The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia has officially made my husband and me into opera fans. When the Academy of Vocal Arts kindly offered tickets to see one of their two upcoming operas in German I was instantly excited. When it comes to language learning I’m willing to try just about anything. Soap operas, romantic comedies — even if I don’t enjoy it in English, I’m willing to try. But this sounded like a lot of fun. And it also happened to coincide with our anniversary and made the perfect date. In the end, it was the Academy of Vocal Arts’ production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold that really wowed us.
About the Academy of Vocals Arts
The Academy of Vocals Arts (AVA) is only a couple of blocks from the ritzy Rittenhouse Square Park. On Spruce Street just around the corner from 19th Street, it’s an unassuming and quiet street of beautiful old stone buildings that are homes and businesses. You could easily miss the AVA if it wasn’t for an awning and several gaslights outside that hint at the charm and elegance that’s inside.
Founded in 1934 by Helen Corning Warden, the AVA has a remarkable mission. They provide free higher education to aspiring opera singers. This past year, more than 200 hopefuls were considered for a mere eight spots. It’s highly prestigious and, I’d say, highly underappreciated by us non-opera going common folk.
But before you even get to the opera it is difficult not to be captivated by the interior of the building on Spruce Street. The French Second Empire style home was built in the late 1860s by Ebenezer Burgess Warren. The building is full of finely crafted details. Many of the walls are lined with carefully carved panels and there’s a difficult-to-miss leaded glass pane hanging up. And large stone fireplaces add warmth even if they aren’t actively burning wood. With all of these details, it’s hard to know where to look.
About Das Rheingold
When Das Rheingold made its premiere in Munich in 1869, Richard Wagner wasn’t completely thrilled. While he had completed writing the opera more than a decade earlier, he had wanted to delay its debut. Das Rheingold is the first of four operas in a series that Wagner envisioned that are known as Der Ring des Nibelungen, or The Ring of the Nibelung. But when your benefactor is royalty, it makes arguing quite difficult. King Ludwig II, a noted opera fan who dedicated much of Neuschwanstein Castle to his opera passion, insisted on seeing Wagner’s production.
Das Rheingold is four scenes with no intermissions. The story follows, yep!, the Rheingold. Protected by three mischievous water nymphs, whoever is able to capture the Rheingold and forge it into a ring will rule the world. But, the bearer will have to forego love. Alberich, an unsightly dwarf, is willing to make that trade-off and he steals the gold.
Meanwhile, the god of the gods, Wotan, owes two giants payment for a castle they have built for him. Wotan seems reluctant to pay and to ensure that they get their payment the giants take Wotan’s sister-in-law Freia. During the journey to capture enough wealth to pay the giants, Wotan and his servant Loga happen upon Alberich and the ring.
AVA’s Production of Das Rheingold
For someone uninitiated in the ways of opera, you expect it to be stuffy, boring, or difficult to follow. Academy of Vocals Arts’ production of Das Rheingold was none of these things.
The cast are an extremely talented group with powerful, wonderful voices. It’s difficult for me to fathom how they act, perform and sing those complicated melodies. And that’s before you even consider that the lyrics are in German! Every cast member shines with their part and the whole ensemble really works together.
The AVA makes fantastic use of their narrow auditorium with cast members even entering from behind the audience to take the stage. There’s simply not a bad seat in the hall and it offers a certain intimacy. But for general admission seating get there early to ensure your choice of location.
It’s also important to note the pianist and music director, Luke Housner. Das Rheingold is approximately two and a half hours long. It’s performed without a break. The piano is the only musical accompaniment to the cast for AVA’s production of Das Rheingold. For those two and a half hours Housner performs seemingly nonstop. It’s incredible. And not a note out place!
For those who don’t speak German, English subtitles are available just above the stage.
Get Tickets for AVA’s Opera Season
If you have an opportunity to attend an Academy of Vocal Arts performance do it! You won’t be disappointed. The final performance of Das Rheingold is January 30th. But the AVA has a full schedule for the remainder of the 2017-2018 season. In February they’ll be presenting another German opera, Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. But I have no doubt that any opera they produce is just as good — even if it isn’t auf Deutsch.
I know my husband’s already eagerly looking forward to attending the opera again.
Thank you to the Academy of Vocal Arts for hosting me! Top photo is by Paul Sirochman Photography and used courtesy AVA’s Facebook page. All other photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.