it, we have this impression of softness, but there is not one pianissimo. He writes, piano here, piano there, piano there. And he knew that when eight horns are playing, it creates an orchestra crescendo. So he chooses: in the last eight bars of the Prelude you have the basses, then the celli, and then the trumpets. Everybody has a type of crescendo with a different type of color.

The genius of Wagner is to give an identity to something very simple. [He sings the Sword theme.] He takes something very simple and he makes something definite, with character. The beginning of “Rheingold” is atmosphere, a type of open air music. It’s large phrases, not slow, but long phrases, and there is a relationship between them. He writes, in heitere Bewegung (with cheerful/buoyant movement). Heiter? Yes. Heiter has also the color of something joyful. And he didn’t write you know, mäßig, mäßig schnell (measured, measuredly fast), no. Heiter. So he gives you the hint it’s not static. He wants the instruments simply to sing at the beginning. You have one horn, another one: the eighth, the sixth, the seventh and the fifth, and then four, three, two, one come in. So he knew he would create an orchestra crescendo, and when this orchestra crescendo is established for eight bars, then he does something else.

ALM: What difference does it make to you, if any, between “Götterdämmerung” with no staging, and now “Götterdämmerung” with staging? What difference does a production make to you in the pit?

PA: On the level of staging, you have first a practical element. Where are they? Simply physically where the singers are and what they do has an influence. If you put the tuba where the first violins are, you would have a different result. With the singers it’s the same thing.

Wagner was fed, like the people of his generation, by the literature that came out, the translations of the legends. For cultivated people of this culture, the scene when Brünnhilde recognizes Siegfried was something emblematic. Or the killing: this was something emblematic also. He wants to give a definitive vision of these mental images. It’s the same with the Ride of the Valkyries: he had these visions of these women on flying horses, that’s the reason why it is completely extraordinary music, that explodes every limit of what had gone before, because he wanted to give a definitive vision of this. So this is connected to a certain time.

The story that Wagner was telling in his time was very much a product of these mental images that he had. A bird talking to Siegfried was very much for Wagner putting in music a fairy tale that he internalized. The view of Francesca is to tell us the story that talks to you, today. And Francesca brings this description of the world as something untouched that — because of greed, because of the curse, which is more a dereliction of human beings —  comes to an end, and at the end having a renewal, with the child bringing in the tree. So she brings an idea of cycle.

Jacqueline Echols as Woglinde, one of the Rheinmaidens in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle (photo: Kate Warren for the Washington Post).

At the beginning of the third act of “Götterdämmerung,” the music tells: Sun. Water. Green. The words of the Rheinmaidens are, “O Sun, give us our ring back.” Their world is miserable. — I have to say the Rheinmaidens, they are responsible for a lot of problems. In “Rheingold” they tease Alberich, “If you simply can catch us, make the effort, do it.” They tell him this and then they talk too much, [and then he steals their gold]. And in “Götterdämmerung,” if you read clearly, they say to Siegfried, “Oh, if you give us something, no problem for you.” And Siegfried is about to give them the Ring, but they say, “Oh no, keep it, so that when you give the Ring to us, then you will be happy to get away from the curse,” and they ruin it. I am not judgmental of the Rheinmaidens. They belong for Wagner to a world where there is no good and bad — beyond good and evil. They are not human creatures. They are a type of magic creature, between human and fish — like the myth of the Sirens. So they never act morally or amorally; it’s simply the type of creatures they are. And at the beginning of the third act, when Francesca shows that they live in a destroyed environment, she brings, on the stage, visually, what actually they intend to say in their own words. So there is a contrast, there is a tension, between the music and what is shown. But Wagner knew, after this incredibly dramatic second act, where everything explodes in your face, you need to go back to something relaxing musically, with only strings, a bit of harps, a few winds, so that then by the funeral music you have the full-blown orchestra. So he completely reduced all the musical elements to bring something that is relaxing, giving a moment of respite, and then when the drama returns, it’s even stronger. The tension created between what you see and what you hear is already in the text and score.

Lindsay Ammann as Erda (photo: Kate Warren for The Washington Post).

…In “Rheingold” he wants tragic revelation, in the Erda scene. When you listen to Erda, you stay like this [he mimes riveted silence]. Look at the score. There is three times nothing. With the Wagner tuba one phrase, two flutes, two horns, a bit of strings, one line, and it puts so much in your mind, and when it goes “Alles was ist, endet” (everything that exists will end), simply by the same line going down, you have an impression that the sky opens and there’s nothing. The economy of writing is astonishing. And when Wotan says, “I need to talk some more. I need to talk more to you:” two trombones, and that’s all. The tonality remains still, the theme remains still, but I put one flute. So the audience is rapt. And the way he writes rubato: he writes Ritenuto for the orchestra every second bar, but he didn’t write it for the singing of Erda. He gives you material that helps you to structure the time when you’re listening, but at the same time he gives you a diffuse impression. If it were only diffuse, you’d lose it. So he gives you enough pulse and does everything he can to give the impression of eternity. And it’s not even a slow tempo. He writes much slower tempi. The marking is only langsam (slow), because he knew, “My phrase will be over two bars, and I play this only in the moment: Alles was ist, endet.” Voila. It’s marvelous, in other words. It’s marvelous.

ALM: Most people don’t associate Wagner with economy.

PA: Absolutely. It is the right color in the right moment. It’s how you go from one note to the next with one tiny difference that gives the whole thing a different light, different significations.

That’s the reason why it’s so extraordinary to learn the instrumentation of the “Ring,” because you think it’s not possible. In “Rheingold,” when Wotan sings “so grüß ich die Burg” (I greet the castle), Wagner doesn’t give this to the first trumpet, because he knew the first trumpet would be too much in your face. He gives it to the second trumpet, with fortissimo strings, and one forte for the trumpet. He writes sehr energisch (very energetic). So, not too loud, but with character, for the second trumpet. He knew that the second trumpet player, at this time, would have never, never played alone in his life. Later in the literature you have Ravel, Strauss, but at this time the second trumpet never played alone. — “What? I am alone, to play this?”

ALM: And he knows he’s not going to play quite as loud.

PA: No, no. He saves it for later. And the same thing with the Valhalla theme, at the end of “Rheingold:” a second trumpet and second trombone, together. It’s pretty marvelous. In those days, they had never heard anything like this in their life.