« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Critic's notebook: Save the 'Ring'

December 8, 2009 |  4:15 pm


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


Review: 'The Ring' begins

Review: 'Die Walkure' at L.A. Opera

Opera review: 'Siegfried' at Los Angeles Opera

Achim Freyer is consumed by 'The Ring of the Nibelung'

Critic's Notebook: Mike Antonovich vs. Wagner

Photo: A scene from the Los Angeles Opera production of Wagner's "Siegfried." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (8)

Let it fail. I've watched every one and the production has never ceased to underwhelm me. I'm curious as to where $32 million went, given the sparse set design and lack of stage direction. Opera is not intended to be an installation piece. This is the "Waterworld" of operas.

Somewhere, Achim Freyer is laughing his way to the bank.

My brother skipped Die Walküre... regretfully... the singers are not up to what we enjoy (when we travel to Europe - but the Dorothy Chandler, it's TOO cavernous)...

YET WE ARE TRULY ENJOYING THE STAGING... impressed (and could only imagine what they could have done with TRUE HD/3D/ILM effects - sometime in the future?)

My brother and I were disappointment with the DOT-COM bust ruining Pamela Rosenberg's ambitious plans with the San Francisco opera. We enjoyed operas there but SHE expected to push the envelop (she was the former director of the Stuttgart Opera house - AND THAT AMAZING opera company is AMAZING at pushing the envelope - I got to hear Lothar Zagrosek conduct the RING... I'll NEVER EVER forget it, nor John Frederic West as Siegfried)...

We travel to hear our opera/classical (modern) music - we are impressed with this Ring production... glad they were extended a loan... and then let them tighten their belt after this production...

AND form my (and my Bro's) experience - STAGE IT... and WAGNERITES from all over the world, will come!!

(Antonovich has got to see more Wagner opera around the world...)

I remember a James Levine evening lecture at the Huntington within the last year on the subject of Wagner. His genuine and deep love for Wagner's music came through in a most convincing and moving manner. I can't imagine a better spokesman and I'm glad L..A. Opera has obtained a reprieve.

I agree with Edward re: the Achim Freyer "Ring" being a "Waterworld" of operas - a truly unfortunate mistake, such a huge price tag enough to sink an opera company, and for what? I appreciate modernizations of traditional operas, but was appalled at "Rheingold"...making such a joke out of such a great work - a multi-colored accordion to represent the bridge to Valhalla, clown suits! etc. A terrible, costly decision both creatively and financially. The $14 million loan from the County should come with the proviso that the plug gets pulled on the rest of this travesty - LA Opera needs to get back to La Boheme and familiar ground, and heal itself! a 1/3-sold subscription to the rest of this mess is NOT good sales. Hillary in Santa Barbara

The Fryer Ring has make L.A. the butt of joke in the opera world. It's embarrassingly ugly and embarrassingly $$$. I'm a reg season subscriber: Went to Rheingold, left Walkure at 1st intermission, donated Siegfried and plan to sell Götterdämmerung.(For the record, I made 3 trips to NYC to complete a Ring Cycle) So I'd say cancel this Summer's Cycles, or make them concerts. Our citizens deserve the music, but pls spare them the visual ordeal.

If LA Opera needed $13Million because of its over-priced Ring production, then heads should roll. I did not enjoy watching bobble-heads stand and pose around sets that any junior high school production could do better.

I just mailed my property tax bill and and am furious that some of that money will go to save an awful and over-priced Ring production. There was absolutely no artistic beauty in this production. Those responsible for this fiasco should honorably resign their posts. I don't necessarily want to stick with La Boheme's and Magic Flutes but at least give us a Ring production that we can enjoy and feel good about.

Somehow it seems appropriate that LA Opera is having a financial mess to go along with the mess called the LA Ring.


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.