Ear Supply: Secrets of the Pit

The thing that most impresses, and frightens, opera newbies about Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung cycle—the thing they all ask about first—is the length: four nights, 18 hours, give or take a demigod. “How can you sit there for that long?” they gasp. Well, I have the easy job; imagine playing it. Sean Osborn is playing first clarinet in Seattle Opera’s Ring, which opens Saturday. Counting dress rehearsals, and his 11 seasons as a member of the Met orchestra, Osborn has logged 16 complete performances of the tetralogy, and was enjoying a day off from the 17th when I spoke to him about what it’s like in McCaw Hall’s Nibelungian underground in the midst of a 90-player orchestra. “It’s loud,” he jokes. “The percussion is overflowing out the doors . . . they have this enormous tam-tam. A lot of people are playing with earplugs.” Since he and the other winds sit fairly far back under the stage, “It’s difficult to hear the singers, so we have to watch the conductor a lot.” How comfortable is it, in a pit filled to capacity? “It does get a little bit warm,” but the all-black dress code is relaxed in summer to allow short sleeves: “I will be wearing a T-shirt.”

What about the stamina required? “We [Osborn and the three other clarinets] play nearly constantly in Siegfried and G ö tterd ä mmerung,” but “There are large rests in Die Walk ü re for everyone except the cellos and violas; they work harder than anyone. The viola book is longest.” At Seattle Opera, “Most people have some sort of dinner after Act 1” to keep their strength up. (At Bayreuth and other large European opera houses, Osborn tells me, the longest Wagner operas use two orchestras, switching halfway through.) But what really helps a player survive a Ring is the quality of the music-making. Exacting when it comes to conductors, Osborn uncharacteristically gushes over Asher Fisch: “Asher is great. Everybody is loving him. He’s studied everything about the score, he has an idea about every note.” McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 389-7676, seattleopera.com. $300–$1,460 per cycle. Runs Aug. 4–25.

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