Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

We Are All Wotan

June 26, 2010


Or at least that was the perspective of Achim Freyer, the director of LA Opera’s monumental staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which completes its run today at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I’d heard him speak on at least three occasions in L.A. during his time here and was fortunate enough to see nine of the twelve individual performances in the Ring cycle presentations this month. I'm not going to make it to tonight's final Götterdämmerung due to some family obligations, but I'll definitely be there in spirit. Things have changed a lot over the course of the development and execution of this cycle, not only in terms of economic reality but also in terms of the increasingly positive response audiences have had to the show. As has been widely noted, LA Opera did not sell all the tickets they had hoped. But, undoubtedly, as the cycles started in June, the dynamic in the house began to change. The crowds became progressively louder and more enthusiastic not only about the musical aspects of the production, which is to be expected, but more and more over the theatrical aspects as well. Freyer, who has attended all of the performances could be seen after some of the shows toward the end mobbed by admirers and fans. Some of the performances in the last cycle did sell out. The people in the audience were not your typical opera crowd. The number of younger folks with tight jeans and pink hair clearly outnumbered those with oxygen machines and those funny plastic horned helmets a certain generation of Ring fans like to wear.

Most of the commemorative souvenirs offered up by the Opera League were long gone by the time the third and final cycle got underway. Moreover, the resourceful company took advantage of the presence of an enthusiastic audience by raising funds through a costume sale. Specifically, many of the prototype costumes designed and hand-painted by Freyer and his daughter as part of the earliest rehearsals for the Ring many years ago were offered up to the public. They were gone over the course of two performances, and I was lucky enough to snag a couple of these one-of-a-kind mementos for myself. (Yes that’s me in the accompanying photos festooned with a Gibichung mask, prototype Alberich coat sans bloody, ripped-off arm, and magnificent red Siegfried chest.)

Sadly, a video recording of the production will not be among my reminders of these performances, a particular sore point for many in the crowd and the company itself. It would be nice to see the production filmed in a later outing when funds may be more available, but honestly I’m not so sure that it would work anyway. Like most great stage productions, Freyer’s vision won’t look very good with standard video technique. This is not a show about up close faces and small physical gestures. It’s dependent on large scale sweeping video images and spaces around and between performers. But hopefully the production will live on, especially here in L.A. LA Opera’s COO Stephen Rountree was quoted earlier stating that the production would not be revived until 2018 at the earliest. Even that seems like a long wait, though probably a realistic time frame given the cost of mounting the cycle overall. But remount it they should and hopefully with more willing and able principals than this time around. (Why not sign up Jennifer Wilson, the current staging’s Gutrune, for Brünnhilde now? She can certainly sing it as she has proven elsewhere and she already knows plenty about getting around that highly raked stage.)

Regardless of video or future revivals, though, LA Opera has produced something remarkable and important. Freyer, music director James Conlon, and the entire company and cast created a landmark production and a true work of art. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t cheap, and it certainly came with truckloads of controversy. But I know, for me at least, the production was both completely satisfying and it was hugely influential on my thinking about opera and theater in ways that I’m only beginning to understand. Already I’ve had the experience of seeing other performances I know that I would have raved about a year ago that in the wake of this Ring leave me cold. I’ve seen plenty of operas and certainly other Ring cycles in the flesh, but this was different. Or, as I overheard the couple next to me last Wednesday say, they’d seen the Ring on two occasions before in Seattle, but had never looked forward to the individual performances the way they had here in L.A. Freyer’s Ring matters because, along with a few other productions in the last decade, it is one of the first to break free of the long shadow Patrice Chereau has cast over Wagner’s operas in the last three decades. Freyer’s vision is not just another Regietheater sociopolitical adaptation of Wagner’s work. It’s also not just a reactionary response to Chereau like Schenk’s wooded fairytale that has finally exited stage right in New York. Freyer’s vision is unique, demanding its own terms for a rendering that is traditional but never conventional. And though life goes on, I for one am going to miss living in that world, though I suspect like most great theater, its memory will live on for me in all kinds of ways.



Nice abs. Looks like you've been working out? ;-)
I was at the sold out Gotterdammerung tonight and had a great time. Freyer came out at the end and received a thunderous ovation, not a boo to be heard.

Freyer's Ring is a really special work of art and the LA Opera should be proud of its achievement.

After obsessing over all the twists, turns, and delightful surprises with this LA Opera Ring it's going to be hard to move on...alas Ringless :-(

I so appreciate all your excellent ongoing commentary and insights during last three years.Thank you.
Thanks Jim. I'm so envious of everyone who got to go tonight. I'd have loved to be there. Have a great time in SF.
Still wish this ring was less avant garde yet not the overly traditional version of yore.
I have seen 3 other cycles, yet had no desire to see this one, and I still have not read anything that would make me change that feeling.
The picture of you with the phone is priceless. I'd like to see you solicit captions for it.
I had no interest at all in going, not because of the production, which look pretty cool, but because my interest in Wagner's cycle drops sharply after Act I of Die Walkure. By the 20th time (or so it seems) somebody mentions how Siegfried slew the dragon and won Brunnhilde, I'm ready to scream.

My main interest in all this is how it affected what I *really* cared about, which was the Recovered Voices project. The director of the Braunfels was quite vocal in his displeasure with having to work with that stage, the Schreker actually had the original director, Olivier Tambosi, quit because of the paltry budget he was allotted, and Ian Judge's staging, fine as it was, was obviously a budget production as well.

I'd love to hear an explanation of why, when there are multi-month stretches where the LAO has no productions on that they decided to do two new, and in the case of Die Gezeichneten quite complex, productions at the same time that the Ring was sucking up resources left and right.
Well if I were to hazard a guess, it might have to do with scheduling more than anything else. Conlon was the major force behind both Recovered Voices and this new Ring was one of the major reasons he took the LA Opera job to begin with. He's only in town so many times a year and with four separate runs of each Ring opera, sooner or later his interests were bound to collide scheduling wise.

While I guess you could argue that they could have stretched one or the other of these projects our over more years, sooner or later you bump up against a contract renewal talk for Conlon. Sure if he's going to stay past an initial 4 or 5 years or whatever, spreading things out more might not be a problem, but I suspect the company had to keep things scheduled in a way to allow him to accomplish everything Conlon wanted during his stays in town.
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