Retooling the Met Opera’s Problematic ‘Ring’ Machine

Retooling the Met Opera’s Problematic ‘Ring’ Machine

By Michael Cooper, for the New York Times

After months of work, the Metropolitan Opera hopes it has improved the massive, temperamental and noisy set for Wagner’s “Ring.” One morning in August, Peter Gelb settled into a seat in the nearly empty auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera, where he is general manager, and waited for a run-through of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” to begin. The storm depicted in the prelude silently took shape onstage, with a huge array of upright planks forming a forest of trees. Video projections buffeted the set with swirling snow. Then the planks shifted, morphing seamlessly to form the inside of a forest dwelling. The “machine” is back. And, after spending months in the shop, it should be ready to go for another spin this spring, Met officials hope. As opera-lovers know, the machine is the mammoth and ambitious — but also notoriously noisy and glitch-prone — centerpiece of Robert Lepage’s high-tech production of Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle. When it worked, it could be mind-blowing: The 45-ton set of narrow planks rotated into sculptural sets bathed in vivid video imagery, taking operagoers from the depths of the Rhine to the downfall of the gods over the course of four operas.

But it could also be exasperating. Over the years, the machine produced clicks, clunks, groans and some Wagnerian-scale mishaps. Projections of Brünnhilde’s mountain were briefly replaced at one point with an all-too-recognizable Microsoft Windows logo. A mechanical glitch delayed the start of a performance of “Die Walküre” for 45 minutes — as 175,000 impatient Wagnerites waited in cinemas around the world for a live simulcast to begin.

Perhaps most infamous was the machine’s first outing, for the premiere of “Das Rheingold” in 2010, when it froze during the finale before it could form the famous rainbow bridge to Valhalla — forcing the gods to exit the stage anticlimactically. So the return of the machine, for the first time since 2013, is one of the biggest backstage dramas of the new opera season, which starts Monday with a new production of Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila.” It will spin into action this spring for three complete “Ring” cycles with a formidable cast led by the dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and conducted by Philippe Jordan.

But first Mr. Gelb sought to tame its gremlins — to make sure it could run smoothly and quietly, so its creaks would no longer risk drowning out the Wagner tubas. “Pound for pound, I think it’s one of our best productions,” Mr. Gelb said with a mischievous smile as he watched the refurbished machine put through its paces at a technical rehearsal on the Met’s stage last month. He was referring to the sharply divided critical reaction < to Mr. Lepage’s effects which was perhaps most memorably eviscerated by Alex Ross’s pronouncement in The New Yorker that “pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

Here is a look at how the Met quieted and retooled its machine — first over the course of several months in a cavernous soundstage in Middletown, N.Y., more than 65 miles north of the opera house, then this summer during tech rehearsals on the Met stage. A new wrench is introduced

Now the Met is pinning its hopes on another bit of hardware: its new custom-fabricated hydraulic wrench. The wrench is the Met’s secret weapon against the annoying clicking sound that could often be heard in past “Ring” performances. The machine has 24 rotating planks that spin around a long center axis stretching the width of the Met’s stage. The axis is so long that it had to be built in three sections so it could fit on the trucks that take it to and from the opera house; they were then bolted together. But as the planks spun around the axis, they gradually loosened the custom-made 4.5-inch nuts and bolts that held it together. The result? “Click, click.” Engineers devised a pattern for tightening the nuts — similar to way lug nuts are tightened in order on cars — and recommended more tension, enough to require a hydraulic wrench. So, the Met had one custom-made to tighten its custom-made bolts. “What we’re finding is that the axis can withstand the trials and tribulations of the machine a lot better than with what we were using before, which was hand wrenches,” Jeff Mace, the Met’s director of production operations, said backstage in August. “Instead of relying on as much strength as the guy can throw on the wrench, we can dial it in to 900 foot-pounds of torque exactly.” They are finding fewer clicks.The ‘rainstick effect’ is eliminated When the giant planks spun into new positions — moving swiftly, say, to transform from the forest where the young hero Siegmund is being hunted to the fateful house where he seeks shelter — a whooshing sound could sometimes be heard. Officials -dubbed it the “rainstick effect.” Mr. Mace said that the problem was created by cascading bits of metal slag that had accumulated inside the hollow planks when the set builders had drilled holes into them to attach their coverings. “The ‘rainstick effect’ was all of those little bits of slag, from thousands of holes, making really the most beautiful, ethereal noise,” he said. “But it’s not in the score, so it’s got to go.” The solution? Glue. Stagehands shook the planks to gather the slag at the bottom, drilled new holes into them, and sprayed in glue to try to keep all the tiny pieces of metal stuck firmly in one place. Making it less clunky

The 45-ton machine was so heavy that the Met had to reinforce its stage to bear the weight. The axis that the planks rotate around is suspended between two 26-foot towers, which can raise and lower it. A combination of hydraulics, pneumatics, gravity and plain old muscle power — sometimes the planks are moved with ropers, as if they were puppets — powers the machine.

But the largest rotations had a habit of making a deep, unsettling “clunk” noise. “The entire machine structure shifts its weight, radically, and that used to cause this big clunking noise,” Mr. Gelb explained.

To fix it, Mr. Mace said, the Met installed shims to restrict the freedom of movement within the two towers, eliminating the clunks during weight shifts. The company also refurbished the mechanical elements, installing a new metal chain, wheels and pulleys — lubricating it all carefully. No, not with WD-40: The Met used red lithium grease. Technical upgrades improve reliability

When Mr. Lepage first began unveiling his high-tech “Ring” operas, Apple had only recently released the iPhone 4. Technology — from smartphones to the stage — has changed quite a bit since then. So in some areas the “Ring” is updating. Many of the worst mishaps in the early outings of the cycle stemmed from a bug in the control system originally used to operate the machine. Mr. Mace, who was at the house for many of the performances — he called the night of the frozen rainbow bridge “one of the worst nights of my career” — said that every once in a while the old system would simply take too long to do its calculations, then stop. “All of this stuff fails safe,” he said. “We’d have a stop, and you would have to reset manually.” Now the Met is using its new house computer system to control the machine, which is faster, better integrated with the company’s other technical systems, and much easier to control. That, officials believe, will improve reliability and create a safer environment. (The acrobats used as body doubles in the production are getting an upgrade, too: The cables that pull them up the planks will now be tugged by power winches instead of the old hand-cranked winches.) But in some areas, the Met found, the Lepage “Ring” was still at the vanguard — especially with its video. After determining that new video technologies were unlikely to surpass or even match some of the effects created in the production — especially the depth and three-dimensionality of “Siegfried” — the Met decided to reinvest in its original video system, refurbishing the hardware to keep it running.

For all the Met’s efforts, the Lepage “Ring” is still dauntingly complex, its idiosyncrasies difficult to control. As Mr. Gelb looked on at that recent technical run-through of “Die Walküre” last month, a low, worrisome rumbling noise emerged from the stage as things got underway. Mr. Gelb turned to John Sellars, the Met’s assistant general manager for production, to ask what had happened. Mr. Sellars explained that the sounds had come from a rolling platform. “But that’s something that is easily fixed,” Mr. Gelb said. Mr. Sellars said, “It’s something we have to contend with, certainly.” They discussed various strategies to ease and quiet its path across the stage. “There’s a lot of moving parts,” Mr. Sellars said, as the planks turned again.