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Classical 101

The Ring and The Controversy in Los Angeles

The opera blogs and list-servs have been overheating for the past two weeks following the backstage drama in Los Angeles' new production of Wagner's Ring des Nibulengen.

Producing The Ring is an Expensive Proposition

Producing these four music dramas is the grandest and most expensive test for any opera company. A failure can bankrupt an organization, driving audiences away for decades. A success can provide benefits for years: audiences filled with Wagner groupies, serious respect from press and whatever international critics are left, merchandising down to the calendars and tea  cozies, and an energetic peg on which to hang photos, news and gossip for more than a few news cycles. The Ring has significant merchandising value, and if you don't mind risking your underwear and possibly worse, a successful production is  the way to go towards raising the profile, creating buzz and attracting donors.

Placido Domingo Takes on Los Angeles

Los Angeles seems like a good town to host this feast of gods, Valkyries, dwarfs, incest and fallen heroes. Placido Domingo (yes, that Placido Domingo) General Director  of the Los Angeles Opera (and of the Washington Opera, and of Operalia, who continues to sing and conduct about four times a week on three different continents at the age of 69) decided some years back that Los Angeles needed to have a Ring. He approached George Lucas to design and direct, and after a few month flirtation the mind behind Star Wars walked. Undeterred, Domingo next approached Baz Luhrmann,  of Moulin Rogue and a world famous staging of La boheme. No go. Then he called Achim Freyer. I know about Achim Freyer only what I read (recently) in the papers. He is an acclaimed visual artist in Europe. I don't know how much opera production he has done, but no matter.  He brings an important visual sense to the four Ring operas. Look for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GjEZw8kNY0 The days of beefy guys running around in bear skins and ample ladies with winged helmets are gone, gone, gone. I doubt today we can really replicate the great voices who wore those skins and helmets once upon a time: Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, George London, Hans Hotter, Jon Vickers, Birgit Nilsson. These greats are in Valhalla themselves - except for Mr. Vickers. My bookshelves groan under the weight of broadcast recordings of these giants going back sixty years. But they are gone. What to do now?

Wagner's Music is the Thing

Today, you train the orchestra - always the leading element of any Wagner opera - to high magnificence, and you make certain to engage the audience visually. You have a superb conductor like James Conlon, Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera. Doing this presupposes that the rich grandeur of Wagner's music is taken care of. In opera, what's first, words or music? In Wagner, music. Period. And yes the music in Wagner is long and yes the drama meanders and often becomes ridiculous. The Ring, to me, lacks the catharsis, the delayed organism written into Tristan. Today's audiences need a little help. Anyone looking at the video clip can see that Freyer's visual sense is stunning. Whether or not he uses the visuals to complement the music and tell the story is hard to gauge in these snips that are out of context.

The Controversy Erupts

Two of the singers went to the press with concerns over the staging. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 15 that soprano Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) told Freyer to "just play one of my CDs." Tenor John Treleaven (Siegfried) spoke of twisted ankles and injuries sustained working on the sharply raked stage. (Angled stages can be murder for the feet and lower back - the back muscles are essential in supporting the voice to be heard over Wagner's orchestra). Both Watson and Treleaven are fine artists with years of experience in their roles, and as you can imagine Brunnhildes and especially Siegfrieds are pretty rare. Most can just get through their roles. These two bring a lot more skill and talent than that to their performances. And Watson is a looker - which helps. Have a look at another clip, from Freyer's Los Angeles-bound production of Siegfried,  with Ms. Watson and Mr. Treleaven http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3kiGU8GdKk Here's the problem. The scenes,  for all the light show stuff still seem pretty dark. Herbert von Karajan did his own lighting for the Ring. He demanded fifty lighting rehearsals (ka-ching!). One critic wagged, "I could have gotten it that dark in one!" Achim's singers are often masked, muzzling the artists and denying the audience any facial expression. The singers, the actors, the artists become incidental to the visual effects, not the integral parts of the drama as conceived by Wagner. An emphasis on lighting is nothing new. Bayreuth in 1890 was awash in kerosene lamps.  Wieland Wagner's Parsifal in 1950 enthralled the opera world with its lighting effects,  made necessary by a lack of lumber and materiel in post-war Germany. Long are the fights and rants since Ms. Watson and Mr. Treleaven went public.  They have not been replaced as of this date and neither has Mr. Freyer. The Classical Singers message board is ferrying opinions. The readers' feedback page of the LA Times make the singers out to be heroes or crybabies. Watson and Treleaven spoke bluntly of concerns for their own safety. No doubt a director not interested in character development and on-stage relationships based solely on words and music doesn't help. So it would seem. LA Opera board members have criticized the two singers. Last year, before all this brouhaha, Freyer said that singers concerns on stage "are not my problem." Placido Domingo, who sings Siegmund in Die Walkure has stayed out of it. He has not supported his singers publicly and he has not dissed Mr. Freyer. This Ring staging on his watch costs a reported $32 million. He needs to sell tickets. Controversy is good for ticket sales. Do the math. I'll sign off with one more video clip. Brunnhilde in Die Walkure would never so appear today, but the voice - Kirsten Flagstad! A voice like that would be immune to any staging, light shows, darkness or whatever. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAo_fTiZ2hY You tell 'em, girlfriend. Wagner's Ring cycle with Placido Domingo, Linda Watson and John Treleaven, conducted by James Conlon, opens at the Los Angeles Opera on May  29.