A key turning point in the Ring comes about three-quarters through Das Rheingold, the first installment in the cycle, when Wotan, ruler of the gods, summons the earth goddess Erda from the underworld.
"I warn you, give up the ring!" intones Erda, draped in a flowing white robe and bathed in blue light. It's her prophecy that by stealing the ring from the dwarf Alberich, Wotan has fallen under a curse that governs Wagner's four-opera epic.
"It's an intense, concentrated scene," said Ronnita Miller, the St. Petersburg native who played Erda in the San Francisco Opera production, ascending on a little elevator through a trap door from beneath the stage for her fateful encounter with Wotan.
Miller did crochet and read — Mozart's Blood, an opera-themed romance novel, and The Elegant Universe, a treatise on physics and string theory, were favorites — while waiting almost two hours for her cue in Rheingold. Then she jumped around to help warm up her voice before going on.
"It's definitely a challenge to be the last person who is called onstage," she said. "Because you come on so late, you have to have this presence. Erda doesn't show up until things are really bad. She's like this original woman, this unspoiled character with so much power. She takes care of things. She makes sure the earth replenishes itself."
When Miller and I got together in the press room of the opera house on the morning after the performance of Rheingold in the first of last month's three cycles, it felt a bit like a hometown reunion, because the mezzo soprano is a 1995 graduate of Boca Ciega High School. She went on to study voice at St. Petersburg Junior College, the University of South Florida, Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School, and now is an up-and-coming singer getting cast in major productions. Her performance in the Ring received excellent reviews, such as New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini's praise for her "rich voice and noble phrasing."
At 32, Miller is on the young side to play Erda, but she was vocally and visually striking as the one figure in the Ring that the willful Wotan heeds. So it was delightful to discover that she, having walked over from her nearby temporary apartment for the interview, was as girlishly unpretentious as could be. "I was just jazzed to be up there last night," she said.
Miller, who also appeared as Erda in Siegfried and sang the role of the First Norn in Gotterdammerung in San Francisco, had previous experience with Wagner's epic, playing a Rhinemaiden and a Valkyrie and covering Erda in the Los Angeles Opera Ring in 2010. Does that mean she will be pegged as a Wagnerian singer?
"She has a good future," said David Gockley, general director of San Francisco Opera. "But I don't think she should be pegged just as a Wagnerian singer because I think she will be able to do Verdi as well, roles like Princess Eboli (in Don Carlos) or Amneris (Aida), the real strong Verdi mezzo roles, which carry up to B flat and sometimes even B natural. She has an unbelievable chest register that is very deep and impressive. Her mastery of these other roles will depend on how her upper range is."
As far as Wagner roles go, Gockley sees Miller as a possible future Kundry in Parsifal, Brangane in Tristan und Isolde and even Fricka, Wotan's wife, in the Ring. But she is probably in no hurry, since most singers don't take on these characters in a big way until they're in their 40s.
Next season, Miller will be in three Los Angeles Opera productions, playing Filippevna in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Gertrude in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Florence Pike in Britten's Albert Herring.
Between opera engagements, Miller, an only child, spends time at home in St. Petersburg with her parents, Henry and Anita James. She keeps in touch with friends from school, not many of whom have seen her perform with big companies like those in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"They think it's amazing that I stuck with it," Miller said. "They call me diva, and I'm not a diva at all. I'm much more comfortable in yoga pants and a T-shirt going to the beach."