Q & A: Pietari Inkinen on Conducting ‘The Ring Cycle’ at Bayreuth Festival

By Francisco Salazar

After waiting for three years to conduct the Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, Pietari Inkinen finally made it come true.

Over the past month, the Finnish Conductor has been in Bayreuth performing the Ring Cycle in Valentin Schwarz’s production. It marks his return to the festival after his debut in 2021. It also marks his return to the Ring Cycle following his acclaimed performances at Opera Australia where he received the Helpmann Award in 2014 and the Green Room Award for Best Opera Conductor in 2016.  He has also conducted Wagner’s “Die Walküre” and “Das Rheingold” in Palermo’s Teatro Massimo and has recorded excerpts from Wagner’s “Siegfried.”

Inkinen spoke to OperaWire about his experience in Bayreuth and what it means to conduct the Ring Cycle in Wagner’s theater.

OperaWire: What does it feel like to conduct a Ring Cycle in Bayreuth?

Pietari Inkinen: Conducting the Ring in Bayreuth feels like a dream coming true! It is the most exciting and at the same time the most demanding thing to do in existence for a conductor. To perform all of the Ring within a week is an experience for a performer and listener without an equal, and to do this in the theatre built by Richard Wagner. It is a great honor to be part of this very special history in Bayreuth.

OW: How has the audience reacted to your work? How does the audience differ from others in the world?

PI: I am very happy about the audience’s reactions. We are now right before the third of the three Ring cycles here and audiences have been very enthusiastic about the performances. It’s great to see that our work is being so much appreciated, particularly because the audience in Bayreuth is very demanding. Many people attending the festival know the works by heart and have heard them many times, so their expectations are very high.

OW: What have you learned from your experience in Bayreuth?

PI: The list of learnings is long! Of course, every musician is constantly learning with every single performance, but rehearsing and performing in Bayreuth is more intense than anything I have ever experienced before. The rehearsal time, especially rehearsals in the Festspielhaus itself with its unique acoustics is limited, given there are eight operas being performed this summer and everyone needs rehearsal time.

OW: Tell me about conducting this production and working with specialized Wagnerian singers.

PI: From the beginning, I have always worked very well with the stage director Valentin Schwarz and his team, and I think for everybody involved in this production, it was a great collaboration, at eye level. The team spirit was and is magnificent here for our Ring, and for me, that’s the most important thing. Working with all these great Wagner singers here is pure joy. Of course, they are specialized Wagnerian singers with lots of knowledge and experience in this repertoire, but also, they are also keen to learn more, to always improve, and to approach every new performance with the same intensity, focus, and enthusiasm as if it was the first one.

OW: Has the city influenced you in any way when it comes to your interpretation?

PI: To be honest, I have been so absorbed in the preparation for the Ring that I hardly spend any time outside of the house, looking at anything else but the Ring scores. We are very lucky to have such a beautiful home, with a nice garden, and lots of flowers, and located right next to the Festspielhaus, so it’s very easy to just spend time here and totally focus on Wagner.

But of course, Wagner’s spirit seems to be floating through this city, and there is a very special energy during the festival season. What has for sure influenced my interpretation is the work with the team here in Bayreuth, and the work at the Festspielhaus which is very particular acoustically. The pit is covered towards the audience, so certain parts need to be played in a very exaggerated way in order to arrive the right way in the hall.

OW: What will you take away from this experience?

PI: Many beautiful memories from unforgettable performances, new friendships, and a very rich package of new musical experiences I will cherish forever. I am just very happy that this year I finally got to conduct the Ring in Bayreuth. We have all been working on this for years now, as the premiere of this Ring was scheduled for 2020. Due to the pandemic, the whole Festival season was canceled that year and the project was postponed to 2022. And last year I had to cancel in the midst of the last rehearsals because I got sick with covid myself. That the project could be realized this year with these results means a lot to me. What I will also take away from the experience is the appetite for more: apart from the Ring, I have already conducted “Meistersinger” in 2018 at Opera Australia, and I think in the next years it’s time to conduct the rest of the Bayreuth canon, especially “Tristan” and “Parsifal.” I will conduct my first “Tannhäuser“ next season at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

OW: Do you see Wagner’s music different from before having worked in Bayreuth?

PI: Working in Bayreuth and conducting the Ring cycle here certainly meant developing and further deepening my understanding of Wagner, and I will certainly depart from here enriched as a musician and artist.

OW: What’s next following this Ring Cycle?

PI: In regards to opera and vocal music, I’ll be conducting my first “Tannhäuser” this coming season, two performances in November and December at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. With my orchestra in Germany, the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, I will conduct Strauss songs, among them “Vier letzte Lieder” with Krassimira Stoyanova in Mannheim and Saarbrücken. I’m also looking forward to conducting in the US next season. On Nov. 24 and 26, I’ll lead the Cleveland Orchestra and Augustin Hadelich in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Dvořák’s Othello Overture, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. Apart from that, I’ll conduct many more concerts with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and with my orchestra in Seoul, the KBS Symphony Orchestra. And, I will conduct several concerts as a guest conductor in Italy.