Designer Johan Engels has died, but Lyric Opera's Ring cycle creative team soldiers on | Bleader

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Designer Johan Engels has died, but Lyric Opera's Ring cycle creative team soldiers on

Posted By on 12.04.14 at 01:00 PM

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Rob Kearley, Denni Sayers, David Pountney, Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Matthew Rees
  • Deanna Isaacs
  • Lyric Opera's Ring team: Rob Kearley, Denni Sayers, David Pountney, Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and Matthew Rees
Set designer Johan Engels was a nearly palpable presence at Lyric Opera's press briefing with its very subdued Ring cycle creative team on Tuesday.

The shock of Engels's unexpected death last month, at the age of 62 and the height of a celebrated international career, was clearly on the minds of the five team members who were there to talk about their plans for the Ring.

"We're all devastated," said model maker Matthew Rees, who had worked closely with Engels and was sitting in for him.

Director David Pountney, who'd collaborated with Engels on more than 20 opera productions, noted that the funeral had just been held.

And Rees's models for the Ring sets, built to Engel's specifications and embodying his vision, were in the room—hidden behind blackout curtains.

That was tantalizing, but the curtains weren't opened for the press. And the session was short on specifics.

Details will come out slowly, because this ambitious new production of Richard Wagner's 19th-century four-opera "festival," formally titled Der Ring des Nibelungen, has a very long lead time. It'll play out at the rate of one opera a year over a four-year period that doesn't even start until October 2016, when we'll see the first opera in the series, Das Rheingold. Die Walküre will follow in 2017, Siegfried is set for 2018, and Götterdämmerung will be seen in the spring of the 2019-'20 season.

Then, in April 2020, after the end of the regular season, Lyric will offer three rounds of the full four-opera festival—a total-immersion experience described by general director Anthony Freud as "one of the most life-transforming artistic experiences the world has to offer," and expected to be a draw for a global cadre of dedicated Ringheads. (Lyric has done complete cycles only twice before: in 1996 and 2005.)

Except for two previously announced stars—baritone Eric Owens (Lyric's current Porgy) as the god Wotan and soprano Christine Goerke as his daughter Brünnhilde—nobody's even talking about casting.

But this much was clear: we won't be seeing any revisionist spins on the Germanic myth making that (along with his anti-Semitism) made Wagner a Nazi-era favorite. Wagner was a musical genius, Pountney said, and he worked on the Ring cycle over a 20-year period: "To narrow the vision that yielded is incredibly stupid." Poutney is simply going to "tell the story," and it'll be the audience's job to decide for themselves what it means.

Don't look for flashy effects or a lot of video, either. "This Ring will be characterized by its avoidance of high tech,” Pountney said. It'll be "pure theater," with the "virtuosity" coming out in the storytelling. While each opera will have its own environment and the cycle will move through time, the works will be mounted on a "common theatrical skeleton," with the artifice exposed.

Other team members in attendance were associate director Rob Kearley, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and choreographer Denni Sayers, who offered that "If someone has to fly in, we’ll probably see the person pulling the rope."

So maybe what we'll be seeing is a steampunk Ring.

When someone asked how the series will be tweaked without Engels there to do it, Pountney observed that "you can't go five years without a designer," and added that inevitably, "Johan would have changed his mind" about some things.

"What we're here to do is to preserve Johan's amazing work," Pountney said, but freezing it "would not be in his service." Another set designer will be hired.

Meanwhile, Lyric audiences, dazzled by Engels's Flash Gordon-like take on Parsifal last season, will get another look at his work in this season's production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Holocaust opera The Passenger, coming up in February.

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