Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


July 05, 2010

LA Landscape, 2009
Achim Freyer

Although L.A. Opera’s Ring Cycle performances concluded over a week ago, the chatter about these events persists as people continue to digest what they’ve seen and heard. There are still some great events associated with Achim Freyer’s production going on around town that are worth visiting to help with your withdrawals from this landmark event. On Saturday, I caught two ongoing art exhibits in town associated with the Ring Festival. First off, I headed out to the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica to the Ruth Bachofner Gallery for an exhibit of some of the haunting photographs Monika Rittershaus produced in conjunction with the presentation of the four Wagner operas over the last several years. Many of these images have been widely reproduced in the media as part of the coverage of this event. Like Freyer’s vision, they are colorful and ironically they seem to fly in the face of the often-repeated criticism that the production was static and without human emotion. Many of these images highlight the emotional aspects of the characters and the actors' facial expressions are easily seen. And while they don’t capture the immense visual sense of the entire stage image, they find beauty in an up close view of Freyer and the company’s work. The photographs, which are enlarged and mounted, can be purchased for quite reasonable prices and would make an excellent souvenir of the experience. The gallery will continue to have the works on display through July 17.

Michelle DeYoung as Fricka
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

Meanwhile, in the much larger space of the ACE Gallery Wilshire Tower are more than two dozen paintings and sculptures produced by Freyer himself during his time in Los Angeles working on the Ring Cycle. L.A. has a long and rich history as a source of inspiration for expatriate European artists, so it is no surprise that these works from the last six years cover a lot of ground. Obviously some of the material take off from Wagner’s operas, including sculptures based on the costume elements for a few of the Ring characters. Both Wotan and Brünnhilde appear in giant multiple versions of themselves. A dismembered Alberich climbs a ladder towards an LED ring in another closet-like space. But the majority of the works on display are abstract paintings, sometimes only tangentially related to the operas. An equally important influence is Los Angeles itself, and its massive grid and sprawling geography. Color is vitally important here, but this is no day-glo version of sunny California like David Hockney imagined. Here the city is a net at odds with its own natural surroundings. Giant leaves appear in pastels atop parallel lines and curving freeways that converge behind bars and spiral like the very Ring of the Nibelungen. It’s a huge exhibit worth a couple of visits and will stay in the Wilshire space through August 14.

Lightshadow, 2010
Achim Freyer

The Los Angeles Times has also continued to bring a variety of information to light about the LAO Ring that bears pointing out. Mike Boehm reported last week that according to L.A. Opera COO Stephen Rountree, the production ended up with a deficit of around 6 million dollars between soft ticket sales and shortfalls in contributions. That’s not great news, but I for one would much rather have seen the company produce the cycle it did at a deficit than something on budget but decidedly less important. Rountree is also quoted in the same article on the topic of when the Ring will be revived in L.A. While he again notes that it is unlikely before 2018, he notes that maestro James Conlon is pushing to do it sooner, sometime within the next five years. Here’s hoping that the company can raise the money for Conlon to get his way.

From Act III of Freyer's Die Walküre
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

Another piece by Boehm in the Times pointed out the complete dearth of coverage of the complete cycle by American media outlets outside of Southern California. And while several European sources had no trouble making press available for nine days in Los Angeles, the lions of what’s left of print journalism couldn’t quite raise the funds to make this happen. Boehm continues to imply that bias against Los Angeles probably also played a role in these decisions as well. I think he’s right, but I would argue that it also represents how little intelligent writing there is about opera in the dying print media in the first place. Boehm quotes a few East Coast journalists implying that in addition to budgetary constraints, they failed to cover the L.A. Ring due to feeling it wasn’t important enough. And then they wonder why their jobs are disappearing?

Leaf, 2009
Achim Freyer
Print journalists in particular like to bemoan the death of their business due to encroachment of the free and unprofessional Internet into their world. But it’s much more than that. Print media have always been forced to make decisions about what is “important” and what isn’t in their limited space. What “new media” has actually done is give people a place and a way to write and read about what they want instead of relying on the myopic vision of the few. Take opera for example. The U.S. East Coast has been dominated by opera companies so short on artistic vision for so long, that even their respective local print critics no longer recognize what makes an opera worth covering. They’re still writing about singers and vocal technique like opera is the NBA. These are the same writers bemoaning the decidedly moderate efforts of the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb to drag that institution kicking and screaming into the 1990s. L.A. Opera’s Ring Cycle may have been ignored by East Coast critics, but it wasn’t just lack of money or hatred of L.A. It was a lack of insight and focus on an outdated notion of what the art form is about and what today's audiences are interested in seeing and reading about.



I for one would much rather have seen the company produce the cycle it did at a deficit than something on budget but decidedly less important

I wouldn't but could you explain something to me Brian? Here we have our local company, run at the administrative level by, well, *somebody* and whose public face is simply not in this hemisphere a lot of the time.

Since Peter Hemmings left, there's been no unified vision that I can detect and debacles like 3 Puccini operas in a season and now the truncated 2010-11 season are common.

My question is this: why was The Ring so damn important to this company? They've poured millions and millions of dollars in to it, have been obsessed with it (hahaha) since at least the early 90's (the ILM non-production), but WHY? The fact that they did it, staged a cycle? Big effing deal, second-tier houses in Germany like Essen and Mannheim stage them all the time. That they hoped it would increase the profile of the company? As your link points out, it was mostly crickets from the wider opera world. Ego? Vanity? Boneheaded stupidity?

I, for one, would gladly trade the $32 million spent on The Ring and used it to fund 10-15 new productions of things not done here before, from all eras. Instead, we're left with a debt-ridden company, debt-ridden in a recession, suddenly in survival mode where after 25 years of existence you'd think they'd be flourishing artistically, doing interesting work.

And no, I'm not bitter that the effing Ring money woes caused Die Tote Stadt to be postponed, oh no. :-)
Henry Holland needs to get a life. I'm tired of reading his constant whining and complaining all over the local arts blogosphere.
Well, Anon., I *do* have a life, there's this concept called "multi-tasking" you might want to familiarize yourself with.

I love the irony of someone who doesn't have the guts to have an online identity complaining about me complaining.

You wanna rip me? Don't do it in Brian's comments sections, do it directly:

Hey Henry, can you tell us another story about how your supreme intellect has pwned yet another poor sod earning a buck by shilling LA Opera's subscriptions by phone?
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