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Hodgson School alumnus makes last minute debut in lead role at Bayreuth premiere of “Götterdämmerung”

Alan Flurry

Tenor Clay Hilley (BMUS '04) took on the role of Siegfried at the Bayreuth Festival for the premiere of “Götterdämmerung” on August 5, 2022. Hilley, who has performed at some of the most prominent houses in the world including the Dutch National Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Bard Music Festival, Salzburger Landestheater, Opera Southwest, and the Baltimore Concert Opera, stepped up in a last-minute cast change.

The Bayreuth Festival, an annual month-long event in Bayreuth, Germany, established by and exclusively featuring the works of 19th-century composer Richard Wagner, is arguably the most prestigious location in the world for Wagner opera. The festival receives approximately 500,000 ticket requests a year for 58,000 seats, and there is a five-to-ten year waiting list for tickets.

“On August 3, 2022 while on vacation in Mola di Bari, my phone lit up with a call from Bayreuth, Germany. To me this could only mean one thing: I probably need to start walking to my hotel to pack," said Hilley, now a resident of Berlin. "Surely enough, a tenor who was supposed to sing Siegfried in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung the very next night (August 4) at the Bayreuth Festival, was sick. They asked if I could fly back to Germany to be on-call in case the tenor officially canceled."

Hilley and his wife flew to Munich where they were met with a driver from the Bayreuth festival. On the 2.5 hour drive, he cued up video taken from the final dress rehearsal a few days prior, and began to learn the staging. "In addition to the video I was sent a schedule for the following morning: costume and wig fittings with designer Andy Besuch, musical rehearsal with Maestro Cornelius Meister, and staging rehearsal with Valentin Schwartz, the creator of this new Ring Cycle," Hilley said.

No stranger to Siegfried, Hilley had performed the role six times over the course of October 2021-January 2022 in Berlin with Sir Donald Runnicles, so the music and text were still quite fresh in his memory.  

"I arrived for the costume fitting at 10AM, I was told that I would indeed be singing for the performance with a curtain time of 4pm(!) After all, Götterdämmerung is quite a marathon, with 5.5 hours of music, and 2 separate hour-long intermissions," he said.

"All went swimmingly. I was warned of the unique acoustic of this historic theater; that, because the sound emerges from so deeply within the pit, one must consciously strive NOT to be ahead of the beat. Often the prompter of the performance must act as a traffic cop, providing not only the text to the singers, but also keeping the performers true to the beat."

Despite the many challenges, Hilley describes a very favorable environment in which to make a debut; the spokesman for the Bayreuth Festival gave a curtain speech in which he explained the circumstances of his appearance.

"When he told the crowd that both principal tenor and first cover were sick, an audible gasp arose. Then he said 'we were able to find the Siegfried from Deutsche Oper Berlin, who cut his vacation in Italy short, and who will be singing and acting the role. He has rehearsed intensely this morning, and we wish him a happy debut.'  At this the audience began to applaud. It was comforting to know that these Wagner die-hards were already cheering my efforts before the first downbeat."

The Statham native who "caught the 'opera bug' as a lowly chorister for the Athena Grand Opera’s La boheme in 2001," still has family in the Athens area as well as warm feelings for UGA and Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall.

"Dream big always. Go Dawgs,” Hilley said.

Image: Heldentenor Clay Hilley, Enispringer and Bayreuth debutant via.


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