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The L.A. Ring Festival begins next week: but this is no sidewalk jewelry sale on Venice beach. No, this is "Ring" as in "Ring of the Nibelungen," Richard Wagner's epic operatic cycle celebrating the destruction of the pagan gods and the birth of human love and freedom in a mysterious, but purifying apocalypse.
The six-week Festival includes numerous lectures, symposia, art exhibits, performances, and of course...the chance to see the entire four-opera Ring.
But...a whole festival about German opera? Here in L.A.? Very long German opera? Okay, you say, maybe in New York or Chicago, where people are, like, more smarter...but surely such a thing will prove too highbrow for a town of carnies and showmen where the O-word implies "soap opera" or "space opera" or... "Oprah."
Me, I'm curious to see how it plays out.
I mean, on the face of it—no problem. I find that once you get Angelenos through the door of the Pavilion, they usually do great with grand opera. It feels like a homecoming. After all, grand opera gave birth to the very extravagance on which L.A. is based: Grand sets. Dictatorial directors. Melodramatic plots. High camp. We didn't just invent all that stuff.
Lately, thanks to L.A.'s effort to use directors like Woody Allen and William Friedkin for local productions, I've also seen an eager new generation turn up, people with hanging shirttails who thrive on emotional extravagance, and are willing to pay top dollar for it. The look of opera has also changed. It's not about overweight people in winged helmets anymore; you see people in skinny black jeans both onstage and in the audience.
Even more importantly, I figure opera is part of a global resurgence of things live: Live theater. Live concerts. Religious services. And as for Wagner, well, the Festival includes plenty of lectures covering his anti-Semitism, egomania and self-indulgence...all certain to draw a crowd.
On the other hand, I've just finished seeing the L.A. Ring. In fact, this weekend I stumbled out of the five-and-a-quarter hour finale, Götterdämmerung. It features world-class singers, and the wonderful James Conlon on the podium, but the production is designed by a mad German neo-expressionist Brechtian who has transformed the entire Ring into an avant-garde abstract. No swords, only floating neon poles. No winged horses, only bicycles. No winged helmets, only one golden top hat hanging on a string. The faces of characters are often painted blue or red and often the singers pose behind huge cardboard cutouts of their costumes.
Me, I love that kind of stuff. I think it's brilliant...but I'm a seasoned fan, weary of swords and helmets. I'm worried about the newcomer who gets drawn in by all the festival publicity, only to encounter a four or five-hour dance of symbolic gestures. Maybe it'll be like heading out on a Sunday hike and finding yourself on Mt. Everest.
In short, will this Ring be so cool that it will be too cool for cool but unintiatied Angelenos? Will they...get it? I hope that if they see opera as a hot new trend, they will research it like any hot trend. I mean, they wouldn't just run out and buy an iPad or a pair of chic boots without doing a little research, would they? Without reading a few sites or, say, a synopsis...before showing up cold?
This weekend, I took my own 15-year-old Angeleno, who joined me not just for the five-and-a-quarter hour Götterdämmerung, but for the whole four-opera, 17-hour marathon. As we walked out, he said he felt the staging was a tad static, limiting the expressiveness of the singers. He also thought that director Achim Freyer, while walking the line between minimalism and music-hall camp, had perhaps erred too far on the side of minimalism. But as he got in the car he said he, "liked the music."
So maybe I'm worried for nothing.
Copyright © 2010 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Banner image: Alberich (Richard Paul Fink), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen) in Götterdämmerung. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, © 2008 Los Angeles Opera
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