Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

More Government Now!

December 08, 2009

 
Technical rehearsal image from Achim Freyer's production of Götterdämmerung
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

Of course the big opera news today was the $14 million loan approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for Los Angeles Opera. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the company’s chief operations officer made the request at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting stating that the company was in need of the loan to continue operations through the end of the current season. Surely this is not good news, though given the current economic climate for arts organizations, perhaps not entirely surprising. And certainly, as people like Lisa Hirsch have pointed out, it raises legitimate questions about how the organization got into this situation in the first place.

And while the need for such a loan should reasonably cause some concern, there’s part of me that thinks – so what? I mean shouldn’t the state be supporting the arts a little more than it does? It’s a common rejoinder amongst arts organizations and those who care about them in this country, that since art isn’t supported broadly by the state as it is many places in Europe, we Americans often have to accept what the lowest common denominator will allow. With large government subsides, the argument goes, European opera companies have more freedom to create what they will without the worry of always pleasing the masses. I don’t think American art is going to suffer from a little more well-deserved public support. Why are U.S. opera or arts organizations any better off for being dependent on the largess and taste of a small cadre of well-heeled donors than they are to be dependent on the support of the government? If anything, this $14 million loan for L.A. Opera, seems like a drop in the bucket compared to what opera companies outside of the U.S. see in direct funding on a regular basis. It’s about time someone stepped up to the plate here as well, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors should be lauded for taking the necessary steps to ensure L.A. Opera’s current season moves forward. I for one certainly will not regret voting for Zev Yaroslavsky the next time his name comes around on the ballot.

L.A. Opera has not chosen to take the easy or careful road in all of this. Opera companies throughout the U.S. have been playing it safer and safer, cutting productions and placing what’s left so squarely in the middle-of-the-road that there’s little new or exciting to talk about in the opera world in America right now. L.A. Opera is one of the few companies left in the country that has forged ahead with a unique and clearly independent vision. It may not be to everyone’s taste, and it may not always be successful. But their new Achim Freyer-directed Ring cycle is definitely not like anything else around. And while this may not have been the most advantageous decision considering the state of the company’s coffers to date, it has been unquestionably the right artistic decision to make as L.A. Opera continues with what has easily been the most worthwhile current opera season so far of any company in the U.S. I hope that the company’s financial problems are resolved for the better. But, even if they aren’t, at least the company has carried on for the better cause. For it is undoubtedly better to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

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Comments:

Well said, Brian. While the season to the north was better than could have been anticpated, the "interesting and challenging" opera company on the West Coast now resides in the Dorothy Chandler. I'm ooking for forward to Gotterdammerung and the The Stigmatized in April.
I'm afraid I disagree with the Europe comparison. Ever since moving back to Europe, I miss the high artistic standards of American opera houses; said standards are certainly lower in Belgium and Germany, and I think that might have to do with the fact that the artistic administration has no accountability towards the audience - quite often a recipe for lowest common denominator. American opera houses generally have longer rehearsal periods, and I don't think this is a coincidence. I will, on the other hand, concede that programming is much more conservative in the US, as the taking of artistic risks could have financial repercussions that European companies are somewhat immune to.

Having said the above, financial distress at LA Opera is upsetting, as indeed the company has done some very interesting things recently, especially the recovered voices program.
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