Friday, December 18, 2009
Give me a Ring some time and we'll talk
Our little flock of wild turkeys paid us a visit the other day as tree trimming was in progress. I happened to look out and there they were, moving as is their custom, very gracefully with a kind of stately stroll from the shed, just out of the picture on the left, to our little parking area, off right, and a large, flat-topped rock on which we sometimes put out a little grain. There were seven of them but one was a straggler who appeared only after these six had moved on.
Benjamin Franklin supported the wild turkey as the symbol of the fledgling United States instead of the eagle which he felt was a ruthless and violent bird. The turkey, native to the New World, impressed him as peaceable, noble and dignified, a more appropriate symbol. A widely read man, Franklin was surely aware that the eagle had been adopted as the symbol of every rapacious European empire from Rome to Austria (and would remain the favored symbol for at least three more European empires to come in the centuries after his death) and he wanted nothing to do with imperial symbols.
But Franklin lost on this issue and the American Eagle became our symbol. If I can shape it the way I'd like, I'm going to write about the eagle as symbol and the universal influence of the Roman Empire in a future post.
I got a Christmas card from some close friends this week with an illustration and text by artist David Price. Price works in a dizzying variety of styles but the card comes from his illustration/comics persona and is titled A Boston Christmas. Here is the text, adapted from The Twelve Days of Christmas:
Twelve Historians Hiccupping
Eleven Patriots Running
Ten Freedom Trail Followers
Nine Brahmins Boasting
Eight Students Studying
Seven Swan Boats Swimming
Six Marathoners Sweating
Five Leaping Celtics
Four Lecturing Professors
Three Baked Beans
Two Rowing Boats
and A Pigeon in an Ivy-Covered Tree
From BBC Newsbeat:
An 18-year-old has secretly painted a 60ft drawing of a phallus on the roof of his parents' £1million mansion in Berkshire. It was there for a year before his parents found out. They say he'll have to scrub it off when he gets back from traveling.
For any opera company that strives to be a forceful presence in a major urban setting, the idea of producing the four operas of Wagners Ring of the Nibleung eventually becomes something that must be pursued. Producing the Ring, with its major role for the orchestra as a character in the drama; it's technical challenges (two dragons, one small, one big; a man who morphs first into a frog, then into the small dragon; a bridge of rainbow mist over which the cast walks; a ring of magic fire that surrounds a sleeping goddess; water nymphs cavorting at the bottom of a river; the forging of a sword from many shattered pieces by a tenor (a tenor!) in precise time to the music as the tenor (a TENOR!) acts as percussionist while singing; and finally the burning and collapse of the final set, followed by the destruction of the world in fire and water--this is an enormous challenge.
That challenge is made even greater by the fact that composer Richard Wagner was a genius at nature painting, character delineation, mood painting and use of the fully developed Romantic period orchestra to describe cataclysms and other overwhelming events in music. The vivid detail Wagner conveys in sound is dreadfully demanding for any director and design team to achieve visually without looking puny and irrelevant. To top it all off, the Ring Cycle is brutally expensive to produce and the lead roles are extremely difficult to cast.
The L.A. Opera has wanted to break into the big time for a couple of decades under the directorship of the protean Placido Domingo who manages it in addition to managing the Washington D.C. opera AND maintaining an astonishing Indian summer of a singing career at age 68. The original idea, and an inspired one, was to collaborate with Industrial Light and Magic on all the magical effects and the elaborate scenic transitions called for in Wagner's four operas that must happen to precisely timed musical interludes.
The first opera of the four, Das Rheingold, is written in one act with three major shifts: from the depths of the Rhein River, where a primordial lump of gold is snatched from its aquatic guardians to begin the cycle of greed, fratricide, betrayal and final redemption, to the mountain top home of the gods; from the mountain top to caverns in the depths of the earth where a race of dwarf slaves works in perpetuity to forge treasure for their master who seized the gold; and from the caverns back to the mountain top where the newly completed fortress/palace Valhalla has been constructed for the gods who enter it over the rainbow bridge.
Unfortunately, the deal with Industrial Light and Magic fell through for whatever reasons, and the L.A. Opera didn't have the resources at the time to do it's own production. Placido eventually managed to find a director and a viable concept to do the Ring at the Washington Opera. This is the so-called "American Ring" based on American imagery and iconic symbols, telling the mythic story with Francesca Zambello as director and Domingo taking one of the leading roles. The production has won extensive praise but has developed more slowly than hoped as money became tight in the current economic crisis. Gotterdammerung, the fourth and perhaps most demanding of the four operas was premiered in a semi-staged concert performance--its scenery and direction will catch up with it in sometime in the future.
In L.A., the visionary German director/designer Achim Freyer, who studied and worked with Berthold Brecht finally began a Ring production based strongly on Brechtian alienation technique, freeing the Ring from just about every visual cliché that has grown up around it over the 135 years since its premiere under the composer's own supervision and direction. For reasons that will probably be obvious from scrolling through these production pictures, Freyer's vision has been dubbed "The Star Wars Ring" in some circles.
Inevitably, however, the controversial production has taken a toll on the company whose financial watchdogs, along with the creative team itself, did not realize in time just how much Freyer's developing vision would actually cost.
Los Angeles Opera Is in Deep Debt Because of ‘Ring’ Cycle
By DANIEL J. WAKIN, NY Times
The Los Angeles Opera’s $32 million “Ring” cycle has helped push the company to the brink of financial disaster, forcing it to borrow $14 million from the county, The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday. Stephen Rountree, the chief executive of both the opera and its home, the Music Center at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, said the loan would be repaid with some of $30 million in emergency pledges by opera trustees as the money comes in. Right now, he told The Los Angeles Times, the company is $20 million debt and the money is needed “literally next week.” The company’s creative team did not “fully appreciate that they needed to put out $20 million of the $32 million for the ‘Ring’ cycle two years in advance,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. The loan from the county came in the form of a bond issue, which was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Interestingly, local government came to the company's aid, something that didn't happen when the New York City Opera nearly went under due to it's abandonment by a newly appointed general director after he had run up millions in expenses in planning his new regime, and subsequent mismanagement by the Board of Directors in the wake of his departure.
Should cities, states and/or the U.S. government get involved in funding the arts? In Washington, consevative lawmakers have reduced the National Endowment for the Arts to a shadow of its former self in outrage that art should ever be controversial, deal in subjects involving sexuality, or make political statements--particularly political protest or criticism of the established order.
In Europe, the exact opposite philosophy has prevailed, with major theaters, symphonies, opera houses and other art institutions receiving generous subsidies within a culture that realizes the powerful and essential place of the arts in a nation's life. Recently these subsidies have been reduced due to economic necessity (Germany, legendary for the level of its arts support, nearly went under financially after taking on the disastrously mis-managed East Germany following the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall). In the new economic reality, European arts companies have learned to combine lowered levels of state support with ties to industrial giants that have discretionary funds to bestow from their vast profits.
In the U.S., arts organizations can depend on some limited industrial contributions along with a pittance, if anything at all, from the government. The vast majority of the money comes from public donations, with special emphasis on what the members of a company's Board can contribute. While thus freed from the dead hand of the Washington politicians who want art to be pleasant, decorative, establishment-affirming, completely de-sexed and politically irrelevant, this situation means that our arts are extremely vulnerable to shifts in the economy at any given time. We've lost a huge number of theater, dance, and opera companies, symphony orchestras and other arts organizations during the current crisis. It will be many years before the damage can be repaired, if it even can be repaired, in many communities.
But some city and town governments have begun to understand that a healthy arts scene actually benefits the local economy. Boston's Mayor Tom Menino spoke several years ago in support of an arts center rather than a sports megaplex for the city, making the memorable statement that sports fans come into town, pay for parking and seven beers and then go home, whereas arts patrons come in for a weekend, take hotel rooms, eat at restaurants, visit a couple of museums and do some shopping during the day, pumping a lot of their disposable income into the city in various important ways.
L.A.'s city officials seem to have realized something similar--Ring of the Nibelung productions are major draws for opera lovers from all over the world. Overheard conversations among what one might call "Ringheads" at intermission frequently run like this:
--Are you going to the Seattle Ring?
--Yes, then Berlin and I've also got tickets to the D.C. Ring--it's better cast than the Bayreuth Festival--you?
--Seattle AND Chicago, and I'm also going to New York for the last year of the MET's old-fashioned production--probably our last chance to see a tree on stage that actually looks like a tree!"
Ring photos by Monika Rittershaus, photographer, and the Los Angeles Opera
What an extraordinary production - it would be worth driving over to witness this spectacle.