By the time I caught up with the three Rhinemaidens at the Metropolitan Opera, they had traded their complex fishtails for ordinary shoes.
Encased in shiny black body suits, topped off by foot-high mesh headgear, Lisette Oropesa, Tamara Mumford and Jennifer Johnson recovered from their aqueous adventures in a small dressing room down the hall from where the bigger fish sing their scales: Wotan, the chief god, or his wife, Fricka.
Tonight, when the curtain rises on “Das Rheingold,” as Wagner’s dank chords emanate from the pit, the Rhinemaidens are the first to sing. Strapped into harnesses, they dangle some 30 feet above the stage in simulated waters, guarding the gold of the Rhine.
Beneath them is an immense, abstract set weighing 45 tons, whose parts are activated by computer programs. Canadian director Robert Lepage of Cirque de Soleil fame conjured up the set and special effects with his company, Ex Machina.
“You’re in this extremely tight, hip-hugging contraption, really helpless, and you’re sweating,” explained Oropesa, batting Woglinde’s 2-inch-long eyelashes. “You have to get through the scene and look gorgeous at the same time.”
As the set changes, the Rhinemaidens land on the banks of the river for their fateful frolic with Alberich, the lusty dwarf. He steals their gold with bad results for everyone in the show.
Even then, as they roll around like seals, the threesome is still high above the stage.
“We all feared the flying, but singing while sitting down and moving became the hard part,” said Mumford, who sings Flosshilde.
I can see why. On one end, they’re stuck into fishtails; on their heads, they’re balancing high turban-like contraptions threaded with gold.
The tails kept getting tangled up in the cables and had to be redesigned, lest a mermaid be sushied. All three hit the gym for the last few weeks to get in shape.
“We arrive early enough to work in about 30 minutes of special warm-up exercises before getting into the costume,” said Johnson, the Wellgunde.
The constricting harness may cut off circulation and set their hearts racing.
“It’s really scary,” Oropesa said. “We try not to look like we are hanging on for dear life, especially after the director kept telling us not to dangle like dead fish.”
“Das Rheingold” opens tonight at 6:45 p.m. The Met is sending out free telecasts to Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square. For more information: http://www.metopera.org.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)