Inside Die Walküre @ SF Opera: A Photo-Narrative

Being a part of Francesca Zambello’s production of Die Walküre has raised the bar for me yet again on my operatic excursions as a “Super” at the San Francisco Opera. CHECK!another dream fulfilled. This time Wagner! When I pass over the scratched and worn stage floor, I still pinch myself and marvel at all the legends who have left their mark in this hallowed place. Here’s a photo-narrative glimpse into this exciting production, and my wonderful world of Wagner.

Yes, True Wagnerians Still Walk the Earth

Eva-Marie Westbroek; Photo: Cory Weaver

When’s the last time you saw a Wagner opera and weren’t wishing singers of the past were instead onstage? Well, it would be hard to best this nearly peerless cast, particularly in today’s international crop. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde is utter perfection, with a refulgent, voluminous voice, and yet, there’s such a naturalness to her delivery, it’s as if she’s speaking. She exudes considerable warmth in her very convincing acting expressions, and as one reviewer said, she couldn’t play the victim better. She also couldn’t look the part more (as evidenced by this glowing photo). She, and all the principals are a joy backstage too. Given the pressure they’re under to perform a VERY difficult piece, that’s quite a testimony.

In her debut as the Walküre Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme delivers the much expected stamina and bravado, but never betrays her beauty of tone, or pushes outside her “column of sound.” She uses her slighter stature and strong connection to her body to paint an authentically youthful and feisty characterization. No, she doesn’t erase memories of Nilsson’s vocal sword throwing in the highest reaches of “Ho-jo-to-ho!,” but she has a far darker, warmer, and more alluring tone, and greater physicality than Nilsson.

Mark Delavan is tireless, and the model of godly alpha-male strength as Wotan. At times he sings with a legato line, but other times chews up and spits out the german consonants to portray anger, or when commanding others. Backstage, he’s the funniest opera personality I’ve ever been around…cracking up the Supers without fail, with his disarming humor. Enjoy his perspective on Wotan, and at times refreshingly irreverent sense of humor in this interview.

Christopher Ventris as Siegmund is in the Heppner/Windgassen vein, having a brighter, not baritonal Heldentenor tone. However, he is easily heard, and has plenty of thrust to cut through the orchestra. He and Eva-Marie make an appealing and very engaged duo. Ray Aceto as Hunding is genuinely scary and imposing, and wields a very satisfying black basso. Janina Baechle as Fricka doesn’t erase vocal memories of Marjana Lipovšek (‘95), but she is quite perfect in this production’s conception of this role, and is fully and excitingly committed.

Act I

Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Ray Aceto (Hunding); Photo: SF Opera Production Dept.

In this Act I play one of Hunding’s thuggish *insert grunt here* kinsmen, returning from a day of hunting. I carry in a giant plastic-wrapped meat pack, which I immediately throw to Hunding. (Yes, me, the one who couldn’t throw a ball to save his life as a kid…WHY?!) We all threaten Siegmund with our rifles when he hesitates Hunding’s commands. (I’m at bottom left.) Later Sieglinde ladles us up some slop (aka bloodied plastic cubes) from a giant pot, presumably whipped up from the meat I tossed. Mmm-mmm good! Another Super carries a rope with two rather sad, dangling fowl. Not surprisingly, the kinsmen have been likened to the Michigan Militia,” present-day paramilitary thugs.

The set is reminiscent of a Yosemite lodge, complete with scenic moose rug, post-modern fireplace, trophies, bric-a-brac, and taxidermied busts. The projections and colorful background sky-scapes are beautiful and highly effective, as they morph to enhance the drama. The central tree raises up, and the sky fills with a giant moon after Siegmund draws forth “Nothung,” the sword, from the tree (proving he is her savior), and the incestuous lovers consummate their destiny, with an onstage romp. God, I love opera!

Act II

Wotan is introduced in this Scene I. In this production, we see a board room-in-the-clouds, with Delavan portraying an archetype of the CEO with an iron fist, Fricka his controlling power-wife (less a goddess than usual), and Brünnhilde, a more realistic, temperamental daughter. At one point Hildy even hops on daddy’s back for some child’s play. These relationships prove very effective, in portraying marital tension and power struggles, and eliciting real emotion and associations from the audience.

Mark Delavan (Wotan); Photo by Cory Weaver

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) & Mark Delavan (Wotan); Photo by Terrence McCarthy

In the harsh freeway overpass set shown below (Scene II), the Supers do a slow-motion walk across stage. We are fallen heroes, and each of us carry one of the large black-and-white portraits seen below in the Valkyrie photo. Who knew it was SO hard to simply walk across stage? Lest you judge harshly, try it yourself: WITH car parts littering a RAKED stage, IN slow-motion and near darkness, yet WITH blinding light in your eyes! It’s equivalent to a dancer’s challenge, really. We went through multiple iterations of the walk to get it right. It was fun working with Lawrence Pech (house choreographer) and the ADs to refine it…I can only hope they had as much fun trying to get us to do their bidding. 😉

SF Opera has just shared on facebook that each of these photos “is of a serviceman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The images were incorporated into the production with the permission of each servicemen’s family.” WOW, that certainly adds further gravitas to the metaphor.

Later in the same set, Hunding and Siegmund partake in a sword fight, to Siegmund’s fateful demise. The Supers get to knock Sieglinde around quite a bit. Eva-Marie tears up the scene, inserting yelps and horrified facial expressions that often leave us wondering if we went too far. But, no, that’s just very convincing acting, folks! It’s exhilarating bounding over the junk-yard trash during the Sieglinde chase.

AND, we get to share the stage with two canine talents. Hearing the Stage Manager call “Milo & Humboldt to the stage” is quite funny! I’m glad someone else is responsible for their performance…with the variety of unexpected behaviors and surprises (ala the brown pile dropped in the final dress by the pony in La Fanciulla del West) animals can serve up onstage.

Photo: SF Opera Production Dept.

I hadn’t done any fight scene choreography since a production of West Side Story years ago, so I was thrilled to learn a bit more here. What you think looks real up close is often not what does from a distance, especially in a big house like this. So, we have “fight call” each night beforehand to brush-up the scene, and keep it tight. Here’s a fabulous photo of us with some of the big guns right before our “fight call.” Thanks to them for being so agreeable!

Christopher Ventris (left), Me, Eva-Marie Westbroek & "Super"-men; Photo by John Guglielmelli


The Ride of the Valkyries is arguably the most rousing and familiar music in the opera. I particularly love this staging, where their stunt doubles (male stage hands!) “fly in” via parachute, at an angle that is very realistic. Oh, how I wish the male Supers had been engaged for this! I even said I’d wear a wig, if needed (no surprise there). This crew of Amelia Earhart-inspired gals are a tough crew, and deliver the vocal goods and fist pumps in droves! Cesca’s concept of female empowerment and sisterhood comes ringing through here. Here is the full casting list of Valkyries, led by Molly Fillmore (Ortlinde), Wendy Bryn Harmer, and Daveda Karenas (Waltraute)…an up-and-coming Brünnhilde, Sieglinde and Fricka (and I believe the understudies for those roles).

Photo by Cory Weaver

This Act is the emotional core of the opera. It is where we see Wotan (and Delavan) soften, and reveal his most vulnerable, paternal, and conflicted self. There’s likely not a dry eye in the house. This set and staging is particularly stunning (as you can see from the photo). The faces of fallen heroes, placed by the Valkyries hang on the ladder-like stage towers.

Mark Delavan (Wotan) & Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde); Photo by Cory Weaver

No Rest for Sieglinde

I leave you with another of our amusing backstage photo moments. The music library has as its door greeter a cardboard statue of Anne-Sophie Mutter. (Why, I don’t know…because she’s hot?) Well, she begrudgingly became our Sieglinde for this shoot. Amusingly, at first glance, especially when viewed small, she appears to be a prize swordfish. I doubt Hunding’s kinsmen ever scored one of them!

Hunding's Kinsmen Abduct Sieglinde

These “Super”-men (including those not pictured) are indeed super, as are our three dressers, Super Captain (Paul Szczesiul, above center), Super Coordinator (April Busch), “Cesca,” and all the ASMsADs, makeup artists, and so on. We have such a great time. See more photos, and ALL the Supers at and in this fine backstage slideshow compilation.

Only one more performance is left. Don’t miss it! And, if you do, come back for the full cycle next season!

2 comments so far

  1. Rob Visser on

    Very nice inside view of this Walkure production. ‘Super’ story, I would say. It really adds something to the countless reviews I’ve read about this particular production. I think you’re right about Eva-Maria, she’s very sociable. Recently she had an interview with mentioning a lack of ambition in my country (the Netherlands). I think she’s right about that. Unlike the USA, in the Netherlands people are reluctant to follow their dream. I’m glad Eva-Maria did and that she still manages to not get carried away. Proud of her.

  2. jumping clapping man on

    Thank you kindly for the comments Rob. Boy, Eva-Marie sure is following a dream, eh?!

    I simply cannot wait until she returns to the SF Opera. She is such a special artist…and to see her return in La Gioconda, Die Frau ohne Schatten, or some other gem that few sopranos today could sing, let alone make memorable (as she no doubt would) would be a real coup and joy!

    She surely is a fine ambassador for The Netherlands, just by example: her passion, career success, and the good natured way in which she interacts with others.

    Take care!

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