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L.A. Opera's high-tech 'Ride of the Valkyries'

April 8, 2009 | 11:49 am

Valkyries

Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" has inspired many directors to the heights of creativity. Francis Ford Coppola scored the helicopter attack scene in "Apocalypse Now" to the memorable musical passage. Before him, Federico Fellini worked similar wonders with the score in the harem sequence in "8 1/2." Further down the pop-culture chart, the folks at Looney Tunes put Elmer Fudd in Wagnerian drag for one of their most famous episodes. (Think "Kill the Wabbit!")

Now German stage director Achim Freyer has put his own high-tech stamp on what is the most famous passage in the Wagner canon.

Los Angeles Opera's production of "Die Walkure," which opened Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and continues with six more performances, is overflowing with visual marvels but the production saves its biggest fireworks for the "Ride of the Valkyries," which opens the opera's third and final act.

Freyer's vision for the eight-minute scene was a huge technical challenge for the L.A. Opera cast and crew involving many extra hours of rehearsals and some off-the-cuff technical ingenuity.

The eight Valkyries -- or winged female warriors -- stand around the edge of a massive rotating stage that is raked at an 18% angle. Each Valkyrie has her own horse -- actually a series of 80-pound metal skeletons made from aluminum rods that are supposed to represent the mythic steeds.

Each horse is controlled by wireless remote by the crew, according to Jeff Kleeman, the company's technical director. Coming out of each animal's snout are sewing machine needles that the crew activates from behind the scenes. The needles, which are barely visible to the audience, are meant to symbolize the Valkyries' roles as saviors of battlefield victims whose mangled bodies they carry off to Valhalla.

During the 25-minute intermission between the second and third acts, a team of about 20 stagehands must manually install each of the horses onto 45-pound ball-bearing turntables. The turntables allow the singers to swivel the horses during the performances. The crew used a special non-stick surface for the horses so that they can sit on the stage without being bolted down.

Audiences can watch the scene change take place since Freyer has replaced the Pavilion's curtain with a translucent scrim.

The Valkyries themselves wield LED light sabers that have become a trademark of Freyer's Ring staging. During the opening-night performance on Saturday, the crew discovered that the on-off switches on the sabers made too much noise. (The performance was being recorded for a future radio broadcast as part of the L.A. Opera on Air series.) So the crew had to devise a new switch, which then necessitated an additional rehearsal before the second performance on Wednesday.

In all, the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene required nearly 20 to 22 hours of special rehearsal time, or about 25% more time than an average scene of comparable length, according to Rupert Hemmings, the company's production director.

The performers began intense rehearsals for the scene six weeks prior to opening night. They engaged in special stretching exercises so that they could comfortably maneuver the horses in costume, operate the light sticks and perform Wagner's difficult passages all at the same time.

Soprano Susan Foster, who plays Helmwige, said the most difficult aspect of the scene is that from certain angles on the large turntable, the singers can't see conductor James Conlon. "Also from the back of the stage, it's difficult to hear the orchestra," she said. (The two prompter boxes on stage are concealed behind the large raven props.)

The singers describe the scene as an intense physical workout. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Thompson, who plays Rossweisse, said the costumes feel like parachutes strapped to your back, which makes operating the metal horses especially tricky.

"It's like figuring out how to do a disco trot," she explained. "We steer the horses with both hands but sometimes we have to swivel around the opposite direction. We eventually figured out that in those cases, we have to steer the horses with our butts."

"Die Walkure" runs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through April 25. Read L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed's review of the production here and Diane Haithman's interview with Achim Freyer here.

-- David Ng

"Die Walk├╝re," L.A. Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 1 p.m. today, Sunday and April 19; 6:30 p.m. April 16, 22 and 25;  $20 to $250; (213) 972-8001; running time: 4 hours, 35 minutes.

Photo: The "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from L.A. Opera's production of "Die Walkure." Credit: Lawrence Ho / Los Angeles Times