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Too Big to Fail? Met Opera's 'Ring' Set Raises New Questions

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The Met’s 45-ton set piece for its new Ring cycle, which opened the current season with a new production of Das Rheingold and now commands the stage in the cycle’s second opera, Die Walküre, continues to present unexpected challenges to performers.

At the season opening performance of Das Rheingold, the 24 planks of the machine froze in place, failing to create the rainbow bridge to Valhalla for the gods. Last month’s opening of Die Walküre saw Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde, stumble and fall while making her entrance. And last week Eve Gigliotti, portraying one of the Valkyries, slid three feet down one of the set's planks during the iconic Ride of the Valkyries performance.

“We have safety precautions in place for the Walküre set, and it is secure,” said the Met’s press director Peter Clark by email. “Safety procedures are constantly revised or reinforced when experience shows it is necessary.”

Ted Fitzgerald of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted by email that the organization "has received no complaints and has no inspection activity with the Metropolitan Opera."

Set designers themselves have insights into the challenges and opportunities an ambitious set can present. George Tsypin has designed sets for ballet, film and opera, including five productions at the Met. "Set design is very often the most challenging part of a production and there is a very profound reason for that,” Tsypin told WQXR. “It used to be, a long time ago, just another illustration of the location of something. But now the audience expects much more from the set. You have to grab the heart of the audience with the visual.”

Recently, Tsypin provided the controversial set for the Broadway musical: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” a production beset by design challenges and actor injuries. In December, actor Christopher Tierney took a thirty-foot fall off the set. In the first preview performance of that show, another actor suffered a concussion and two others were later injured while being catapulted across the stage. OSHA has cited the production with three violations of workplace safety standards.

During a 2007 performance of the Met’s War and Peace, which Tsypin designed, an extra fell off the stage into the orchestra pit. The set, dominated by a steep hill with a rotating top, raised safety questions. "It’s a journey, you develop a language,” continued Tsypin, who did not comment on the safety of his sets. “So when I did 'Spider-Man,' my whole life experience working on all the different operas was unbelievably valuable. Including things I had done on the Ring.”

Tsypin designed his first Ring cycle for the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in 1997.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is,” the designer said of the experience. "There’s something about the Ring that takes everything out of you. I don’t know if it’s Wagner or the subject matter. I was convinced one can do only one Ring in a lifetime.”

Yet Tsypin went on to design a second Ring cycle in 2003, this time for the Mariinsky Theater under Valery Gergiev. Each cycle took Tsypin five years to design. "The audience should not be aware of the machine,” said Tsypin, who has not yet seen the new Ring cycle at the Met. “Building this machine in order to provoke some emotion—that’s the paradox of set design. It’s all in the audience’s heart. It’s not a physical thing that you’re creating.”

At the Met, where performers are negotiating their way around an enormous moving set, the enormity of the design has grabbed audience attention and headlines. “Sometimes you accomplish it and sometimes you fail," Tsypin said. "But sometimes there is a machine and the audience is not aware of it. It’s just a magic visual and physical experience.”

This article has been revised to reflect a correction: Eve Gigliotti, the Valkyrie, did not fall off the set, as previously stated, but slid down one of the planks.