Productions of Wagner’s epic take years in the planning and execution, huge spaces and hundreds of people. How is a small arts collective performing all four operas in a Putney church, and how does a conch shell and a fire dance fit in?
Here is an insane undertaking: a small London-based arts collective, Gafa, run by singers of Samoan heritage, putting on a complete Ring cycle – four vast operas, almost 15 hours of music – in a church in Putney, southwest London. Opera houses spend years plotting their Ring cycles, adding the parts of the tetralogy incrementally, usually year by year. Gafa (pronounced Nafa and meaning “family” in Samoan), however, are performing all four of Wagner’s herculean works on successive Saturdays. Surely an act of hubris that will invite nemesis, even from gods facing imminent twilight.
Except that Sani Muliaumaseali’i, the co-founder of the collective and driving force behind the project, refuses to see it in those terms. “Everyone says that,” he says during a break in rehearsals when I suggest he is mad to take this on. “But I’ve been thinking about it since 2007. Siegfried was a hit three years ago [the collective put on the Ring cycle’s third opera in 2019], and I thought: ‘If you can do it, then do it. Feel the fear, let it consume you, and then do it.’” “It is a mountain to climb,” says co-founder Aivale Cole, who is singing Freia in the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold. “But Sani loves mountains.”
Muliaumaseali’i, who was born in New Zealand to Samoan parents, is a tenor who studied at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. His brother Eddie is also a singer; their twin careers reflect the fact that Samoan society is steeped in music, both at home and in church. Sani also writes and produces. As well as being de facto artistic director of RinGafa, as the collective styles its cycle, he will also sing Siegfried. Heroic in every sense – not least as he plays the part in a grass skirt, an indigenous warrior pitted against the colonisers.
RinGafa is being presented as the Ring “in concert with movement”. What that means in reality is that each opera has a Samoan subtext, usually expressed through dance or a specially written scene that draws parallels between Wagner’s great Nordic creation myth, with the gods’ love of power destroying them and Brünnhilde’s self-inflicted immolation ushering in suffering humanity, and the Pacific experience of western settlers usurping indigenous deities and imposing their own faith and values. Throw in a backcloth of the 1918 flu epidemic (prefiguring our present pandemic), brought to the islands by New Zealanders aboard the SS Talune, that killed 22% of Samoans, as well as allusions to climate change that threatens to overwhelm the islands, and you have a potent cocktail.