A singular vision: Director Neil Armfield on Wagner and his Ring cycle

By Jennifer Williams

Neil Armfield

Neil Armfield is an elusive man to catch. When I finally get him on the phone, just a few weeks after rehearsals finished for Siegfried, he is hanging out washing. It’s disarmingly ordinary for a man whose name is regularly attached to masterpieces of the Australian and international arts industry.  

A long career directing theatre, opera, musicals and feature films is studded by success after success: an all-star production of Hamlet for Company B, a stunning adaptation of the uniquely Australian novel The Secret River for Sydney Theatre Company, a production of a new opera, Bliss that was so successful it travelled from Opera Australia to the Edinburgh Festival and beyond.

This year, the acclaimed director takes on an opera juggernaut that has bested many a director before him: Wagner’s 16-hour, four-opera masterpiece, the Ring cycle.

Armfield doesn’t pull any punches when I ask about his intention for the work. “I want to produce the best – by which I mean the deepest and richest – communication of the work that has ever been realised on the stage.”

It is a bold ambition for any director, and an especially bold pronouncement given that 15 international opera companies are staging productions of Wagner’s epic in the year of the composer’s 200th anniversary.

Opera Australia’s premiere will be the last in the world this year, and the first in the national opera company’s history.

When Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini first approached Armfield about directing the Ring, the director was hesitant. “I’ve been asked about it a number of times over the years, and I’ve always stood back from it a little. Maybe it was fear. But I think ostensibly it was a worry that it can be done for the wrong reasons, as a display of wealth itself.”

“That’s a great irony,” Armfield says, “given it is a work that argues so passionately against consumption and the accumulation of wealth.”

The European tradition of producing the work has turned into something resembling a technological arms race, Armfield says. “It’s a race to see who can create the most complicated technical wizardry in order to produce the most spectacular version of the story. To me, that means it becomes an empty display.”

He took on the project under one condition: “I didn’t want to shed my way of working, and what I feel art can contribute to our society, in order to produce a multi-million dollar sound and light spectacular. Every image we are trying to create is intended to reveal meaning.”

His staging is quite modest (and at this stage of the proceedings, quite secret). That’s because at its heart, The Ring of the Nibelung is a simple story about love and ambition for the world, Armfield says.  “It obviously has to deliver great moments of spectacle, but they have to be absolutely earned,” the director explains. It is important they don’t overshadow the humanity of Wagner’s tale.

“The inner child will get to enjoy the fairytale of the Ring, but the mythical beings that populate this tale are masks for real human emotions and real human stories,” Armfield explains. It is the job of the director to draw those connections for the audience.

“We need to understand them as creatures of mythology. There is a giant, who puts on the Tarn Helmet and transforms into a dragon. Wotan is a God in trouble, who has a deep, deep consciousness of love and beauty, but is also touched by greed and a desire for control.

“But we also need to be able to see ourselves in them. Wagner himself wrote that it is essential that everyone can see themself in Wotan. He is a sense the everyman, he is the creator, he is Wagner, he is any sentient being that watches the work. To identify the humanity of these characters, in spite of the mask of God or giant or dwarf, is fundamental to the work.”

Armfield has set his Ring ambiguously, “nowhere other than a stage”. It will be a contemporary story, he says: a tale about the destruction of the natural world, the extinction of the species, and what humans give up to pursue their desire for control.

“But set against that, there is a sense of the human population as optimistic, a constant resource of variety and joy,” he says.

The first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, opens with the dwarf Alberich renouncing love in order to plunder the Rheinmaidens’ gold. There are obvious parallels to the way humans abuse the earth’s resources, Armfield says.

“In order to make money, we are destroying the earth. In order to do that, you have to renounce love, because if you love the world, if you love people, if you truly love yourself, even, you can’t be doing what human beings are doing.”

It will be impossible to hold yourself at a distance from Armfield’s production. It points the finger at us all, holding humanity responsible for the world’s ecological decay. But the director’s intent is not to leave the audience with a helpless kind of guilt. “This is a work that starts with renouncing love and stealing the Rheingold, and then 16 hours later the rivers rise and fire rains down, and the whole thing is destroyed. There is a sense both musically and dramatically that this is a new dawning. Wagner himself saw his revolutionary work as a kind of social gesture that would help to clear away greed from which the human race might start again.”

In fact, Wagner wanted the theatre to burn along with the Gods at the end of Götterdämmerung, wherever the Ring was staged. Armfield assures me that the Arts Centre Melbourne has nothing to worry about – “not unless there’s a terrible malfunction!”

There is a tendency to think of the Ring as an epic, as a monumental undertaking. And in terms of its length, its difficulty, its sheer scale – it is. But it is perhaps better understood as a chamber piece, Armfield contends. “The work is extremely intimate. Most of the time in the Ring is taken up with scenes between two or three characters. It’s a family story about dealing with destiny. About responsibility. About consequences. Big things are being negotiated, but if you don’t get those moments intimate and true, that’s when it becomes boring and declamatory.”

Armfield believes his job as director is to take Wagner’s masterpiece and try and work his way into a fresh light on the story.

The only way to do that, he says, is to work without comparison. In a lifetime of watching opera, Armfield has never seen a full Ring cycle, and is unfazed that his version will be the last in a long year of Rings for a small portion of the audience who follow the Ring around the world.

“It’s a basic principal that you have to tell the story as though you were telling it for the very first time.  It’s my job to reach into the work and help it to come to life.”