Wagner opens opera season

  • By Mike Murray / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, July 29, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

As is its tradition, Seattle Opera opens its new season on Saturday with an opera by Richard Wagner.

“Lohengrin,” a mythic story of a mysterious knight with powers so strong he can save a kingdom, is one of Wagner’s more accessible operas. A three-act opera on a grand scale, it’s the story of the knight Lohengrin who uses his powers over evil to rescue a good woman and even promise her marriage, but only if he is never asked to reveal his name or his origins.

Alas, Elsa must know his name, and when Lohengrin reveals who he is – a Knight of the Holy Grail – he must leave her forever.

Musically, it’s a powerful score that includes one of music’s most familiar tunes: “The Bridal Chorus” (“Here Comes the Bride.”)

Seattle Opera debuted this production 10 years ago, and it’s back with a new cast of singers and the return of one very important character: the swan that draws the boat on which Lohengrin makes his dramatic entrance and exit.

Wagner provides plenty of opportunities for spectacular sets and staging, and Seattle Opera pulled out the stops to make “Lohengrin” a visual treat. The sight of an oversized swan “swimming” gracefully across the opera house stage is a memorable moment in the opera.

The real “magic” behind this swan is the backstage magic, which all begins with a designer’s vision.

Translating the artistic vision of designers and directors into stage reality is the job of people such as Ken Berg, master scenic carpenter at Seattle Opera Scenic Studios located in Renton.

Berg is the brains behind Wagner’s magic swan – or “duck,” as he affectionately calls it – in “Lohengrin.” Berg talked about how he and a team of master technicians turned an 18-inch long radio-controlled model truck into a larger-than-life animatronic swan that swims and has a fully articulated neck that moves just like a real swan.

“Our job is to say yes to the designer then figure out how the heck are we going to do it,” Berg said in a telephone interview.

The swan started out as a blob of foam mounted over the truck. The foam was carved to make a fiberglass swan shell that houses the mechanics inside, such as the small motors, and provides a base for the fake fur and feathers on the outside.

Berg downsized the truck’s wheels and glued sand to the treads for better traction, and artists layered feathers to create a lifelike bird.

The biggest challenge was achieving realistic neck movements. Berg studied videos of real swans to understand how their necks curl up and down, deploying a car antenna motor to help move the neck down and a length of carbon fiber fishing rod mounted along the back of the neck to raise it.

“This is really a glorified remote-controlled car,” Berg said. But a custom car, for sure.

“For me personally, it was the high point of things I have done,” said Berg, who has worked for Seattle Opera for 20 years.

“No other industry makes this sort of stuff.”

Gary Smith photo

Seattle Opera’s 1994 production of Lohengrin (with Ben Heppner as Lohengrin) returns this week.

“Lohengrin”

Seattle Opera launches its 2004-2005 season with a production of the Richard Wagner opera, which opens at 7 tonight for the first of eight performances through Aug. 21. Sung in German with English captions. Running time is about 41/2 hours with two intermissions.

Where: McCaw Hall, Seattle Center

Tickets: $47-$123, 206-389-7676, 800-426-1619, www.seattleopera.org.

The story: A tragic love story in three-acts in which Elsa is accused of murdering her brother. Her accusers are Count Telramund and his evil wife Ortrud. Elsa has a dream that a knight will come to save her, and Lohengrin, a mysterious Knight of the Holy Grail with powers over evil, comes to the rescue in a boat drawn by a swan. He offers to fight Elsa’s accuser and marry her, but only if she never asks his name or about his origin. Elsa can’t keep her side of the bargain, and Lohengrin must leave forever.

The cast: Lohengrin is sung by Dutch tenor Albert Bonnema, who has sung the role in Europe and Japan. Soprano Marie Plette, a veteran of Seattle Opera “Ring” and other productions, sings the role of Elsa. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, another company regular who sang the lead role in the 1994 production of “Lohengrin,” sings the role of Telramund. Jane Eaglen, the great Wagnerian soprano and star of numerous Seattle Opera productions, sings the role of Ortrud. The conductor is Asher Fisch; Stephen Wadsworth directs.

“Lohengrin”

Seattle Opera launches its 2004-2005 season with a production of the Richard Wagner opera, which opens at 7 tonight for the first of eight performances through Aug. 21. Sung in German with English captions. Running time is about 41/2 hours with two intermissions.

Where: McCaw Hall, Seattle Center

Tickets: $47-$123, 206-389-7676, 800-426-1619, www.seattleopera.org.

The story: A tragic love story in three-acts in which Elsa is accused of murdering her brother. Her accusers are Count Telramund and his evil wife Ortrud. Elsa has a dream that a knight will come to save her, and Lohengrin, a mysterious Knight of the Holy Grail with powers over evil, comes to the rescue in a boat drawn by a swan. He offers to fight Elsa’s accuser and marry her, but only if she never asks his name or about his origin. Elsa can’t keep her side of the bargain, and Lohengrin must leave forever.

The cast: Lohengrin is sung by Dutch tenor Albert Bonnema, who has sung the role in Europe and Japan. Soprano Marie Plette, a veteran of Seattle Opera “Ring” and other productions, sings the role of Elsa. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, another company regular, sings the role of Telramund. Jane Eaglen, the great Wagnerian soprano and star of numerous Seattle Opera productions, sings the role of Ortrud. The conductor is Asher Fisch; Stephen Wadsworth directs.

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