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TAMING THE MACHINE

IT CLUNKED. IT clicked. It rattled. It whooshed. Once it left the Gods stranded from ascending their rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Rest easy, though: An improved Machine is coming to the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle.

The Machine, scenery devised by Robert Lepage for Wagner’s Ring Cycle tetralogy. This and the following images by Krista Schleuter for The New York Times.

Michael Cooper’s “The Met’s ‘Ring’ Machine, Retooled,” The New York Times, September 21, 2018, gives details of Robert Lepage’s innovative, notorious, and now updated stage set. Introduced in the Met’s 2011–2012 season, this massive articulated scenery will be a feature in the opera company’s 2018–2019 return of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Here are tidbits on the taming of The Machine.

The Machine was right up there with the Met’s Egyptian pyramid that inadvertently trapped soprano Leontyne Price during a dress rehearsal of Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra.

Conceived by Canadian playwright, actor, and stage and film director Robert Lepage, The Machine is a computer-controlled, articulated array of planks; think of a loose-limbed xylophone that’s as wide as the Met stage. Each of its 24 hollow planks can rotate independently on its long center axis, with two 26-ft. towers defining the axis of rotation. The entire structure weighs 45 tons and called for special reinforcement of the Met’s stage.

Really innovative and impressive in operation, The Machine’s change of scenery comes with plank realignment, often in view of the audience. The planks define stepping stones down to the underworld of Alberich’s Nibelheim, or trees on the banks of the Rhine, or a rainbow bridge to Valhalla. A trailer for the Met’s 2011-2012 Ring Cycle gives an idea of how brilliantly all these effects could be achieved.

Siegfried, right, encounters Fafner among Siegfried trees. Image by Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera from bachtrack.com.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? At the conclusion of Das Rheingold, Wotan leads his family of Gods across a rainbow bridge up to Valhalla.

Except when The Machine locked up at the Met’s premiere and the principals had to skedaddle off stage without the usual ceremonial ascension. See the 52-second video at The New York Times piece. Another video there shows how The Machine is disassembled for transit and storage.

Scene changes under computer control have had some entertaining glitches: With one, instead of Brünnhilde’s mountainside getting projected on the planks aligned vertically, the Microsoft Windows logo appeared.

Another time, Michael Cooper notes, “A mechanical glitch delayed the start of the performance of Die Walküre for 45 minutes—as 175,000 impatient Wagnerians waited in cinemas around the world for the opera to begin.”

Daughter Suz and I were among the 175,000. On the other hand, having survived more than a few of Wagner’s interminable back-story monologues, I wouldn’t call us impatient. We’re Wagnerian pros.

Indeed, as with other bits of “Opera Chaos,” Suz and I would just nudge each other when The Machine emitted another click, clunk, or whoosh.

Fixing The Machine came about because of good, solid engineering. Clinks in its operation, for instance, were traced to gradual loosening of the plank’s multitude of 4 1/2-in. nuts and bolts. Hitherto hand-tightened, they’re now torqued to 900 lb.-ft. with a specially designed hydraulic wrench.

No ordinary tool; this wrench is hydraulically operated and tightens the planks’ hardware to correct specification. Below, its owners’ manual.


Hitherto, as the planks realigned, clunking would occur within the two towers defining their axis of rotation. Now, shims control the freedom of movement and accommodate the weight shifts of realignment. Lubrication is important too; the Met uses red lithium grease.

The Rainstick Effect. Stage handlers of The Machine likened a whooshing sounds during plank reorientation to the “Rainstick Effect.” (Aboriginal rainsticks, made of pebble-filled hollow cacti, produce a sound of rushing water.) Hollow planks of The Machine accumulated bits of slag when set designers drilled holes to affix scenery coverings. As described by Jeff Mace, the Met’s director of scenery, “The rainstick effect was all of those little bits of slag from thousands of holes, making the most beautiful, ethereal noise. But it’s not in the score, so it’s got to go.”

Glue mitigated the problem. As noted in The New York Times, “Stagehands shook the planks to gather the slag at the bottom, drilled new holes into them, and sprayed in glue to try to keep all the tiny pieces of metal firmly in one place.”

A new computer system has also improved reliability of The Machine—and likely cleansed Brünnhilde’s trees of the Microsoft Windows logo. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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