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L.A. Opera's 'Ring': the ultimate fundraising challenge

February 19, 2009 |  5:00 pm

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In Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” the first opera of his four-part saga “The Ring of the Nibelung,” a stash of gold resting at the bottom of the River Rhine serves as a catalyst for a centuries-long struggle among gods, mortals and other inhabitants of a mythological world.

Kicking off Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera’s production of “The Ring” represents another kind of monetary epic -- a fight to come up with as much as $32 million in the midst of a recession that has severely affected donations, the lifeblood of high culture.

L.A. Opera’s “Ring” is the biggest and most expensive project in the company’s 22-year history. The first two chapters, “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre,” open this season, while the final two installments are scheduled for next season. Plans call for the project to culminate in 2010 with three complete performances of the cycle.

The $32-million price tag of “The Ring” may not sound like a lot by Hollywood standards, but for L.A. Opera, whose annual budget over the last few years has ranged between $40 million and $60 million, it’s an ambitious gamble that comes just as the company has been forced to make internal cuts.

“It scares me, quite frankly,” says Marc Stern, L.A. Opera’s chairman and chief executive. “But we’ll persevere. We didn’t anticipate the economic climate as it currently is, and we’re doing everything we can short of impacting artistic excellence.”

-The company acknowledges that it still needs to raise $8 million of its $19.5-million fundraising goal for “The Ring” by the end of its current fiscal year, in June. The fundraising efforts began in 2006, when Eli and Edythe Broad announced a gift of $6 million. Since then, the company says it has raised an additional $5.5 million for “The Ring.” (The balance of the budget will be covered by ticket sales and general contributions.)

“It would be most advantageous if we can get the bulk of our fundraising done this year, and we’re trying to do it when the economy is just awful,” says Chief Operating Officer Stephen Rountree.

Rountree says the recession is causing patrons and donors to delay gifts, which has directly affected the company’s operations. Last month, it announced the layoffs of 17 employees as well as cost reductions of 25%.

Those close to “The Ring” insist the cuts won’t affect the artistic quality of the production. Still, L.A. Opera has had to find creative ways to keep “The Ring” on budget.

Most recently, it decided to scale back the number of stand-alone performances next season for “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” (the last chapters of the cycle) to five each from the seven originally scheduled. The decision was based on a ticket sale analysis of how many performances the L.A. market could support.

The company is also saving money by having Achim Freyer, the production’s German director, use locally hired dancers instead of his Berlin-based ensemble, which he usually imports when working abroad.

“It was really a calculus of practicality,” says Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera’s vice president of artistic planning. “We had to consider the cost of bringing in 12 people over a period of two years.”

Ringsmall Of the $32-million budget, $11 million is allocated for physical expenses, including sets and visual effects. (Freyer’s production is a futuristic interpretation with video projections and lightsabers.) The remaining $21 million is earmarked for labor costs, which include a cast of 29 singers (playing 34 roles) and a 96-member orchestra.

Last year, the company held meetings to discuss the possibility of postponing “The Ring” in response to the recession. One idea was to produce one installment of the cycle per year over four years, allowing the company to spread its costs over a longer period. (In November, Washington National Opera -- led, like L.A. Opera, by general director Plácido Domingo -- announced that it would indefinitely delay its planned production of the “Ring” cycle, citing the economic downturn.)

But by the end of 2008, L.A. Opera had already spent more than half of the $32-million “Ring” budget, mostly on production design and rehearsals. Leaders quickly realized that this freeway to Valhalla had no exit ramp.

“It would have been fiscally irresponsible not to go ahead and finish it,” says Rountree. “That’s not to say it won’t be a real challenge to raise the rest of the money, and to hold it on budget.”

Donations may be off, but “Ring” ticket sales are proving relatively strong. As strange as it may sound, the cycle is remarkably recession-proof when it comes to drawing big crowds, according to industry experts.

That’s largely due to the so-called “Ring” nuts -- devoted Wagner fans who travel the world to see productions of the cycle. L.A. Opera expects tickets to sell out for the three complete cycles, scheduled to begin in May 2010. (Buyers purchase a package for all four operas, paying a premium to ensure good seats.) So far, the company has sold $2 million in tickets for the complete cycle to buyers from North America, Asia and Europe.

For the individual performances leading up to the cycles, L.A. Opera reports that sales are slightly soft, tracking approximately 5% below projections. The company says the shortfall is relatively minor, however, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars per performance.

Unlike Hollywood studios, opera companies operate on a not-for-profit basis and aren’t expected to produce moneymakers. In fact, “The Ring” is widely seen in the industry as a prestigious money-loser, with its drain on resources compensated for by the honor of joining the elite club of opera companies that have mounted Wagner’s difficult epic.

“Coming into the black is not a viable concept when it comes to ‘The Ring,’ ” says Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, an organization that follows the industry. “It’s really about making a bold artistic and institutional statement.”

L.A. Opera leaders say they are confident they can meet budget goals for “The Ring” despite the economic crisis. For each of the four operas, the company has lined up a series of underwriters -- patrons whose gifts typically range between $200,000 and $250,000.

The company also created Friends of the Ring, a society composed so far of more than 400 donors who have each given between $1,000 and $25,000.

“ ‘The Ring’ is the ultimate test of what an opera company is capable of,” says Domingo. “There is not a single aspect of an opera company that is not stretched to the limits.”

For their part, L.A. Opera board members express a general enthusiasm when discussing “The Ring,” although they also acknowledge that the uphill path to raise money has been steeper than usual.

“It’s a rite of passage for the company to be doing this,” says Leslie Dorman, a managing board member and an underwriter of “Die Walküre.” “Would we prefer that it didn’t have to happen during a recession? Certainly.

“We’ve never experienced anything quite like this before,” she adds. “It’s a difficult process. ‘The Ring’ is opera’s greatest endurance sport.”

-- David Ng

Photos: From top, "Das Rheingold" in rehearsal onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Graham Clark, left, as the blacksmith Mime and Arnold Bezuyen as Loge, the god of fire. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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