by Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor
Los Angeles felt a lot like Bayreuth these past few months as the entire city joined in an unprecedented 10-week celebration of LA Opera’s monumental production, “The Ring of the Nibelungs” (“Der Ring des Nibelungen”).
The first “Ring Cycle” ever presented in Southern California met with an eclectic citywide festival of widely attended museum shows, lecture series, stage productions, and special events like “Gangsta Wagner” presented by daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra maestro Double G (this is L.A., after all).
The LA Opera announced its plans to present its first-ever Ring Cycle in 2000. In the interim, the originally planned collaboration between German director Peter Mussbach and George Lukas’ Industrial Light & Magic company for “The Ring” fell to the wayside, and the LA Opera nearly went bankrupt — not to mention the nation suffering shattering terrorist attacks, entering into two foreign wars, and succumbing to a global economic meltdown. How’s that for Wagnerian tragedy?
With visionary German stage director/set designer Achim Freyer and some financial help from the County, LA Opera’s “Ring” went on. Beginning in mid-April, 2009, each of the four operas (“Das Rheingold,” “‘Die Walküre,” “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”) was performed as a single production, culminating in June 2010 with presentations of three full cycles. Based loosely on characters from Norse sagas, the Ring Cycle is the most challenging of all opera endeavors in every capacity: financially, physically and mentally. Having taken Wagner over 20 years to complete, the monumental work clocks in at over 15 hours and is meant to be presented in one long sequential run within the time frame of a week. Considering the notoriously short attention span of Angelenos, and coming with a not-so-slight $32 million price tag, this was by no means a sure thing for the LA Opera.
“It’s a massive undertaking in every way, taxing in every dimension,” said John Steinmetz, principal bassoonist. “It’s tiring to do, it demands incredible concentration, and all the resources you have to marshal to make it work — the technical staging requirements, the coordination — everything about it is blown up to a huger scale.”
When the orchestra first learned the company was going to take on the Ring Cycle, the news was met with excitement, and a little trepidation.
“It brought a little bit of fear for me,” said Steve Becknell, principal horn player. “This is probably the biggest thing for French horn to do, so it’s a little daunting to look at.”
“It’s intense,” said Greg Goodall, principal timpanist. “Enormously intense. The pieces are long, and I really wasn’t very familiar with them. Wagner is not a part of our musical education in the same way ‘Beethoven 5’, ‘7’ and ‘9’ are.”
Cellist Nadine Hall had a similar reaction. “It was really exciting, but also I was a little apprehensive,” she said. “I have friends in the Seattle Symphony and heard that it’s pretty brutal physically and very grueling to play. And that’s of course proving to be the case. But it’s a remarkable experience.”
Doing the full cycle of four operas, one right after the other, presents unique challenges.
“The hardest thing is to do one big opera, five hours of music, and then two days later do an entirely different one,” Becknell said. “You’ve got different transpositions, so you’ve really got to be focused.”
“One of the tricks to this is that almost no two measures are in the same tempo,” Goodall said. “This is the case in other operas, and that’s fine — but these are so long, and there’s so much of it. And you compound that when you’re doing the full cycle; by the time you come back to the first one again it’s been quite some period of time, so to remember all of that again is quite an exercise.”
“It’s so overwhelming the first couple times through,” Hall said. “You’re so busy trying to get through your own part, you can’t really focus on everything else that’s going on. But the more familiar you get, the less you have to focus on your own part and you can really hear what’s going on, which makes for a very rich experience.”
Though challenging, Goodall also describes the experience as incredibly rewarding. “The music is absolutely magnificent,” he said. “The performance is intense. And it has been an amazingly musical experience.”
Achim Freyer’s hyper-stylized staging of this “Ring,” with its surreal and sometimes grotesque costuming, gigantic props and hypnotic lighting, has sparked animated love-it or hate-it reactions and debates throughout Los Angeles, and around the world.
“It’s a different kind of staging,” Becknell said. “Some people like it, other people find it distracting, so there’s a bit of a dichotomy. I think it’s great that we did this, it makes it unique. And it is unique; it’s the first time in Southern California, and we’ve put our imprint on it.”
“The company had two choices: do a traditional staging, or do a modern staging,” Goodall said. “Traditional staging is something the (New York) Met has done for years, that you can get readily on DVD. That’s been done. I think to bring a new staging certainly brings some controversy, but it also brings thought. The purpose is to allow people the opportunity to think about what this all means, how it all fits together, and how it is relevant to our own lives. For forward-thinking Los Angeles, I don’t think it could have been done any other way.”
“I thought it was a really unusual approach,” Steinmetz said. “We’re out there doing a production that’s got uniqueness that makes for something the audience is going to be talking about.”
And talk, people have been doing. A lot. This “Ring” has sparked more controversy than any other LA Opera production. It’s also sparked more conversation — quite a feat for a city full of events constantly vying for attention.
“The LA Opera has made people aware that there is a ‘Ring’ and not just Hollywood films,” said concertmaster Stuart Canin. “This music was written around the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, and it’s still here with us and still great.”
As Wagnerians will readily tell you, the music is as big a part of “The Ring” as the stage production, if not more so. Music Director James Conlon succeeded in making the music just as striking as the much-talked about staging.
“He knows this work so well, it’s almost mind boggling,” Becknell said. “It’s really inspiring. During rehearsals he’ll tell us, ‘This is what’s happening here.’ He’s really put his imprint on the music.”
“You always learn something from him,” Hall said. “There’s an incredible knowledge behind what his musical decisions are. His passion for this music is so clear, and he really communicates that. He goes for the big musical picture.”
For any opera company, taking on “The Ring” is a huge statement of purpose. It shows not only it has the financial means, but more importantly exhibits the company’s artistic vision and its capability to work as a single cohesive unit.
“The company is very serious about presenting the highest quality opera possible,” Goodall said. “A project such as this is so massive it requires substantial work from every area of the company. From the management to wigs and makeup, stage mangers and the orchestra, everybody is involved on a very intense level. That brings the company together in a unified way. To the city, it shines a light on all it is that we’re doing. From an artistic standpoint, it’s terrific for the company, and for the citizens of Los Angeles.”
“It’s a right of passage,” Canin said. “Any opera company that puts on ‘The Ring’ has already established itself as a major company. And the city of Los Angeles should know what they have in store for them in the future.”
Concertmaster Stuart Canin Leaving Los Angeles in Body, Not Spirit
“I’m leaving Los Angeles Opera, but I am not giving up the violin,” said Concertmaster Stuart Canin. “I want to make that clear.”
Stuart will be leaving the LA Opera to live full-time at his home in San Francisco, where he splits residences between Los Angeles when working with the opera company. “I’ve been doing this for nine years, and I found out looking at my books the other day that I’ve spent more time in Los Angeles than I have in San Francisco!” he said. “At some point in your life, you have to say enough is enough.”
When Stuart heard the LA Opera was planning the massive undertaking of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, “I was tickled to death, frankly. What a way to go out!” he laughed, adding, “I was just hoping they wouldn’t put me in the ring of fire.”
After finishing up a performance of “Das Rheingold” June 8, a bon voyage party was held in Stuart’s honor in the beautiful Founder’s Room of the Dorothy Chandler. After rounds of touching speeches and gift-giving, Music Director James Conlon and Carol Colburn Høgel presented Stuart with a most prestigious honor: a concert chair now holds his name. “That is one of the nicest things I have ever had in my life,” Stuart said. “It’s never done for a player. I am truly honored that the Opera thought enough to do that.”
As if the evening weren’t special enough already, it was also Stuart and his wife’s 58th wedding anniversary. Obviously still very much in love, they look forward to spending more time together in their San Francisco home.
Spry and jovial at 84 with his violin always at the ready, Stuart isn’t quite sure what he plans to do next, but knows that whatever it is, it will involve playing music.
“As long as my playing is still going, I will continue to play,” he said. “When you get to be in your middle eighties it’s a different situation, so I have no idea what I’ll do. But that may be the beauty of it. I’m not thinking of it. I’m doing my work here at the Opera. We’ll see what happens.”
Achim Freyer’s Unique Vision
German stage director and set designer Achim Freyer’s elaborate production of the four-part cycle of “The Ring” by the Los Angeles Opera featured a raked stage, flying props, screen projections and special effects to create a surreal and hallucinogenic theater experience.
Singers stood on level platforms to ease singing while performing on the stage outfitted with a central rotating turntable, which represented both a clock and globe and flipped open like a clamshell. Waving silk simulated the water of the Rhine, captivating LED lights lined the stage, and front, rear and overhead projectors cast images onto translucent scrim screens at the front and rear of the stage. An ominous giant illuminated eyeball, representing Wotan’s lost eye, changed location for every opera, moving across the stage during “Siegfried” and splitting in two during “Götterdämmerung,” representing the destruction of the Gods.
The many Gods, giants, dwarfs, maidens and mortals took many forms in “The Ring,” often requiring costumes with complex riggings that employed multiple actors; it took five performers just to manipulate Wotan’s coat. The orchestra was located below stage level.
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung):
‘Das Rheingold’ (The Rhine Gold)
Nibelung dwarf Alberich, teased unmercifully by the Rhinemaidens, denounces love, seizes the gold, and forces his brother Mime to fashion from it a ring, key to all worldly power. Meanwhile Wotan, ruler of the Gods, has giants Fafner and Fasolt build a castle, Walhall. As payment, Wotan offers them Freia, sister of his wife Fricka. To appease Fricka’s unhappiness at this, Wotan sends Loge down to earth to find something else to give the giants. Ultimately Alberich is brought before Wotan, who takes the gold for the giants. He steals the ring for himself, but is forced to hand it to Fafner. Alberich lays upon it a curse: until returned to him, whomever possesses the ring shall die.
‘Die Walküre’ (The Valkyrie)
Siegmund seeks refuge with Sieglinde, wife of brute Hunding. Despite being long-lost twin brother and sister, they fall in love, and Siegmund must fight Hunding. Wotan, father of the mortal twins, pledges his sword Nothung to help his son win the battle, but goddess of marriage Fricka demands the death of Siegmund, who is guilty of adultery and incest. Distraught, Wotan relents and orders Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to ensure Siegmund’s death. But deeply moved by their love, Brünnhilde disobeys. Though she fails to save Siegmund, she hides Sieglinde, who is carrying baby Siegfried. To punish Brünnhilde, Wotan casts her into a ring of fire, penetrable only by a mortal hero.
Mime forges a sword for his foster son Siegfried, whom he hates but hopes will kill Fafner so he himself can obtain the all-powerful ring. Siegfried demands to know his real parentage, and Mime discloses that he found his mother Sieglinde in the woods and that she died giving birth to him. An old Wanderer (Wotan in disguise) poses three riddles to Mime, who gives up in terror when asked the final question of who will repair Nothung. He soon realizes this can only be done by Siegfried, who happens upon Brünnhilde and awakens her. Meanwhile, Wanderer summons Erda, goddess of the Earth, to learn the Gods’ fate; they are doomed.
‘Götterdämmerung’ (The Twilight of the Gods)
Three Norns predict the end of the Gods. Siegfried gives his bride Brünnhilde the ring he took from Fafner. Plotting to obtain the ring, Lord of the Gibichungs Gunther is convinced by half-brother Hagen to marry Brünnhilde: by means of a magic potion, Siegfried forgets his bride and wins Brünnhilde for Gunther in return for his sister Gutrune’s hand. Betrayed, Brünnhilde reveals to Hagen Siegfried’s sole vulnerable spot. Hagen murders Siegfried and Gunther for the ring. Brünnhilde condemns the gods for their guilt in Siegfried’s death and takes the ring to the Rhinemaidens, who drag Hagen to his death and regain their gold. Flames engulf Valhalla, and the world is redeemed by love.