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L.A. comes of age with opera giant

The City of Angels readies Wagner's mythic Ring Cycle for 2010 festival.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2009

Dressing the part: Scenes from 'Das Rhein-gold' at the LA Opera, which opens Feb. 21.

COURTESY OF MONIKA RITTERHAUS/LOS ANGELES OPERA

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Los Angeles

Standing in the darkened wings of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Los Angeles Opera is readying its upcoming production of "Das Rheingold," it's easy to feel the vastness of a Wagner opera. As the dress rehearsal progresses, singers bustle on and offstage in outsized, wildly decorated costumes.

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The stage, raked up to nearly 11 feet, looms over the performers. And an 80-foot scrim spans the front of the stage to allow such startling effects as a sheer wall of blood to slowly wash down from the ceiling.

Then, of course, there's the music, 14 hours in the four operas that comprise Wagner's masterwork known as the Ring Cycle. The company plans to present the entire quartet over the next 14 months in preparation for "Ring Festival L.A.," a two-and-a-half-month, citywide Wagner-themed celebration involving more than 50 arts and cultural organizations.

The company's general director, Placido Domingo, calls the $32 million Ring Cycle "audacious." City leaders and opera watchers say the festival – the first of its kind – is an important moment for the nation's second-largest city. "L.A. has come of age when it comes to the arts," says L.A. County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "We couldn't ask for a better way to punctuate the last decade."

Says OPERA America president Marc Scorca, "L.A. has made great strides in the past two decades in becoming a major cultural center of gravity, and this ring festival adds substance to that."

No doubt, Richard Wagner himself would have appreciated the scale of these giddy pronouncements. His own music has been called one of the pinnacles of Western culture and a definitive launchpad for 20th-century classical music – not to mention popular entertainment.

"It is nearly impossible to overestimate the impact of Wagner's operas on Western culture," says Ralph Locke, professor of musicology at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. Wagner's extensive exploration of musical motifs in connection with action unfolding on stage, as well as his expansion of orchestral sounds that paved the way for modern tonal pioneers, influenced composers around the world, Mr. Locke says. Beyond that, his ideas have influenced film scores from their earliest silent-film days, when accompanists often overplayed the relationship between the music and the film action. Look no further than the film version of "The Lord of the Rings," he adds, for further evidence of Wagnerian influence. "The film's composer, Howard Shore, uses highly characterized themes and colors for the different characters and their temptations and travails."

There is no worldwide shortage of Wagner operas. New York's Metropolitan Opera regularly presents the whole work, and Seattle Opera will mount a Ring Cycle this summer. But the arrival of a new version always causes a stir among the global fan base, an occasionally over-the-top group of passionate Wagner followers who travel the world to take in the latest rendition.

Indeed, while festival organizers clearly hope to educate the locals, it is the economic potential of this international fan base they hope to exploit. Local philanthropist and relentless hometown cheerleader Eli Broad donated $6 million in seed money for the Ring Cycle and hopes to tap into this tourism bonanza. In conjunction with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, his own foundation conducted a study several years ago which suggested that if the 2.5 million cultural tourists visiting L.A. annually doubled, the region would gain 10,000 new jobs, $55 million in tax revenues, and an overall $1 billion in economic impact. "L.A. is one of the world's great cultural centers," says Mr. Broad. "This festival has the potential of introducing L.A. to the rest of the world."

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