The Atlanta Opera tackles “the Mount Olympus of opera”

The company will produce all four parts of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen

The Atlanta Opera's big step up
The Atlanta Opera will produce all four parts of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Photograph by Ken Howard

Of all works in the operatic canon, few engender such reverence as the four operas that comprise Richard Wagner’s epic masterwork Der Ring des Nibelungen, or, as it’s commonly called, the Ring. From the opening chords of Das Rheingold, through Die Walküre and Siegfried, to the last moments of Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s magnum opus is lauded as one of the great artistic achievements of Western civilization—and the ultimate challenge for any opera company.

At the Atlanta Opera, challenge is the name of the game, especially given its new designation by OPERA America as one of the top 10 companies in the United States. The Ring has never been mounted in the American Southeast, let alone Atlanta. As the Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director, Tomer Zvulun, explains, “The Ring is the Mount Olympus of opera. When you begin to explore it, your organization changes. The people you attract to every department have to be the top people in the world. There is a peak to climb, and it takes years to get there. But we’re there.”

The Atlanta Opera began to scale that peak last season with Das Rheingold. This April, the company continues with Die Walküre, which will grace Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre beginning April 27. Arguably the most popular of the four operas, Die Walküre is a tale of courage, forbidden romance, and poignant filial devotion. Siegfried has been announced for next season, featuring tenor Stefan Vinke, who has triumphed in the title role at the Metropolitan Opera and at Bayreuth in Germany. Götterdämmerung, the cycle’s final entry, is to follow in 2026.

Jay Hunter Morris, a beloved Atlanta Opera tenor, is in a unique position to assess the challenge these works represent. The Atlanta resident has sung Wagner’s monumental tenor roles all over the world and was famously seen as Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series in 2011. As Morris explains, “There is a built-in heavyweight burden on everybody who participates in the Ring, a sense that yours has to be the one that has more insight, better singing, better orchestral work and visuals than anyone else’s. Tomer has to bring in the best singers in the industry, and is proving he can. Stefan Vinke has sung Siegfried as well as anyone ever has. And Greer Grimsley, at the height of his powers as Wotan, are you kidding me?”

Grimsley, the bass-baritone who played the god-king Wotan in Atlanta’s Rheingold last season and returns to the character this spring in Die Walküre, is widely revered as one of the world’s supreme interpreters of the role. He says his confidence in Zvulun’s artistic vision brought him to Atlanta. The Ring cycle is more than a historical artifact by a master composer: it retains enormous entertainment value. “I have known so many people who come to the Ring without knowing much about it and are blown away,” he says. “Mounting these operas is like filming The Lord of the Rings. It’s about epic storytelling. And here, you get this incredible music.”

Grimsley agrees that producing all four parts of the Ring cycle is a transcendent step for the company: “For Atlanta, producing these operas not only puts this company into a new and higher tier in the United States; it elevates them to international status.”

That elevated status is precisely Zvulun’s goal. “Atlanta is a major international city that is proud of its diversity, financial power, and innovation,” he says. “Atlanta deserves to have a major theater, a major symphony, and a world-class opera company. And to get there, we gotta go big, or we gotta go home.”

This article appears in our April 2024 issue.