A century ago, when opera directors were little more than traffic cops, no one much cared how a performance looked as long as the singing was spectacular. Times have changed since then, but not fast enough for Stephen Wadsworth, who wishes that all opera companies would spend as much time, money, and energy nurturing the dramatic-visual aspects of the art as they do the musical. Certainly few other directors are doing more to accelerate the process. Wadsworth first hit the public's radar screen at age 29 in 1983, when Leonard Bernstein chose him to write the libretto for A Quiet Place, the composer-conductor's only full-length opera. Since then he has become a much-sought-after director, for the theater as well as opera, and one who prefers to work with companies that put as high a priority on production values as they do on the musical elements. Right now he is in Seattle preparing the biggest challenge of them all, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen saga—a formidable project that, Wadsworth says, he wouldn't consider tackling anywhere else (the production runs August 5-26). The Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, is precisely the kind of enlightened impresario who speaks Wadsworth's language, and any director who's bold enough to confront Wagner's massive Ring cycle needs all the support and input he can get.
Critics often remark upon the warmth, grace, and humanity of a typical Wadsworth production, qualities one would expect from a director who believes that interpersonal relationships hold the key to an opera's theatrical power. As he puts it, "I direct people, not ideas"—definitely a refreshing approach to the Ring. Completed in 1874,Wagner's four-part epic has never been more popular than it is now, and productions run the gamut, from the Metropolitan Opera's old-fashioned storybook presentation to avant-garde conceptions laden with inscrutable symbols and arcane philosophical agendas. Virtually none takes a sophisticated, psychological approach to the action or fully explores the characters' conflicted personalities and explosive interactions. Wadsworth senses that audiences are hungering for just such a dramatic Ring, and that is precisely what he plans to give them.