A gathering at LACMA -- and Ring Festival LA officially begins
The Rhinemaidens sang, the band played a hep-cat version of the theme from “Psycho,” and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he felt like Queen Elizabeth.
With touches like that, what else could the occasion have been but Wednesday’s official kickoff of “Ring Festival LA?” (You were thinking maybe a John Waters movie?) The regionwide celebration and exegesis of all things connected to composer Richard Wagner and his monumental four-opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung” got underway Wednesday night with a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Los Angeles Opera is mounting the festival in conjunction with its first-ever production of Wagner’s cycle, conducted by James Conlon and designed and directed by the avant-garde German auteur Achim Freyer, who both attended Wednesday’s event.
For the next two months, Greater Los Angeles will play host to scores of lectures, performances, art exhibitions, food festivals and other esoterica honoring Wagner and his 17-hour magnum opus. About 200 people showed up, many representatives of the 115-plus cultural organizations participating as festival partners.
There was one conspicuous if unavoidable no-show: Plácido Domingo, the superstar tenor and opera company’s general director, performing at La Scala in Milan. But there were a handful of Hollywood yes-shows, including Michael York, a familiar presence at cultural events, and Jacqueline Bisset, who turned heads when she stopped by the party briefly.
It was a night when heartfelt expressions of thanks jostled with praise of the composer’s genius and several jokes about Wagnerian verbosity. In his public remarks, LA Opera board chairman Marc Stern gleefully quoted Mark Twain to the effect that Wagner’s music “isn’t as bad as it sounds,” and Woody Allen, who said he couldn’t listen to too much Wagner because it gave him the urge to invade Poland.
Yaroslavsky compared himself to the queen of England in having the bureaucratic duty of declaring the festival to be officially underway. He also cited a bit of existential philosophy that Domingo conveyed to him years ago. “Life is short, opera is long, Wagner is longer.”
More seriously, Yaroslavsky described the three parts of the cycle he has seen as “an overwhelming experience.”
Opera company officials reiterated that the festival won’t shy from examining Wagner’s raging egotism or repugnant anti-Semitism. “This isn’t just putting lipstick on a pig,” Barry Sanders, a longtime opera company board member and the festival’s chief organizer, told the crowd.
A number of “Ring” performers turned up, including Jill Grove, who plays Erda. She said that Freyer’s bulky, elaborate costumes aren’t as uncomfortable as they look. “By this point, nothing that Freyer does surprises me,” she said.
After the speeches, many guests set off to inspect LACMA’s just-opened exhibition “Myth, Legends, Fables, and Cultural Renewal: Wagner’s Sources.” The show, which looks at how late 19th- and early 20th-century art embodied German nationalistic ideology, also contains samples of Freyer’s costume designs and sketches.
Freyer, a smiling, energetic presence despite being mildly ill all day, said he’d had lunch Wednesday with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was touring the city.
Peter Ruiz, 10, one of the youngest attendees, said he thought Wagner’s music was “great” and that he liked the band performing at Wednesday’s gig, made up of members of daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, led by Double G, a.k.a. Geoff Gallegos. Ruiz will appear on stage in a nonsinging role in Lyric Opera of Los Angeles’ upcoming production of Wagner’s first complete opera, “Die Feen” in June.
Gallegos, who’s working on a Wagner-inspired mash-up that he and his band will perform June 19 at California Plaza, said that previously his knowledge of Wagner “started with Bugs Bunny and ended with ‘Apocalypse Now.’ “ He was referring to a cartoon opera parody starring the wascally wabbit, and Francis Ford Coppola’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries” in the helicopter attack scene in his 1979 Vietnam War saga.But Gallegos said that in preparing his new work, he has been breaking down Wagner’s music and boning up on such background history as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
Gallegos said he still has a low opinion of Wagner as a human being but greater respect for him as an artist. “It makes me want to learn to conduct ‘The Ring,’ ” he said.
-- Reed Johnson and David Ng
Photos: Achim Freyer at the party amid the stage props and costumes from LA Opera's "Ring Cycle." exhibited in LACMA's exhibit "Myths, Legends and Cultural Renewal: Wagner's Source." Bottom: actor Michael York. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times