Three Years On, Reaching for Pure (Musical) Gold – A Special Preview on Orchestra of the Music Makers’ ‘Das Rheingold’ | The Flying Inkpot
Just before COVID-19 brought the Arts in Singapore – and worldwide – to a painful, reluctant halt, Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) presented the long-awaited Singapore premiere of Die Walküre in January 2020. The semi-staged production played to popular and critical acclaim, but it would be 3 and a half years before Singapore audiences finally get to see its prequel – Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), the first of Wagner’s 4-part epic Ring Cycle. Aileen Tang talks to Lee Guan Wei, Chairman of the OMM Board of Directors, Christopher Cheong, Producer, and Michael Huang, Associate Producer, to find out why this is the best time to bring the Ring back to the Esplanade Concert Hall stage.
The Flying Inkpot: OMM’s semi-staged Singapore premiere of Die Walküre was in January 2020, just before COVID-19 brought the arts scene – along with the rest of the world – to a standstill. When was Das Rheingold originally planned for, and what kind of tangible impact did the derailing of those plans have on OMM? What then prompted – or convinced – OMM to eventually stage Das Rheingold now, in June 2023?
Christopher Cheong: OMM’s Ring Cycle opera planning process actually dates back to 5 years ago. After performing operatic and theatrical works such as Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Bernstein’s Mass around our 10th anniversary, we thought about the possibility of staging operas from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. As part of our planning, we actually started casting Rheingold before preparations for Walküre even started.
As it happened, Walküre was the last major performance we had before COVID-19 restrictions were introduced. Originally Das Rheingold was scheduled for 22 August 2021, then postponed to 28 August 2022, before finally being scheduled for 8 July 2023. We had to recast six of the vocal roles between 2020 and 2022, as our dates shifted due to uncertainties of whether Safe Management Measures (SMMs) would allow us to continue.
Nobody could have anticipated that we would have a 3-year-long pandemic that limited us to small performances. We actively looked for practical ways to provide opportunities for our musicians to perform during the years with severe restrictions on performances (2020-2021). Many of our plans had to be shelved including Rheingold, but it was also an opportunity to explore smaller-scale projects and work with local composers and freelancers to continue to generate meaningful artistic output and provide income for artists that were hard hit. We were one of the most active musical groups during the pandemic, putting on 16 digital productions, live performances, and outreach events from August 2020 to December 2021 while manoeuvring within frequently changing SMMs. We were also informed recently by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth that we had received the COVID-19 Resilience Certificate for our efforts.
Once COVID restrictions eased, we thought it was strategically important that we put the Rheingold project back on track as soon as we could in order to put Singapore back on the cultural world map and show the world that the musical arts scene here continues to be vibrant. We also wanted to restore OMM’s musical muscle memory and capabilities to pre-pandemic levels as quickly as we could.
We turbo-charged our programming once restrictions were lifted in April 2022. Programming Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (Aug 2022) and most recently, Elgar’s First Symphony (May 2023) was part of the Artistic Planning team’s objective to let the orchestra get familiar with performing with large forces and longer, romantic-styled Germanic works with the eventual aim of preparing our musicians for Das Rheingold. Quite honestly, if performance restrictions were lifted any later than they were in April 2022, we might have had to postpone Rheingold again, as we needed a runway to get the orchestra back in shape to tackle such a complex work.
Despite all these challenges, we also found time and space to build capabilities within our organisation, which allowed us to strengthen significantly. We think that we might actually be better placed to organise and stage Rheingold now in 2023, than if we did so – had the pandemic not happened – back in 2021.
TFI: How different is this 2023 version different from what was originally planned, pre-COVID?
Michael Huang: We had several cast changes resulting from the postponements; otherwise there weren’t really many changes from the original plans.
Compared with Walküre, Rheingold’s story is a lot more drama-driven – arguably the precursor to the modern-day film epic, with fantastical scenes and transformations. We decided early on that the best way to represent these for the modern-day audience was to use projections, so that audience members would be able to fully experience these exuberant and magical settings as Wagner intended.
TFI: Do you think audiences are ready to sit through a relatively long concert, after having just recently been weaned off the shorter programmes of the COVID years?
Lee Guan Wei (left): If you think about it, Das Rheingold [Ed: Rheingold typically plays for 2.5 hours) and the Ring Cycle operas aren’t that different in terms of theme and duration when compared to some well-known movie series like Lord of the Rings or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which are also inspired by similar mythological narratives and characters – gods like Odin and Loki, dragons, and an all-powerful ring. If audiences can sit through and appreciate today’s modern equivalents, there is a good chance they can do so for Das Rheingold as well!
However, a larger trend we have noticed is that audience preferences seem to have skewed further towards more popular and familiar arts and entertainment programs after pandemic restrictions were lifted. Our hope is that with our outreach and education efforts, people who are unfamiliar with Das Rheingold and Wagner’s operas will come to realise that this is very much familiar territory as they are effectively the blockbuster movie equivalents for the classical music genre, covering themes and stories that are also present in today’s movies. A work of this scale is also not likely to be performed again in the near future, so this is going to be a rare chance to catch Wagner’s genre-defining work live in Singapore. We hope audiences will come and discover this work for themselves!
TFI: Are there plans to stage the rest of the Ring?
LGW: We hope to finish what we started, but the reality is we’ll have to review the reception and response to this performance, as well as our longer-term plans before deciding our next steps. We did have strong strategic and artistic reasons to undertake these first two operas in the Ring Cycle, both for OMM and for Singapore. However, it is not easy to put on works of this scale as it’s a big logistical and financial commitment, so we’ll have to weigh all the pros and cons regarding the value and timing for finishing the rest of the Cycle.
Hopefully, the response to Das Rheingold will be encouraging enough to make us consider doing so sooner than later. But thus far, it seems that there are not as many supporters of Western opera as compared to the size of the regular classical music audience here in Singapore. We have been trying to aid understanding of the opera as part of this project with workshops, videos and educational materials; it has taken quite a lot of effort to try and educate and draw in audiences to attend Das Rheingold as well as Die Walküre 3 years ago, compared to some of the other more popular and familiar programs we’ve done which more easily sell themselves out with less effort. Hopefully, some of these audience development efforts will have some impact, as bolstering audience appreciation for opera is something that needs to be addressed if this art form is to develop further in Singapore.
TFI: What do you have to say to critics who claim that OMM is too ambitious? What have been the greatest non-musical challenges to taking on some of your huge projects and programmes?
LGW: OMM as a ground-up and musician-run organisation fundamentally tries to express the dreams of its musicians. So naturally we do end up having large and interesting works which are rarely or never performed in Singapore on the wish list, given most of our musicians never had the chance to do so! If our team assesses there is strategic and artistic merit, and financial viability, and our musicians can reasonably do justice to the works, we do our best to schedule them in our concert seasons and make them happen to the best of our ability.
Projects like Walküre and Rheingold do require substantial financial support due to the additional logistics and soloists required, and the team and our board have been working hard to find the necessary support. Coordination work related to logistics and administration is also more substantial when there are more moving parts like soloists from overseas or special instruments needed for performances which we produce ourselves. But it’s definitely rewarding to see everything come together piece by piece, and we do surprise ourselves sometimes at what we managed to put together!
Contrary to popular perception, we don’t do too many big self-produced concerts per year – usually at most 1 out of our whole season. The team also needs to rest!
TFI: What other “firsts” are foreseeably on OMM’s horizon?
CC: We are very excited about our first live-to-film concerts coming up in October this year, in celebration of Disney’s 100th anniversary and Star Wars: A New Hope.
It is a natural follow-up to Rheingold, given how much Wagner set the tone and stage for the modern-day film, and it’s really great music for an orchestra to perform. We are, after all, very interested in performing good music written for orchestra, regardless of genre.
Further into the future, you’ll have to wait and see what other interesting things we have in store, as there’s certainly no lack of imagination from some of our musicians and planning teams!
Tickets for Das Rheingold are available from SISTIC