Richard Wagner’s operas are hardly metaphors for fast food, but when it comes to the "ultra grande" menu nothing competes with his Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. There might be no calories or saturated fats, but mounting a production of Meistersinger can put a company at risk for cardiac arrest — which it nearly did for Cincinnnati Opera.
The company's 90th season debut can definitely be called bigger and better. Consider the menu:
• A cast of 17 principals
• Expanded orchestra of 74 with 150 chorus members
• 26 supernumeraries (extras)
• 292 costumes
• A running time of over six hours, including three intermissions to accommodate set changes.
Casting is the primary consideration. Most operas call for a soprano or two, a tenor, a bass or baritone, maybe a mezzo soprano and a chorus. Fifteen of Meistersinger’s principals are male voices, and not just any male voices. Wagnerian singers who have the heft for large-scale works are a small subset, and all the major roles and the conductor had to be replaced in April.
Fortunately, the new cast members are seasoned pros. Bass-baritone James Johnson calls his Hans Sachs “a monumental role in a monumental opera,” adding that the part has over two-and-a-half hours of singing with his character on stage for the entire opera, all six hours of it.
“You have to pace yourself,” says tenor John Horton Murray, who sings the role of Walther von Stolzing. “The overall length is amazing. It’s like singing two operas in a row.”
Wagner’s only comedy takes on young love, artistic tradition, artistic innovation and an entire town. The Meistersingers are Nuremberg’s prestigious guild of singer/songwriters, and Sachs is their beloved elder statesmen. As the annual competition heats up, von Stolzing, a young knight, enters in order to win the hand of Eva. Sachs becomes his advocate for artistic change and brings around the Meisters and the townspeople, but not before there’s a major brawl with 139 people in Act II.
Director Chris Alexander put in a year and a half of planning prior to his arrival in Cincinnati earlier this month. Staging the opera’s sprawling plot “is two completely different jobs,” he says. “There’s the psychological comedy between all the principals and then getting those huge crowd scenes right.”
Those huge crowd scenes involve singers and supernumeraries onstage at the end of Act II and 150 choristers singing at the end of Act III. Music Hall’s largest rehearsal room wasn’t large enough for the combined forces, so the fight scene had to be staged in smaller groups. The mix also includes six stunt fighters.
“I have to sort out what they do, let them practice, set it, tell everyone else what’s going on and to steer clear,” Alexander says. “Then there are the window dwellers, the people who look out and empty pillows out on the crowd.”
Veteran Stage Manager Jennifer Cook adds, “The pre-staging for the stunt fighters took over 12 hours for 2 1/2 minutes of stage action.”
Then there are the stage props. Many came with the production, but Props Manager David Centers supplemented the four-page inventory with scouting trips for over 40 lanterns and the right kind of feathers to rain down on the street fighters. Centers explains that “with only 40 minutes between set changes, the time it takes to vacuum the feathers makes a difference.”
Some set elements didn’t arrive until last week, so the process of coordinating backstage timing is a challenge for both director and stage manager.
“We can only rehearse with the orchestra for three hours before overtime kicks in, so we can’t run a complete tech rehearsal,” Cook says. “We practice set changes during the day when there aren’t a bunch of people waiting around.”
As far as the audience is concerned, Meistersinger’s most intimidating element is its length. The action gets underway at 6 p.m. for both performances, and audiences are advised to eat before they come (light fare will be added to the concessions menu during intermissions).
Despite the long hours and visions of backstage traffic jams, Cook says that the opera has a cinematic feel to it.
“It’s not presentational, like grand opera,” she says. “It’s more dramatic, and we have some of the best actors I’ve seen.”
Both Johnson and Murray stress the characters’ humanity and the pleasure they take in singing “a very real story with a happy ending.”
Johnson adds, “It has a bubbly feeling during the work period, so you go into the performance with an elated state of mind.”
Love wins. Art rules. And I’m lovin’ it.
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG is presented by Cincinnati Opera June 23 and 26 at Music Hall. Get show and venue details and buy tickets here.