Neil Armfield in rehearsal for the Ring Cycle

Interview with Neil Armfield

The iconic Australian director talks to Jennifer Williams about the ambitious task of conducting Wagner's almighty Ring Cycle. 

Neil Armfield is an elusive man to catch. When I finally get him on the phone, just a few weeks after rehearsals finished for Siegfried, he is hanging out washing. It’s disarmingly ordinary for a man whose name is regularly attached to masterpieces of the Australian and international arts industry.  

A long career directing theatre, opera, musicals and feature films is studded by success after success: an all-star production of Hamlet for Company B, a stunning adaptation of the Australian novel The Secret River for Sydney Theatre Company, a production of a new opera, Bliss, that was so successful it travelled from Opera Australia to the Edinburgh Festival and beyond.

In 2013, the acclaimed director took on an opera juggernaut that has bested many a director before him: Wagner’s 16-hour, four-opera masterpiece, The Ring Cycle.

Neil Armfield was hesitant when Opera Australia Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, first approached him to direct The Ring. "I’ve been asked about it a number of times over the years, and I’ve always stood back from it a little. Maybe it was fear. But I think ostensibly it was a worry that it can be done for the wrong reasons, as a display of wealth itself."

"That’s a great irony," Armfield says, "given it is a work that argues so passionately against consumption and the accumulation of wealth."

But he accepted, and his ambition was nothing less than bold: "I want to produce the best—by which I mean the deepest and richest—communication of the work that has ever been realised on the stage."

Did he succeed?

"The verdict was pretty much unanimous: this was one of the best Rings anywhere in a long time," raved Classical Voice North America. "Armfield is a wonderful storyteller…"

The Sydney Morning Herald called his interpretation, "theatrically enthralling, conceptually provoking". The Guardian noted that while 15 international opera companies staged Wagner's Ring in the year of the composer’s 200th anniversary, "Opera Australia’s [was] rather special".

A production image from Das Rheingold featuring the Rhinemaidens and the Sea of Humanity.

The Rhinemaidens and the Sea of Humanity in Das Rheingold, The Melbourne Ring Cycle, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

It was Opera Australia’s first time producing the entire cycle. It was such a success that the company is remounting the work in 2016.

Armfield was keen to avoid straying into the European tradition of producing the work, something he says has turned into a sort of technological arms race. "It’s a race to see who can create the most complicated technical wizardry in order to produce the most spectacular version of the story. To me, that means it becomes an empty display."

He took on the project under one condition: "I didn’t want to shed my way of working, and what I feel art can contribute to our society, in order to produce a multi-million dollar sound and light spectacular. Every image we are trying to create is intended to reveal meaning."

His staging is quite modest. That’s because at its heart, The Ring of the Nibelung is a simple story about love and ambition for the world, Armfield says. 

"It obviously has to deliver great moments of spectacle, but they have to be absolutely earned," the director goes on to explain. "It is important they don’t overshadow the humanity of Wagner’s tale."

"The inner child will get to enjoy the fairytale of The Ring, but the mythical beings that populate this tale are masks for real human emotions and real human stories," Armfield explains. It is the job of the director to draw those connections for the audience.

"We need to understand them as creatures of mythology. There is a giant, who puts on the Tarn Helmet and transforms into a dragon. Wotan is a God in trouble, who has a deep, deep consciousness of love and beauty but is also touched by greed and a desire for control.

"But we also need to be able to see ourselves in them. Wagner himself wrote that it is essential that everyone can see themselves in Wotan. He is a sense the everyman, he is the creator, he is Wagner, he is any sentient being that watches the work. To identify the humanity of these characters, in spite of the mask of God or giant or dwarf, is fundamental to the work."

Jud Arthur as Fafner in a production photo of Siegfried, The Ring Cycle.

Jud Arthur as Fafner in Siegfried, The Melbourne Ring Cycle, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

Armfield has set his Ring ambiguously, "nowhere other than a stage". It is a contemporary story, he says: a tale about the destruction of the natural world, the extinction of the species, and what humans give up to pursue their desire for control. "But set against that, there is a sense of the human population as optimistic, a constant resource of variety and joy," he says.

Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle, opens with the dwarf Alberich renouncing love in order to plunder the Rhinemaidens' gold. There are obvious parallels to the way humans abuse the earth’s resources, Armfield says.

"In order to make money, we are destroying the Earth. In order to do that, you have to renounce love, because if you love the world, if you love people, if you truly love yourself, even, you can’t be doing what human beings are doing."

It is impossible to hold yourself at a distance from Armfield’s production. It points the finger at us all, holding humanity responsible for the world’s ecological decay. But the director’s intent is not to leave the audience with a helpless kind of guilt.

"This is a work that starts with renouncing love and stealing the Rheingold, and then 16 hours later the rivers rise and fire rains down, and the whole thing is destroyed. There is a sense both musically and dramatically that this is a new dawning. Wagner himself saw his revolutionary work as a kind of social gesture that would help to clear away greed from which the human race might start again."

In fact, Wagner wanted the theatre to burn along with the Gods at the end of Götterdämmerung—wherever The Ring was staged. Armfield assures me that the Arts Centre Melbourne has nothing to worry about, "not unless there’s a terrible malfunction!"

Neil Armfield works with conductor Pietari Inkinen in rehearsals for the Melbourne Ring Cycle, 2013.

Neil Armfield works with conductor Pietari Inkinen during rehearsals for The Melbourne Ring Cycle, 2013. Photo: Aidan Corrigan.

There is a tendency to think of The Ring as an epic: a monumental undertaking. And in terms of its length, its difficulty, its sheer scale—it is. But it is perhaps better understood as a chamber piece, Armfield contends. "The work is extremely intimate. Most of the time in The Ring is taken up with scenes between two or three characters. It’s a family story about dealing with destiny. About responsibility. About consequences. Big things are being negotiated but if you don’t get those moments intimate and true, that’s when it becomes boring and declamatory."

Armfield believes his job as director is to take Wagner’s masterpiece and try and work his way into a fresh light on the story.

The only way to do that, he says, is to work without comparison. In a lifetime of watching opera, Armfield has never seen a full Ring Cycle, and is unfazed by the idea that some of his audience follow the Ring Cycle around the world.

"It’s a basic principle that you have to tell the story as though you were telling it for the very first time. It’s my job to reach into the work and help it to come to life."