Pietari Inkinen on the power and passion at the heart of Wagner’s Ring cycle
Some people have a passion so deep that it radiates from their face, glimmering out as they dwell on the object of their affection. Asked to speak on the subject of their passion, words spill out too fast for punctuation.
Pietari Inkinen is one such man, and the subject of his passion is a man that has for two centuries inspired nothing less than love or hate. That subject is Wagner - loved for his music, his storytelling, his genius; hated for his arrogance, his bigotry, his insistence on disrupting and upending the traditional operatic forms.
Wagner’s magnum opus is The Ring of the Nibelung, a tetralogy that amounts collectively to fifteen hours of opera over four nights.
“People always talk about the length of the Ring,” Inkinen muses. “But you get somehow immersed in it. Die Walküre starts, and it feels like it’s over in 10 minutes. You get submerged in this sound world before a single word is sung.”
It’s a musical sound world that captivates audiences all over the world – some, so deeply that they will travel the world to find a new production, a new singer, a new company with a new take on Wagner’s epic. In 2013, Opera Australia will produce its first Ring cycle in Melbourne, and Pietari Inkinen has been engaged to conduct all three cycles.
The young Finnish conductor has been drawn to Wagner’s unique “sound world” since he was a child, an intense pull that he can’t quite put into words.
“Wagner's music has this dark side that’s like nothing else, and such heavenly moments too, for contrast. Performing it is a pleasure, it has such rewards. There’s such a scale of expression and emotion and colour in the orchestra. How did he do it? It’s Wagner at his best, where he evolved to in his career. It’s so uniquely rewarding, and such a pleasure,” Inkinen stops as he tries to explain, pausing to correct himself.
“No. Pleasure is the wrong world. It’s more like – after you’ve heard it, at least for a while, you can’t listen to anything else. You are so soaked in this world. It’s not in your head, it’s in your whole body. You’re covered with it.”
Inkinen’s effusiveness on Wagner is neatly countered by his pragmatic approach to the gig itself. The operas may run for 15 hours in total, but for a conductor, the preparation is no different to any other performance, he explains. “It always starts with the score.” From a physical perspective, the experience of conducting the cycles is not unlike a marathon. “I just try to keep in shape, and look after myself during the rehearsal period so that I am fit enough for the performances.” And the prospect of conducting a huge, Wagnerian orchestra? Hardly daunting for a maestro who has built his career conducting the symphonic works of Bruckner, Strauss and Mahler.
“Anyone can study this music at home, as much as you like,” Inkinen says. “You can read every single thing about it that has ever been written, but when it comes to pulling this off from the pit, it is crucial to have experience handling an orchestra of this size on a regular basis.”
The conductor had been due to conduct the Ring in Palermo this year, in a split season beginning with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and ending with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the end of the year. With this in his calendar, Inkinen has been “soaking” in the score for several years. When the acclaimed Palermo production was aborted after just two operas due to funding constraints, Inkinen was bereft at the thought of not completing the Ring this year. “But Opera Australia’s production is in the exact same period I was expecting to be conducting in Palermo, so it is just amazing how things work out. In many houses, like Palermo, you perform two of the Ring operas at a time. But when you rehearse and then perform all four in succession, it’s like nothing else. It’s a massive challenge, a massive undertaking, but it’s just amazing when you pull it off.”
Already intimately acquainted with the orchestral score of the Ring, Inkinen has spent the intervening months “getting into Wagner’s life”, as he puts it. “I’ve been reading background material and studying the sources and the material that Wagner drew his ideas from.” Although schooled in German, Inkinen has also been studying the language of Wagner’s libretti, which “is not the most straightforward German!”
“I try to understand as much of the language as possible, down to the last word, learning what the deeper meanings are and what’s going on. The more you read, the more your understanding grows with it, and when I conducted Die Walküre in concert and then in Palermo it got deeper and deeper. It will only improve during the rehearsal period.”
The Ring is driven by the orchestra with long passages building up to a climax, delicate transitions and a flow where everything is connected to everything else, Inkinen says. “You have to learn how to handle the orchestra, to save something and hold back, so that you still have a little bit more to give when it really matters. You have to calculate the powers required to build up to a climax.”
The conductor’s unique challenge is to see all of the detail in the big picture. “We have a good saying in Finnish, like you have to rise above it all. You have to become like a pilot and see the whole big art of the thing. The first time you open these scores, it’s like jumping out of a plane, and it’s so big and overwhelming. But you just have to float above it all and see the millions of details.”
Wherever the Ring is discussed, much is made of the great forces of Wagner’s orchestra, and the need for the conductor to ensure the singers can be heard over the din. But Inkinen is quick to defend Wagner from this misconception. While he says he is sensitive to the need to hear the singers, he believes the score as it is written provides for that need. “If the orchestra plays what is written, then it is usually not a problem, unless there is a problem with the stage acoustics. It’s only that the orchestra can get excited in some places. In those key moments, where the singers need more help, I have to make sure I am ready, the orchestra is alert and they play what is rehearsed so we don’t overpower the singer.”
On the flip side, Wagner writes an orchestra with “power like nothing else”, Inkinen says. “You cannot play it too quietly!”
While the most famous tunes of the Ring are found in Die Walküre, Inkinen’s favourite of the four operas is Götterdämmerung. “I am so much looking forward to conducting it, it is the most rewarding.”
The fourth and final instalment of Wagner’s Ring was finished more than 26 years after Wagner began the first, Das Rheingold. “In this 26 years, he found what sort of composer he was,” Inkinen says. “Rheingold presents many of Wagner’s gifts, leitmotifs that prepare the way for what comes after, but it’s somehow not as rich and powerful musically as Götterdämmerung.”
Wagner composed Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and the first part of Siegfried before taking a break to write Tristan and Isolde. “It’s somehow more glorious, with a more luxurious texture than Das Rheingold – and that’s the great thing. He is even better when he arrived at Götterdämmerung.
“It took a long time, an incredibly long time, and that’s the unbelievable thing about the Ring cycle. He managed to keep the structure of the piece even though it took him so long. It’s mind-boggling. How did he manage to compose four such operas, and write another in between? It’s ridiculous. Can you imagine trying to do that?”
The young maestro doesn’t have to. His job is perhaps harder – as the man with the baton, it is his job to take the audience on a passionate journey through Wagner’s masterpiece, to make them feel what he feels.
“It takes you on a journey that shoots you up into the air, it takes you with it in a way that ... I don’t know ... there is nothing quite like it.”