Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Wrong. A Left Coast Perspective.

October 01, 2009

 
John Treleaven in LA Opera's Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera 2009

Is Anthony Tommasini the most ridiculously out of touch writer working for a major media outlet today? I’ve often felt the New York Times critic has gotten a bad wrap on the internets and such, especially from the kind of opera goers that populate the comment sections of Parterre Box. But when you read the kind of garbage he's got in this week’s NY Times on the ups and downs of updating opera productions (“Updating Opera? Halfway Won’t Do”), I begin to have second thoughts about my deference to well-trained professional journalists and their academic backgrounds.

Tommasini’s argument basically runs along the lines that if one is going to rework an opera for a new production, it’s best to go whole hog with a thought out, fully realized concept as opposed to taking half-measures resulting in a work that often pleases no one. It’s a fair point that Tommasini supports with some of the most wrong-headed arguments you’ll find. I won’t get in to his ridiculousness about Luc Bondy’s Tosca, which is the major target of the piece. However, Tommasini returns for another swipe in print at Achim Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring now being rolled out at Los Angeles Opera. On a positive note, he does cite Freyer’s work for LA Opera as an example of a company’s complete commitment to an idea that is “unabashedly avant-garde.”

Of course, he can’t let it go at that without taking further jabs at a production he apparently hasn’t quite wrapped his brain around yet. He refers to it as a “sci-fi Ring” noting that the characters wield “neon spears that look like Jedi light sabers.” Nothing could be further removed from the truth in a production that has more of a rough-hewn primitive look than anything futuristic or high-tech. Freyer maintains a cheap and intentionally artificial visual sense throughout often in the service of laughs. This is Tommasini's third mention of the presumed likeness between neon lights and light sabers in the NY Times, but it tells us more about Tommasini’s own misconceptions about Los Angeles and it’s No. 1 industry than it does about Freyer’s Ring production. I suppose that all neon lights do look like light sabers except for the fact that Freyer’s lights have no hilts, are frequently handled in the center as opposed to their ends, and are used for many other elements in the staging besides just spears and swords. It is also true that L.A. Opera originally approached George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic during initial plans to produce a Ring cycle years ago. But none of this has anything to do with Freyer’s Ring. Yes, movies are made in Los Angeles. But, believe it or not, that does not mean that everything associated with Los Angeles intentionally references film. It's not that the similarity doesn't exist. But calling Freyer's production a "sci-fi Ring" is perhaps the least informative and insightful observation one could make about it.

But that's not all. Tommasini then continues to rehash his main criticism of LA Opera's Die Walküre from earlier this year in that it doesn’t deal with the “human dimensions of the characters.” Considering that Act III of Freyer’s Ring packs more emotional impact with its bizarre stage-length outstretched arms and primitive costume changes than anything that’s appeared in the same opera on a New York stage for decades seems to be lost on him. Why must humanism permeate everything that's worthwhile? Tommasini continues, “Wagner meant for us to see ourselves in this story of a tormented, overreaching god and his dysfunctional family.” So there you have it, folks. When all else fails, you can always fall back on the fallacy of authorial intent to justify your argument. Who cares what Wagner intended? Freyer's staging is enthralling precisely because it isn't always what you would expect and doesn't always demand that we see ourselves in every last thing. So remind me again, why again are we so worried about the demise of arts criticism in the print media?

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Comments:

Are you just now starting to understand how bad most cultural criticism in newspapers really is? Part of the problem is that much of it is simply lazy (neon tubes in LA=Jedi light sabers).

I don't agree with some of what you write and your own personal aesthetic, but there's nothing lazy in your approach. And you're a very good journalist, taking the time to describe well and not just give your opinions.

So thanks.
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