Opera North's Richard Farnes departs with The Ring
There can be few more challenging tasks as a conductor than taking on the whole of Wagner's The Ring Cycle - but that is the one that has been handed to Richard Farnes for his final assignment at Opera North.
After 12 years at the musical helm of the company, he is moving on, but not before he leads the orchestra through four operas and 15 hours of some of what he calls the most "physical" music on offer.
"One of the biggest things in Wagner is seeing the wood for the trees," he says.
"Even just doing one component of The Ring, say Das Rheingold which is two and a half hours of continuous music without an interval, you have to create a huge arch from beginning to end musically.
"One gets obsessed and concerned about the little detail, but you have to have this big macro view when you get to perform it.
"When you're doing the whole Ring, you are talking about a huge symphony of four different movements, [which are] essentially remoulding the same thematic material from start to finish, so creating this big span that makes an overall satisfactory musical and dramatic effect, that's the biggest challenge."
'No needless gestures'
For first violinist David Greed, the leader of Opera North's orchestra, The Ring Cycle is a "tremendously fitting finale" for Farnes, who he says is an "extraordinary" conductor.
"Normally, with a conductor, you find faults everywhere, but Richard is the complete package.
"He's secure and clear, there are no needless gestures in his conducting, and his ear is extraordinary.
"If you think of Wagner and The Ring Cycle, he has over a hundred musicians sitting in front of him and if there's a wrong note, he'll find it straight away, be it in the second clarinet or the third tuba.
"As a leader, it makes me a bit redundant. With Richard on the box, I don't have to pick up the pieces, because he does it all with great ease and precision."
The company's general director Richard Mantle says while Farnes is a superb conductor, what raises him to even higher praise is his studious interest in what goes on beyond the orchestra pit.
"He does have this supreme knack of getting under the skin of the operatic canon in a way that not all conductors do.
"He takes a huge amount of interest in what's happening theatrically and has led a drive to enhance our casting, and that's certainly paying dividends."
Soprano Giselle Allen, who takes the roles of Freia and Gutrune in the production, says that interest in the dramatic side sets Farnes apart from others that take the podium.
"He's one of the few conductors who really understands the singer.
"He's always there for you, looking up at you - if something goes a bit wrong on stage, you know that Richard's there getting you back in again.
"He also understands the need for singers to breathe and the drama that's going on, on stage.
"You feel that all the little cogs in the watch all work together, that you're not fighting with somebody in the pit who wants to do things his own way.
"Richard has no ego, he's very much a team player."
Greed agrees that Farnes' interest in the whole production and lack of ego are unusual and welcome traits.
"I think this is the reason why some great conductors actually don't succeed in the opera theatre.
"It's a really complicated medium and Richard is incredible - yes, he stands in the orchestral pit, but his soul is also on the stage and taking care of the singers. His care is all round.
"And he has no flounce or ego about him at all - and we see a lot of ego, sitting in front of conductors."
Farnes says he would "find it odd to conduct an opera without being involved with the dramatic side".
"You have to question why did the composer do this? Why did he write this chord, this gesture, what's the purpose of it?
"Ultimately, what goes on in the pit is very much supporting dramatically what is going on, on stage.
"The pieces I enjoy conducting most are usually those that have a very dramatic orchestral role - where it's not decorating or merely supporting the singers, it's leading them dramatically."
For Mantle, The Ring is an "entirely fitting" work to mark Farnes' departure, "because what we have discovered through working on Wagner over the last five years, is that we, the UK - maybe Europe and maybe the world - has got a new very fine Wagnerian conductor".
The Ring Cycle
- Richard Wagner took more than a quarter of a century to complete his epic Das Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which is in four parts - Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
- It tells an epic story, based on ancient Norse and Germanic myths, about a ring which gives the power to rule the world and the struggles of the gods and mortals to possess it
- While parts were performed separately, it was first performed as a cycle - which was what Wagner intended - in 1876 in Germany. It made its UK debut six years later
Farnes says he "wouldn't want to consider myself as a Wagner conductor" as his "experience of Wagner is still very limited", but admits he does love the German composer's work, so much so that the hours fly by.
"I find I get lost in it and I love the storytelling aspect of The Ring.
"Wagner tells a fantastic story and the music is so physical, as physical as anybody since Beethoven, who Wagner admired a lot.
"That backs up the storytelling and I find my mind tracing the storyline in a performance. It doesn't feel nearly so long when you're doing it."
And, as for his future, he says he has "freelancing and guesting around" planned - and a good rest.
"I have a lot of Verdi ahead, who people think of as the antithesis of Wagner.
"I think we will all need a good holiday after six Ring Cycles, which is far more than most companies would ever do.
"I don't think any of us - singers, orchestra and conductor - could do it without adrenaline.
"You begin to realise how important a quality adrenaline is when you do things like this."
Opera North play Wagner's The Ring Cycle across four nights at Leeds Town Hall from 24 May, before moving to venues in Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead.