Vogue, March 2012
A colossal machine with hundreds of moving parts, Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen encompasses four operas; 34 assorted gods, demigods, warriors, lovers, and dwarfs; dozens of swords, spears, and horned helmets; a 97-piece orchestra (not to mention twelve anvils); one hotly contested golden ring; and, of course, fifteen hours or so of some of the most ravishing music ever written. As it happens, a literal machine is at the center of the Metropolitan Opera's starstudded, visually dazzling and controversial new Ring cycle, which, after being rolled out one opera at a time over the past year and a half, returns to the Met stage next month in its epic entirety.

Controversy has followed Wagner's master piece ever since its 1876 premiere at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Conceived as a revolutionary "total work of art" and composed over more than 25 years, the Ring-whose four operas are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung--draws on Icelandic myths, German folktales, and Greek tragedies to tell the saga of the downfall of the gods and the rise of mankind. Audiences have argued about whether the Ring is a psychologically penetrating modern myth or an overwrought fairy tale, a sharp critique of industrial capitalism or an abhorrent expression of German nationalism. After 136 years, it continues to loom large, a cultural landmark familiar to almost everyone, even if only through the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now or Elmer Fudd's "Oh, Bwünnhilde, you're so wovewy" serenade to Bugs Bunny in "What's Opera, Doc?"

According to the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who stars in Die Walküre, the Ring is "a love affair at first sight that continues to grow over time. You become addicted." Given the work's singular power to excite oversize passions among its obsessive devotees, a heroically scaled new Met production involving an avant-garde theater director, cutting-edge stage wizardry, and a cast that includes Kaufmann as the tragic hero Siegmund, the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as the god king Wotan, the American bass-baritone Eric Owens as the evil dwarf Alberich, and the American soprano Deborah Voigt as the warrior maiden Brünnhilde, a certain level of frenzy is to be expected. Inevitably, some mourn the retirement of Otto Schenk's High Romantic production, a staple of the Met repertoire since the late 1980s.

A process of renewal has to go on in opera the way it does in the theater-no production of Hamlet would ever stick around for over 20 years," says the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb. "I'm sure that if Wagner were here today, this is the kind of production that he would imagine himself, because it does everything that he wanted to do but didn't have the technology to achieve."

The showpiece of that technology-and of the FrenchCanadian director Robert Lepage's ambitious vision-is the set, affectionately dubbed the machine, a 45-ton, hydraulically controlled behemoth made up of 24 giant planks mounted between two towers: Think a row of very big seesaws that move up and down independently, twisting and folding in on themselves to create a metaphorical spine for the production. Inspired by the stark landscape of Iceland, which Lepage calls "a place where mythology feels real and alive," as well as the shifting tectonic plates beneath the Earth, the set becomes an almost living embodiment of Wagner's music and the themes of transformation intrinsic to the story. "I wanted to bring Wagner's leitmotifs to life," says Lepage, "to give the way that they appear and braid with each other a visual counterpoint."

For the restive orchestral prologue of Die Walküre, Lepage and Co. use the machine (and video projection) to create a storm-tossed forest through which the opera's headstrong hero, Siegmund, flees a band of sword-wielding enemies. Kaufmann brings a smoldering romantic intensity-and a voice that combines virile power and lyrical tenderness to the part. Prepare to be bowled over by his act-one duets with the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, the unhappily married hausfrau for whom Siegmund falls, only to discover that she is off limits in more ways than one. "From the first moment they see each other, there is this mysterious connection," Kaufmann explains. "Within one evening, they go right to overwhelming passion and then to discovering that they are really twins. But now they are in love so, oh well, it's too late."

New York audiences lost their hearts at first sight to Kaufmann when he made his 2006 Met debut as Alfredo in La Traviata. And when he returned in 2010, with electrifying performances as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Don Jose in Carmen, mere infatuation grew into a love of almost operatic proportions. "He's one of the great stars of today," says Gelb. "His voice is incredible, he's a great actor, and he has an ability to connect with the public that very few singers have. He's got it."

Even unshaven in jeans and a crew-neck sweater, the darkly handsome tenor with a world-class head of hair exudes that ineffable "it" that has made him, at 42, an opera superstar. Kaufmann lives with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig, and their three children in Munich, which he loves for its culture, its access to skiing, hiking, and sailing, and the fact that it's where he was born and raised. "It feels like home," he says, "and that's important, especially for the kids, when you have a lifestyle like mine." He speaks with easygoing passion about his quest to make the perfect crema for his wife's espresso, the relative merits of the 28 recordings of Wagner's Parsifal on his iPhone, and the importance of a singer having, he says in his mild German accent, "the confidence to improwise."

Like his character in Die Walküre, Kaufmann seems to have been touched by the hand of destiny, minus the incest and the magic sword. His father, who worked for an insurance company, and his mother, a kindergarten teacher, both played the piano and nourished him and his sister on a steady diet of classical music. His grandfather, also an amateur musician, introduced him to Wagner's operas on the family piano. Kaufmann studied the instrument, too, but his real passion lay elsewhere. "I was always singing-I loved it more than anything," he recalls "It was my way of expressing my feelings and my emotional status, even as a child."

On his father's advice, he majored in mathematics in college, but after a few semesters he dropped out and started studying to be an opera singer at Munich's Academy of Music and Theater. He was taught to sing with a light, "Rossini-like" tone that was typical of German tenors but felt unnatural to him. Unable to rely on his voice, and constantly coming down with colds, Kaufinann reached a crisis while singing the role of a knight's attendant in Parsifal. "I started out feeling quite normal, but I realized with each phrase that my voice was getting smaller and weaker," he recalls. "Finally, I lost my voice completely, and the conductor was looking at me like"-he widens his eyes in panic and then laughs, adding, "I realized that I had to do something."

Kaufmann began studying with the American baritone Michael Rhodes, who told him, "You're not using your own voice. Just open up, relax, and let go." Despite dire warnings from well-meaning colleagues that he would destroy his voice and several awkward years relearning his craft (he compares it to driving a truck for the first time after a lifetime behind the wheel of a Mini), Kaufmann trusted his instincts. In the end, he found a way of singing that was not only more comfortable and reliable but gave him new power and depth. Kaufmann sees his style as a return to the age of such mid-twentieth-century tenors as Wolfgang Windgassen and René Kollo, whose lightness of touch was lost in the subsequent era of, as he puts it "huge Wagnerian beasts, who come out and scream the hell out of it." Acclaimed for the baritonal richness of his voice, he believes that without that intervention, he never would have the career he now does.

Last year Kaufmann joined Placido Domingo as one of the few tenors with the range to sing both Siegmund and Faust at the Met And he wants to continue, in the manner of Domingo, to develop a voice capable of capturing the "freshness, flexibility, and elegance" of the French repertoire, the "passion" of the Italian repertoire, and the "power and intellect" of the German one. "It would probably be easier to focus on just one thing, but that doesn't interest me," Kaufmann says. "I want to challenge myself, grow, and go on singing for many years".

He feels he will soon be ready to tackle what he calls "the heavy stuff, the big parts that as a young student I dreamed of but that seemed out of my reach." It's a list that includes Verdi's Otello, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and Berlioz's Les Troyens, in which he will make his debut in July at Covent Garden. Next season, Kaufmann will also be coming full circle when he sings the lead role in the Met's new production of Parsifal, the very work during which he lost his voice as a young tenor. "It's so important that we don't treat this as a job but as an adventure that we give life to each time we perform,"he says. "It's not only making a beautiful sound and acting well, but having this passion and joy in what we're doing because this is a feeling that can come across the pit and hit the audience. Hopefully, it's as exciting for them as it is for us."

Kaufmann isn't the only performer in the Ring cycle whose journey to the Met's stage has had mythic overtones. Last October, the American tenor Jay Hunter Morris found himself living out an archetypal legend, albeit one that was more 42nd Street than Götterdämmerung. Morris grew up in Paris, Texas, the son of a Southern Baptist minister and a church organist, and spent his childhood singing in the choir. In college, he performed country songs during happy hour at a steak house in Waco. But when he saw a Dallas Opera production of La Traviata, he fell in love with the art and, with the fearlessness of youth, decided to make it his life's work.

After a 20-year singing career marked by highs (appearing in Terrence McNally's Master Class on Broadway) and lows (selling Rollerblades in Central Park), Morris found himself, as he puts it, "pretty firmly embedded in the lower middle echelon of my field." He signed on at the Met as the backup for Siegfried, the titular hero of the Ring's five-and-a-half-hour-long third installment, who goes on to meet his fate in the final chapter, learning the entire, fiendishly challenging role with little hope of ever going on. Then, less than two weeks before opening night, Gary Lehman, the production's Siegfried, fell ill and dropped out. Gelb took Morris aside and asked, "Can you do this?" The next thing he knew, Morris was wearing a breastplate and a blond wig to play the intrepid young blade who slays a fire-breathing dragon, defeats the King of the Gods, awakens Brünnhilde from her cursed sleep, and-after joining her in the Wagnerian equivalent of "What Is This Thing Called Love?"-takes her as his bride. With his rich tenor and youthful vigor, he went out an understudy and came back a star. "I was relaxed and confident and in the zone as long as I was onstage. It's when I was offstage and the magnitude of it all hit me-Oh, my God, I'm singing Siegfried at the Met; who do I think I'm kidding?-that I got a little terrified," he says. "Let's just say that it took me a long time to get here and be ready for this moment."

The same could be said for Morris's onstage partner in love and death, Deborah Voigt, who with this Ring makes her debut as Brünnhilde sixteen years after her triumphant turn as Sieglinde opposite Plácido Domingo, having lost nothing in the intervening time except 100 pounds and several dress sizes. The soprano's transformation came courtesy of gastric bypass surgery in the wake of the infamous 2004 "little black dress" episode, when she was fired from a Covent Garden production of Ariadne auf Naxos for being too heavy to fit into her costume. Voigt says that her impetus to slim down had more to do with her health than with her career, but, she adds, "it's opened up an enormous ability to communicate as an actress."

On the opening night of Die Walküre last spring, she ran onstage, stepped on her dress, fell, and delivered her first triumphant "Hojotoho!" from the floor. "Fortunately, Brünnhilde is kind of a tomboy, so I was able to laugh it off and make it look like `Oh, I meant to do that,"' she says. A former high school musical-theater geek, Voigt fulfilled a longtime dream last summer, playing another tomboy who loses her heart to a man in Annie Get Your Gun. But for now, she is focusing on Brünnhilde, whose transformation from bumptious daughter of the gods to self-sacrificing wife of a mortal makes her among the most relatable of tragic heroines. "My father never put me to sleep on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire, but we had our patchy moments," she says. "And I've certainly been wildly in love and been betrayed, so I relate to that, though I can't quite fathom having the wherewithal to know that I need to immolate myself in order to save the world."

In the run-up to the premiere of the full Ring cycle next month, response to Lepage's ambitiously conceived productions has been divided between those who feel that the technology overwhelms the human drama and those who, like me, feel that it captures the magic and grandeur of Wagner's larger-than-life vision. But there's no argument about the glorious sound of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, which gleams under the baton of Fabio Luisi (who took over after James Levine stepped down for health reasons last year). And in the end, the Ring is about what Kaufmann describes as "the sheer emotional power of the music," which needs no words or lavish stagecraft to speak directly to our feelings. As Kaufmann puts it: "You don't have to bother getting into the right mood. Just listen to the music, and you're right there. You can't resist it."

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