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It’s logical that Seattle Opera — which, not long after its 1963 founding, made its name with its productions of Richard Wagner’s operas — should play its strong suit to welcome back live audiences after a year of filmed, streamed performances. It’s chosen Wagner’s “Die Walküre” (“The Valkyrie”) for a celebratory outdoor performance at Seattle Center Saturday, Aug. 28.
Also returning is conductor Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony’s music director from 2011 to 2019. This performance, he said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, will actually be his debut not only conducting “Walküre,” but any of the four operas in Wagner’s cycle “The Ring of the Nibelungs.” “Walküre,” the second, is the one most often performed on its own — for the human poignance of its drama; for its throbbing Act 1 love duet; for Brünnhilde’s iconic “Ho-jo-to-ho!” call on her entrance; and especially for Wagner’s greatest hit, the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence, universally recognizable even outside the opera fan base.
But this rendition brought Morlot an additional challenge since “Walküre” needed to be slimmed and trimmed, for both budgetary and time reasons. Act 1 will be performed complete, he said, but he’s been working on sewing patches from Acts 2 and 3 into a whole quilt — all while “conducting nonstop since early July” after a year of COVID-19 sabbatical. On Saturday, there’ll be only one Valkyrie — Brünnhilde — rather than nine; and Fricka, who in “Walküre” serves the (decidedly patience-trying) function of the Goddess of Moral Inflexibility, has been omitted altogether. As Seattle Opera did with its streaming production of “Don Giovanni” this past spring, supertitles on jumbo screens will fill in the plot holes from these cuts.
It’s similarly a homecoming for soprano Angela Meade, born and raised in Centralia, who made her Seattle Opera debut in 2019 (in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”) after triumphing at the Metropolitan Opera and across Europe. This weekend she’ll perform her first Wagner role — in the role of Sieglinde, mother of “Ring” hero Siegfried.
In school, “people were asking when I was going to sing Wagner,” she said in a recent interview. “I knew that I wanted to solidify my technique” first. To do so, she’s concentrated so far on the bel canto opera repertory — literally “beautiful singing,” an approach prioritizing both long-breathed lyricism and acrobatic flexibility that composers like Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, of the generation before Wagner, specialized in.
Despite his very different style, and his innovations in harmonic and orchestral elaboration and richness, Wagner’s writing for the voice has roots in this older aesthetic, which makes it a natural next step for Meade. “I’ve always tried to keep my voice high and unforced,” she said, “riding the sound of the orchestra instead of competing with it, and singing that way allows me to ride the phrases Wagner wrote for Sieglinde easily — much more easily than I ever would have imagined, actually.”
“I have always been a cautious singer and I try to be a smart singer as well, so I won’t be jumping headfirst into the Wagner pool; I plan to study and evaluate which of his roles I feel fit my vocal abilities.” But when offered the role of Sieglinde, she knew the moment was ripe: “I am thrilled that I get to start the adventure here in my home state with Seattle Opera.” Completing the cast are Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, Raymond Aceto as Hunding, Alexandra LoBianco as Brünnhilde and Eric Owens as Wotan.
And finally it’s a homecoming, too, for Wagner himself. Seattle Opera General Director Christina Scheppelmann, in her first two years on the job, surely has been besieged with questions about whether or not another full “Ring” is planned, as was her predecessor, Aidan Lang. When the four-year cycle was broken — when Seattle Opera declined to mount a “Ring” in 2017 after having done so in 2005, ’09, and ’13 — many Wagnerites here and abroad might have feared the company was abandoning its chief claim to worldwide fame.
But though the company’s recent track record with new operas tackling contemporary issues has been impressive, Scheppelmann is committed to broadening, not revamping, Seattle Opera’s repertory.
“Wagner, along with many other great composers, will be a part of our future in some way,” she says. “But rather than get carried away with grand plans, my focus right now is on getting Seattle Opera on solid and successful footing after one-and-a-half years without McCaw performances. My focus is on bringing our audiences and community together in order to safely enjoy live opera again.”
Correction: This article has been updated to note that Angela Meade was born in Centralia and that she made her Seattle Opera debut in 2019.