Critic's notebook: Save the 'Ring'
Details of Los Angeles Opera’s financial mess are still sketchy, so it is hard to know exactly what the company’s dire need for an immediate bridge loan of $14 million from the county means in the long run. But so far it looks as though both the company and the supervisors are doing the right thing.
Opera is the most expensive noncommercial art form, and opera companies are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. A dysfunctional part of the system that no one seems able to fix is that productions must be planned years in advance.Some top singers, conductors and directors are already booking for 2015. Who knows what conditions will be like five years from now (or, for that matter, what condition said singers, conductors and directors will be in)?
In the case of L.A. Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, planning for that massive undertaking began more than a decade ago and was continually pushed back. You could criticize the company for its ambition and not making something cheaper (the budget is $32 million), but had that been the case it may not have had something special enough to be worth bailing out.
Of course, the company could have waited until it had the money in the bank before it began producing four epic operas. But then we would still be waiting and watching costs constantly escalate.
Most likely L.A. Opera has suspected since the Wall Street woes of last year that it was headed for this trouble. But what the company has done has been very savvy. It has created a “Ring” too big and too important to Los Angeles to fail.
First of all, with the performances of the first three operas in the cycle (“Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried”) over the past year, the company has proven that Achim Freyer’s productions are world class (the last opera, “Götterdämmerung,” will be staged in April in advance of three full cycles beginning in May). And L.A. Opera has come up with the brilliant strategy of enticing more than 100 Los Angeles organizations to participate in a citywide "Ring" Festival that has already begun, although the action doesn’t really heat up until next year.
So now, if L.A. Opera fails, then what about everyone else left holding the ring?
Most important, however, is that the “Ring” needs to go on -- and to go on just as elaborately (and expensively) as it was meant to. We learned this lesson before when we almost let the Walt Disney Concert Hall project fall victim to the earthquake, riots and recession of the early ‘90s.
During those trying years, Ernest Fleischmann, the visionary general director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, stared down the naysayers and hung on for as long as it took (17 years in the end). But now that Disney is a shining symbol of our city, does anyone even remember just how much opposition there was to Frank Gehry’s architecture and the $274-million expense?
L.A. Opera’s “Ring” is also visionary and controversial. But it too can brand the company as a symbol of 21st century Los Angeles. It should, as well, prove a tourist attraction and help boost the economy of the city by alluring visitors to spend a week or more in Southern California.
I think we do well to reward L.A. Opera for its innovation in pulling this little loan deal off. Other opera companies in America, from the grand Metropolitan Opera on down, are seriously scaling back. Let us shoot for the moon. If we fail, we leave behind something worth doing and remembering, along with a foundation upon which to build anew. If we succeed, as I think we will, we get to keep our title as city of the future.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: A scene from the Los Angeles Opera production of Wagner's "Siegfried." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times