L.A. comes of age with opera giant
The City of Angels readies Wagner's mythic Ring Cycle for 2010 festival.
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No arm-twisting is necessary for Colorado minister and composer Chris Mohr. He is a former "Ring leader" in his local Wagner Society, a phrase he coined for his own passionate commitment. He and his wife like to get a "Ring fix" every seven or eight years, he says. "We already have our tickets for Los Angeles."Skip to next paragraph
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Retired Tennessee farmer and journalist Jim Leeson says he would make the trip if he could still travel. In his heyday, he says, he twice made the pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, the one designed by Wagner himself. He describes the experience of entering the Wagner-conceived opera house in reverential tones.
"They sent us down these rows of seats with no aisles, then the huge side doors shut with a whoosh and they slid these huge curtains over them to block any light," he says. "Then the music began to come from an orchestra that you couldn't see because it's buried under the stage. It's really dramatic, like entering a whole other world."
While the L.A. Opera resides in the 45-year-old multiuse pavilion, music director James Conlon hopes to capture that transformational sense. The orchestra pit will be covered, as it is in the Bayreuth Festival house. The production design is not anchored in any specific time or place, but hews closely to what Mr. Conlon calls the composer's original desire to create a world of classic, mythic power on the scale of the great legends. "Timelessness is not just a component of Wagner's intentions," he says, "but integral to its essence."
Whether in mythic or everyday terms, the Ring Cycle is like no other opera to produce, says Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins. The sheer scale of the undertaking means, "things happen that just don't happen with other operas," Mr. Jenkins says. He recalls the flying Rhinemaidens in his "Das Rheingold" production. One of the singers had eaten some bad seafood and simply couldn't mount the flying harness for the debut of the first opera. After a last-minute scramble, the company's assistant director gamely substituted herself in the aerial contraption while the singer sang the role from behind the scenes.
The venture is financially and artistically ambitious for any opera company, says Michael Steinberg, director of the Cogut Center for the Humanities at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It's not only a great work of art," he says, "but it is disruptive, psychologically important, and even potentially dangerous." Indeed, in Israel public performances of Wagner are still unofficially banned because of the close association between his music and Hitler's Nazi Germany. But, says Mr. Steinberg, the work transcends the politics of any period.
A major production of the Ring Cycle is long overdue for a city of L.A.'s size and importance, Conlon says. He expects the experience to stretch every muscle the company has, from orchestra to singers and stagecraft. "But when it's over," he adds, "everything else will seem easy."