Photo by Ed KriegerA Wagner opera—a loud, disorganized, powerful stroke of genius—is a pretty puzzle to singers.
"Professional opera singers fear Wagner," Andrew Nienaber, stage director at Opera Camp, says. "It is some of the most strenuous and difficult music in the operatic canon."
Especially for kids—the young students of Opera Pacific's Opera Camp, aged 8 to 18, who bravely essay DasPüppet,an original opera loosely based on Wagner's crown jewel, TheNibelung'sRing(also called TheRingCycle). Set to some of the greatest hits in Wagner's repertoire—and music from Beethoven's only opera, the gender-bending Fidelio—they wind up singing the heart out of Wagner—with puppets.It'd be almost cuddly were it not Wagner.
But why the fear? Like its author, Wagner's music does its own thing. An early anarchist, notorious xenophobe, firebrand and debtor, Wagner also utterly redefined opera. Unlike his predecessor Mozart, who worked within the tenets of music theory with crisp genius and positively loony invention, Wagner ignored standard rules like chord resolution and charged up and down the staff, producing wandering, musical vagabond themes. His chords have been branded impossible to analyze. His melodies? Wagner thought melodies were overrated and dabbled instead with ideas like dissonance and leitmotifs—a fancy word for a recurring musical idea that represents a person, idea or state of mind in an opera.
And Wagner's music—his lyrics—demand a "solid" instrument. All those stereotypes about the fat lady lead back to Wagnerian operas, where you'd find her girded with Viking helmet, breastplates and staff. His music requires a larger orchestra than, say, Verdi, and his style of singing calls for a deep, mature sound that many adult singers can never achieve.
"Most young sopranos don't sing Wagner," 17-year-old singer Laurel Dimmick says in a clear, sweet voice. "I was nervous, but [music director] Henri Venanzi assured us that if it was too difficult we could take it down a few steps or change the words. I think it's the hardest opera camp so far." Yet he and his campers have proven equal to the task.
"They are doing better than most professionals," Nienaber says proudly about the young singers. "They're doing what professional singers fear to do and doing it with grace." Not only do they sing some of the most difficult works on record, the kids also spun the plot for the entire opera. Over five months, the students hammered out the plot and libretto, credited to associate director—and Orange County High School of the Arts student—Nora Mally, and came up with DasPüppet, a story about a bunch of puppets who are performing TheRingCyclewith their human stagehands. It's very insider-opera: the soprano goes M.I.A., the director's head swells to four times its size (thanks to the people at the Rogue Artists Ensemble), the maestro goes missing, and singing warfare ensues. The opera becomes a showdown between backstage and front row center.
This rivalry between the puppets and stagehands lightly mimics the multigenerational feud of DerRingdesNibelungen—the Norse-inspired tale of a battle between the Gods and a human family over an all-powerful ring-shaped weapon that allows for world domination. (Sound familiar?) However, this new puppet-infused Ringdiverges nicely from the old. Wagner offers a plethora of prickly themes to pick from: political allegory, verdant forest fairy tale, incest-be-gone, etc., and it's pleasant to see this opera take a comic turn. The campers have brought a loaded subject squarely back home where it belongs—in the opera house, with puppet love, backstage pitfalls, fame and singing. Like Wagner, these students have got guts.