Alwyn Mellor will try to have a lie-in tomorrow morning, not because she will have travelled up to the North East from her home in Cardiff the previous day but because she has a crucial role to play in a magnificent musical enterprise.
The fourth opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), will begin in Hall One of Sage Gateshead at 3.30pm on Saturday and end at 9.50pm.
Admittedly there are intervals of 85 minutes and then 20 minutes but it is still an epic undertaking for all concerned and especially for the singers.
Alwyn has one of the toughest tasks of all. She plays Brünnhilde whose passionate love affair with Siegfried is going to be sorely tested during the course of a long afternoon-into-evening before everything goes up in flames and the baton of conductor (and Opera North music director) Richard Farnes finally drops.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle, involving four major operas, tells an epic tale of gods, giants and dwarfs inspired by the Norse sagas. It is comparable in scale and ambition to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although it came years before the great literary fantasy.
The German composer spent 26 years, from 1848-74, writing the music and the words of his masterpiece and no opera company decides to stage it without first having taken a deep breath. It is huge, expensive and demanding in every sense.
Opera North’s concert version of the Ring Cycle – sung without costumes and with the mighty orchestra of Opera North on the stage behind the singers – has been a four-year enterprise, each opera opening in Leeds and then embarking on a limited tour of the North.
Sage Gateshead is one of the tour venues and for many concert-goers tomorrow will mark the end of a long and invigorating journey.
Alwyn appeared as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, the second of the four operas, in 2012 and takes over the role of Brünnhilde from Annalena Persson who blew the audience’s socks off at the Sage last summer.
So it is that a Swedish valkyrie is replaced by one born in the Lancashire town of Rawtenstall in the Rossendale Valley.
“I always sang as a little girl. I had singing lessons from age 10 and piano lessons before that,” she says. “Music was a part of my life.
“I always loved to sing but I never thought it would be my work. It was my passion, something I could do, but it wasn’t until I went to the Royal Northern for six years that I really learned about opera and all the different forms of music.”
The ‘Royal Northern’ is the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
“It was in that nurturing environment that my voice developed and from there I went to Welsh National Opera in Cardiff,” says Alwyn who has now been singing professionally for 22 years.
Anyone who has heard a Wagner opera (think Ride of the Valkyries) will know that there is singing and there is singing. Wagner made special demands of performers which is why there is what musicologists and critics refer to as a Wagnerian voice.
“I think, basically, you’ve got to have lived a lot to sing Wagner, not just from a practical point of view but from an emotional point of view,” says Alwyn. “He demands a lot of you as a person, not just as a singer. You need a lot of stamina mentally and vocally and it’s hard to find that.
“You can do smaller roles when you’re younger but for something like this you do need to have been singing for a long time to build yourself up. I believe you have to have sung many other things.”
Alwyn says it is possible to see traits in a young singer’s voice that might mark them out as a future Wagnerian performer.
“People suggested to me when I was younger that I might be able to sing these roles but you don’t really take it in at the age of 18. You come to realise it gradually, beginning with some of the shorter and less heavy Wagnerian roles.
“This kind of role doesn’t suit everybody. I think you’ve got to be a certain type of person. Some people don’t like to wait around a lot and the challenge of a really long rehearsal period isn’t for them. You can be rehearsing for three months to build up to these parts.
“Also your voice has to learn to live with it and work in a slightly different way.”
Alwyn agrees that the build-up to a major performance is akin to that of an athlete ahead of a competition – hence the preference for a lie-in followed by a gradual build-up and a little outdoor exercise beforehand. “You’re going to be inside and on stage for a very long time.”
Even the intervals can be challenging for a singer. While the audience will go off to eat during the longer of the two intervals on Saturday, Alwyn wll not be sitting down to a meal. “I don’t eat a lot before I sing because it does affect the voice. I tend to graze throughout the day.”
Looking ahead to Götterdämmerung, Alwyn says her character does not appear during the first scene but she has a famous and challenging contribution to make towards the very end. “When I wake up on the day of a performance I tend to be in performance mode from the very start,” she says.
While she acknowledges that the Ring Cycle tends to attract a particularly knowledgeable and critical crowd, she says the real experts in the audience know what a tremendous undertaking it is for the performers.
Having been on the Ring Cycle journey myself over the past four years, having sat mesmerised and motionless as the waves of music have swept down over the Hall One seats, I can vouch for the fact that all on stage commit themselves totally to the performance.
From the opening Das Rheingold in 2011 through Die Walküre in 2012 and last year’s Siegfried, this has been an exhilarating enterprise for all concerned.
As usual on Saturday a translation from the German will run above orchestra and singers on three screens on which will also appear subtle but apt visuals – running water, mountain tops, flames and the like.
Alongside Alwyn, the Estonian Mati Turi will return as Siegfried while the Swedish bass Mats Almgren, who previously sung the part of Fafner in Siegfried, will sing Hagen. Orla Boylan will sing Gutrune, Jo Pohlheim takes the part of Alberich, Eric Greene sings Gunther and Susan Bickley tackles Waltraute.
That’s an exotic bunch of names. Opera is an international phenomenon – Alwyn herself is off to sing in the United States and then France after her final performance as Brünnhilde – but it’s an artform that speaks a universal language.
If you want to give Wagner a try this weekend, there are still a few seats available (box office 0191 443 4661).
But it might not be the last chance to experience this critically acclaimed Opera North Ring Cycle. There is talk of it returning in 2016 with all four operas being performed in quick succession. The Sage might be one of the venues to take it. Watch this space.