Catching up with 'Ring' master Achim Freyer
Asking German stage director Achim Freyer whether he worries about the frequent criticism of his avant-garde style is like asking Julia Child whether she ever worried about using too much butter.
Last time I chatted with Freyer -- director of Los Angeles Opera's ambitious production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle -- he acknowledged that controversy seems to follow him, as it did when his 2002 staging of Bach's B-Minor Mass for L.A. Opera drew boos from the audience and spate of angry letters to The Times; where there's smoke, there's Freyer.
"Not my problem!" the 75-year-old director said.
Now busy directing "Siegfried" -- the third opera in the four-opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung," opening Sept. 26 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- Freyer responded with similar nonchalance to questions about the decidedly mixed critical and audience reaction to his realization of the first two operas, "Das Rhinegold" and "Die Walküre" earlier this year. "Götterdämmerung" will arrive at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 23. Three performances of the four operas in sequence will be given between May 29 and June 26 as the centerpiece of the citywide Ring Festival L.A., from April until the following June.
Caught during a break from a recent rehearsal at the Dorothy Chandler, Freyer said he loved hearing the audience response to his first "Ring" efforts: "I think when I have the end of the music and I have one moment of silence and then they spring up and cry -- beautiful!" he said, imitating the audience's pleased reaction to both operas during a half-German, half-English discourse with translating help from Christina Baitzel, special assistant to L.A. Opera General Director Plácido Domingo for the "Ring."
Despite Freyer's sunny perception of his L.A. fan base, as was the case with the Bach Mass (pictured), cranky patrons wasted no time in voicing their opinion to the Culture Monster -- appending 60 mostly-negative comments to Mark Swed's review of "Das Rhinegold" and another 44 to the "Die Walküre" review.
Freyer even managed to raise some hackles among the cast of "Rhinegold" a few months ago with a comment he made to The Times about wanting to direct a spoken-word "Ring" at some point, with no music -- using Wagner's libretto as the text.
"It was instant aggression against this concept," he exclaims. "[They said] you do not love this production because you hate singers and music, and you want to play with actors," he continues. "My big admiration for Wagner is that he has so beautiful and intelligent words. That's all you need. Not all operas I can do without music."
Although he has the rare capacity to stay above the chatter, however, Freyer remains highly critical of himself: His goal, he says, is perfect imperfection.
He knows this contradictory notion calls for some explanation. Think the opposite of "Cirque du Soleil," creating the illusion of magic. Freyer wants you to remember that stage magic is an illusion; he wants to show you what's underneath. The technical aspects such as timing and light cues must be perfect -- but only in service to the larger goal of laying bare the artifice.
"I never see theater as being completely ready and perfect -- that is death, I think," he says. "I am a director who has schmutz -- dirty spots. I love it if the set decoration looks a little bit used, so the public will not have the illusion that it is a table or a tree when it is not. You must look at it as theater. The same with the costumes -- when I have the figure perfect, ready, the singer is not inside anymore. All the perfection covers the singer or the actor completely."
Freyer is also a painter, and has rented a downtown loft to work on his art. Despite 14-hour days rehearsing the almost-five-hour "Siegfried," he finds time to sketch every day, although not yet enough to complete the paintings. L.A.'s Ace Gallery plans a show of his work in 2010 in conjunction with Ring Festival L.A.
To that end, Freyer has rented a downtown studio loft and spends time roaming L.A.neighborhoods (that's him downtown in the photo above). Predictably, he prefers the imperfect ones -- don't look for Freyer on Rodeo Drive. He likes convenience stores, billboards, worn-out furniture stacked up on the streets. He likes to see how quickly a closed and boarded-up shop can reopen as the place for someone else's dreams.
"I go into the city, and I find inspiration," Freyer says. "The changeover is so strong -- but they always open up again and reinvent themselves. There is the hope and the will to bring in a new idea and new work. That's very American."
Back home in Berlin, Freyer says, closed shops and stripped billboards are always quickly and neatly covered with plywood fronts. "They are so perfect and silent that you cannot see that the shops are broken -- here, it is all open," he says. "For me it is beautiful to see the rubble, and the layers; to see sofas stacked up, two and three, brown and pink and green. That's very inspirational."
-- Diane Haithman
Photos: Freyer's 2002 staging of the Bach B-minor Mass for Los Angeles Opera. Credit: Kevin P. Casey. Freyer takes it to the streets in downtown L.A. Credit: Monika Rittershaus.