My “Ring” Memoir

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Jim’s perspective – both musical and business – on his first full Ring cycle performance

Tonight we finished the last Gotterdammerung at LA Opera. It was the end of a two-year commitment to the most elaborate, longest, and (arguably) the most important work of music ever written.

I feel humbled, proud and fortunate to have had the opportunity to do it – once in my life. The Ring has been a LIFETIME experience. Los Angeles Opera is a strange company. It is not a full time orchestra or job but it operates on a very high level. To tackle the Ring is said to be the mark of distinction for an opera company—a sign that you a have arrived. The opera world is very picky, with knowledgeable critics and audiences that judge it on a high level. LA Opera is unique in that (from the beginning) it started as a “big deal”. We did Otello as the first production with Placido Domingo singing Iago. He later became our company director. We suffered several years of guest conductors and assistant conductors and we were all along criticized as a pick-up, free-lance orchestra. Then Domingo decided that we needed a music director and they got Kent Nagano—who was disciplined and “trained us”. He was good but ultimately too perfect and lost soul. He worked us to death but we played a lot better. But James Conlon is a whole new element. He’s a real passionate musician and more like “one of us”.

Well, doing the Ring with James (in every rehearsal and performance for two seasons) is heavy. He knows the music so much better than any of us. He certainly had control and rarely messed up. His beat and cues were always reliable. He conducts like a player who plays every note, leads by example and conveys the passion of the work. To me Conlon made it a great Ring. My ONLY Ring was a great experience.

When I committed to it 2 years ago, I knew I would have to make choices. I lost a lot of studio work during these two yeas—including one of my major film composers. But I made that decision because the Ring is a huge challenge for a tuba player and more movies (while cool to do maybe) is not a NEW experience. The Ring was. So many of the tuba players that I respect have done the Ring all over the world. In America it is not done nearly as often as in Germany and Europe—the budget is big factor. I had the benefit of knowing Herb Wekselblatt, Bob Tucci, Mark Evans, Don Little, Zach Spellman and others who know the parts to communicate with. They all gave me good advice.

In America the Ring is rare. I understand there are only 6 opera companies in America who have done the entire Ring. MOST (almost all) of the tuba players I know have not had the opportunity to do it. Back in the late 80’s I did Walkure with John Mauceri and Opera Pacific and I have done a few symphony concerts of excerpts from the Ring.

Das Rheingold is played in one 2:40 act was in many ways more grueling than the other longer operas. Its opening 96 bars of low Eb was really demanding. Walkure was probably the most tuba playing and most familiar. I was not prepared for Siegfried for sure. I ended up doing the Dragon solos 8 times—what an extensive and exhausting tuba solo! Over the two years we did each opera 5-­7 times as stand alone operas and then this spring three complete cycles. All told there were, 24 performances, 8 dress rehearsals and umpteen other rehearsals.

Until this run, all of the stories I have heard about playing the tuba in the Ring were on the sideline of my life,

I actually had the opportunity to play what separate operas I wanted, as long as I did 50%. But I wanted to do it ALL.

When I look back on my life I think the things I remember the most are the long-­term projects. I always wanted to be in a band, (orchestra, quintet, jazz group)— part of a bigger thing. A tuba player in an orchestra is rarely challenged technically. But the challenge is in a supportive role. Well that is the Ring for tuba. Low, slow, root oriented stuff—good for my breathing and endurance. The tuba is important as are all the brass. More than any other piece, this is brass heaven.

I think that Wagner had a very vivid ear and heard all of his instruments in his head. The tuba parts are “basic tuba 101” parts -­-­low, long, slow and important to the texture. Well known are the 40+ “leit motifs” that indentify each of the roles and moods. After two years of listening I am convinced that Wagner just wrote those themes and spent the rest of the time writing an arrangement. The sheer complexity of those combinations is amazing. The whole thing was a great lesson in composing and arranging for me. Of course the music is completely tonal (but with frequent key changes) and the dissonances always resolve. It is interesting to compare Verdi and Wagner—the two giants of late 19th century opera. Comparing the ring to its contemporary La Traviata is interesting. Verdi is almost archaic harmonically while Wagner stretches the limit.

A great deal of the time the tuba plays with the 4 Wagner tuben. They sat next to me to my left. It was good because their bells pointed at me and mine at them. I told them they were in “my section”. Because the Wagner tuben are so frequently used in the Hollywood movie sound tracks all the top horn player own them and play them regularly giving LA players the edge over any other place for mastering those difficult instruments. Our horn players are much more experienced playing those (generally) difficult instruments. Jim Atkinson, Nathan Campbell, Dan Kelly and Jenny Kim were the tuben players—doubling on horn too. When not playing with the tuben I was often with the trombones—especially the contra-­bass trombone.

Because he was seated away from me we had a few listening difficulties but we dealt with them.

During the early run of Walkure the Vienna Phil was in town playing across the street at Disney Hall. Some of our brass had dinner with some of the VP brass and we talked about the Ring. Apparently they do the cycle twice a year as repertoire— and they do it without rehearsal. That amazed me. But as great as the music is, I’m not sure I care to do it again—every year would be too much for sure.

I was particularly impressed with Steve Becknell on 1st horn. All horn players must play the Siegfried Horn Calls and many other ring excerpts when doing orchestral auditions but very few ever really get to play them in concert—Steve was wonderful. The trombones, Bill Booth, Al Veah, Terry Cravens and George Thatcher (on Contra) were consistently good as were the trumpets, Tim Morrison and Dave Washburn (trading off on Principal), Andy Ulyate and Tim Owner (on Bass Trumpet). Boy what a difficult part that bass trumpet is—Ralph Sauer and Phil Keen did runs during the first productions but Tim came in and finished (including the three cycles).

For Walkure I got the most unusual double—I used my “Selfone” on the Stierhorn part. We doubled it with two bass bones and it was an eerie sound. I was surprised that the Ride tuba part in the actual opera is small compared to the standard orchestra version of the overture—which is an arrangement that seems to meld the contra-­bass trombone and tuba parts.

The Ring was a very lucrative job. I was paid 1 ½ scale as a principal and, with all the overtime (especially in Gotterdammerung), I made a tidy sum—but we really earned it.

I consider my run with the Ring one of the true-­life experiences I have ever had. I feel fortunate to have done this once and to be part of that most elaborate of all works of music.

Jim Self
Los Angeles
June 2010

Postlude: After spending $32 million on the Ring the Los Angeles Opera found themselves deeply in debt. Our union contract (while providing tenure and high per-­ service pay) does not have any guaranteed services. So the company decided to severely cut back on numbers of productions and the kind and sizes of productions per season. In effect the orchestra took a 50% pay cut for the last two seasons. Because of repertoire the tuba was not used in any productions for the entire calendar year of 2011—for me a 100% pay cut. I have two operas in the spring of 2012 and hope for better years to follow.

November 2011

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