The Ring Cycle orchestra in rehearsals with conductor Pietari Inkinen

Creating the Melbourne Ring Orchestra

We sit down with Opera Australia’s General Manager, Orchestra, Gérard Patacca, to find out how one goes about putting together a Ring Cycle orchestra. 

What has been the most challenging aspect of putting together the orchestra for the Melbourne Ring Cycle?

The sheer scale of the Melbourne Ring Cycle makes this process so different to anything we conventionally do. Traditionally, we partner with Orchestra Victoria (OV) for our mainstage seasons in Melbourne. The enormous size of the Ring orchestration means that we are augmenting Orchestra Victoria and their regular casual players with guest musicians from our Sydney orchestra, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO), as well as the Sydney, Queensland and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras. There are also a number of guests from around the word including the UK, Germany, Italy and New Zealand. This broad range of musicians will create the Melbourne Ring Orchestra.

The Melbourne Ring Orchestra will be co-led by two outstanding Concertmasters: Roger Jonsson, currently OV’s Acting Concertmaster, and Jun Yi Ma, who is currently Concertmaster of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

With fifteen hours of music to rehearse and perform, significant sections of the orchestra, including the strings, woodwinds and French horns face enormous physical challenges. In planning for the project, the orchestra roster ensures none of these players are expected to perform every complete opera: we make sure that certain players rest for one or two acts at a time. This means the orchestra can sustain the quality and intensity of sound.

This is standard practice for the Ring Cycle, but it also means we have engaged many more players than are actually listed in the orchestration. For example, we have seventeen 1st violins to play fourteen parts, twelve horns to play eight parts, and at least one extra player in each woodwind section. In total we’ve engaged 135 players. When musicians are not playing, they will be covering (understudying) each other, so that if anything untoward happens, or if a player falls ill, they can be covered by someone who has rehearsed the part.

Were there any specific abilities in the musicians you had to look for?

Some of the guest players we were looking for have already played a Ring Cycle or possess special skills, such as playing unique instruments.

What about the special Wagner instruments?

Well of course, there are the anvils! The anvil effect during Das Rheingold is created by hitting specially manufactured metal bars. There are six anvil players stationed backstage to create the signature effect required for the descent into the subterranean world of the Nibelungen.

Then there are the Wagner tubas — these are a bit of a cross between a French horn and a tuba. Wagner designed them himself as he wanted an instrument that had the mellow sound of the horn, but richer and heavier with the sound coming straight up the top of the bell like a tuba rather than to the side like a horn. It’s used to amazing effect during key moments of the Ring, most famously in the ‘Valhalla’ motif in Das Rheingold, creating an ethereal, almost disembodied sound.

Opera Australia owns a matched set of four Wagner tubas from Germany. Interestingly, these instruments come from a town on the Rhine river called Mainz, where they are made by a family-owned instrument maker called Alexander. And they are gold in colour! These will be played by French horn players, with some very quick changes between instruments. One of the other special instruments is the bass trumpet, which features in a solo role and, contrary to the title, is played by a trombonist. The bass trumpet is about twice the size of its conventional cousin and looks like a trumpet on steroids.

Finally, there is a contrabass trombone scored in the Ring Cycle; this is also a unique instrument. Wagner was the first composer to use it, in the first performance of Das Rheingold in 1876, and it now is often heard in Puccini's operas. Pitched a fourth lower than the conventional bass trombone, it lends an epic effect to the mighty low brass of the Ring Cycle.

How does an orchestra for the Ring Cycle compare to a standard orchestra configuration?

Number of musicians in the pit for a standard Opera Australia opera: approximately 65

  • Violins: 20
  • Horns: 4
  • Harps: 1
  • Timpani: 1 player/4 drums
  • Hours of music: 3

Number of musicians in the pit for the Melbourne Ring Cycle: 92

  • Violins: 26
  • First violins: 17 players rotating to play 14 parts
  • Horns: 8
  • Harps: 6
  • Timpani: 2 players/8 drums
  • Offstage instruments: 14
  • Hours of music: 15