Refreshing the Ring

March 20th, 2018

In spring 2019, Robert Lepage’s innovative production of the ultimate operatic epic, Wagner’s four-installment Der Ring des Nibelungen, returns to the Met stage for the first time since the 2012–13 season. In preparation, the company has already started working to make sure the revival goes smoothly. As with any returning staging, the Met’s production department’s goal is to faithfully recreate the director’s original vision, repairing and updating scenery, machinery, lighting, and other stagecraft as necessary. With the Ring, however, that mission is a bit more complicated than usual.

Lepage’s production relies on what has become known as “the machine,” a 90,000-pound apparatus that comprises two dozen 30-foot-long aluminum planks suspended between two 26-foot-tall steel towers, plus the requisite hydraulic machinery to make the planks spin independently and rise and fall in unison. As the machine transforms itself into myriad arrangements, cutting-edge projections and lighting effects provide color, texture, and detail, allowing all of Wagner’s fantastical settings—from the cavernous depths of Nibelheim to Brünnhilde’s flame-encircled mountain top—to materialize on the Met stage.

When the production was new, much of the technology necessary to make the vision a reality existed only in prototype form or had never been used in the theater. Control software for the machine’s precisely choreographed transformations had to be written from scratch. Breathtaking three-dimensional projections—which adjust in real time as the machine moves and respond interactively to the movement of the singers and the sound of the music—were being used onstage for the very first time. The staging was operating at the very edge of what was possible, and some intermittent technical difficulties had to be overcome. In the ensuing years, however, technology has caught up with Lepage’s production, and the Met is taking advantageof these advances to make the staging moreconsistent and reliable.

To that end, the machine has been moved from storage into a warehouse in Middletown, New York, which has been converted into a soundstage. There, the Met’s stagehands and technical staff will reassemble it, make any necessary repairs, upgrade its automation system and various video projection systems, and thoroughly adjust and test all of its functions. They will also work to make its movements as quiet as possible to minimize any onstage noise. Then, in August, the machine will make its way to the Met for final onstage calibration and testing.

Though the performances seem a long way off, this process started a year in advance to make sure that there would be time to do as thorough a job as possible. “The more high-tech the production,” said Met Production Manager Paul Masck, “the more high-tech the work we need to do to maintain the director’s vision.” This effort will be rewarded in March 2019 when an outstanding cast of leading Wagnerians climbs onto the newly restored machine to bring Wagner’s masterpiece to life, set against some of the most dazzling stage spectacles ever created.

—Jay Goodwin