The Staging of an Opera Company: The Ring and Beyond

Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Placido Domingo) in Die Walkure (2009); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Placido Domingo) in Die Walkure (2009); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

LA Opera’s last decade has been marked by multi-season initiatives—celebrating influential composers, exploring special repertoire, or presenting works in innovative ways—and it all started with a ring.

By 2006, LA Opera had established itself as a force of nature in the opera world. The company staged highly regarded productions each season, remaining true to the original tenets of its founders: pushing the boundaries of the medium, nurturing young talent, building a relationship with Hollywood, and producing opera infused with the pioneering spirit of Los Angeles. It was time for the company’s next bold move: a staging of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It would be a game changing project, to be sure, but nobody could have predicted how enormously this monumental project would affect the entire course of the company’s future.

James Conlon; Photo: Chester Higgins

James Conlon; Photo: Chester Higgins

Staging a Ring cycle had been one of Plácido Domingo’s foremost goals since becoming artistic director in 2001, noting that “every company dreams of being able to put its own stamp on the Ring.” The company originally proposed what some dubbed a “Star Wars” Ring, with special effects to be created by Industrial Light & Magic. That endeavor became too costly to pursue, so LA Opera’s Ring cycle had to wait until the optimum moment. That moment became clear in 2006, with the alignment of three critical elements: the arrival of celebrated conductor James Conlon as the company’s new music director; the choice of avant-garde German director-designer Achim Freyer to create the new production; and, perhaps most important of all, an extraordinary $6 million gift from philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad that enabled the company to move forward with the Ring.

Conlon’s arrival ushered in a new era in the company’s musical ambitions. He sought to make the city a “hub of Wagnerian operatic activity” and to encourage a new appreciation for classical music and culture in Los Angeles. The Ring cycle was the perfect opportunity for Conlon to do both of these things. By the end of his seventh season in Los Angeles, Conlon had conducted no less than eight different Wagnerian operas, including the four Ring components. The Ring furthermore allowed him to help shape a community effort surrounding opera’s greatest epic.

Achim Freyer photo color

Achim Freyer

Goetterdaemmerung (2010); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Goetterdaemmerung (2010); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

For Achim Freyer, directing a Ring production in L.A. also came at the perfect time. He had originally hesitated to come aboard, because he considered himself retired from the stage. However, his most recent success with LA Opera—a spectacular new production of The Damnation of Faust in 2003—and a little urging from the company’s Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel spurred Freyer into action.  Shortly after the opening of the 2006/07 season, the company announced its plans for a daring, unconventional Ring cycle.  The four individual Ring operas would be rolled out over the course of two seasons, culminating in three presentations of the complete cycle in the summer of 2010.

The Ring follows a cast of gods and humans in the ultimate quest for power and search for love. Not only does it have big themes, any Ring is a grandly-scale endeavor by definition. Producing Der Ring des Nibelungen is daunting for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s made up of four separate operas intended to presented within the span of several days. The cast is large, the orchestra is huge and the theatrical presentation must be gigantic. The Ring requires unprecedented focus and commitment from every single member of an opera company.

On February 21, 2009, the opening night of Das Rheingold gave audiences their first look at the new Ring.

Das Rheingold (2008); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Das Rheingold (2008); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Freyer’s interpretation was bold and adventurous. Bright colors in the costumes and props blazed out against the dark background of the scenery. While highly stylized and not at all realistic, the staging was notably faithful to Wagner’s directions: the Rhine maidens swam in a flowing river, the gods ascended heavenward to Valhalla. Freyer toyed with perspective to show giants that were indeed gigantic. Fafner’s enormous hand swept the stage to claim the heap of golden treasure. When Wotan descended into Nibelheim, he became a 25-foot-tall figure, towering over the dwarves. Freyer employed an ensemble of actors and dancers who often doubled the leading characters, depicting past history in flashback, or presaging events to come. Subsequent chapters of the cycle appeared one by one—Die Walküre in the spring of 2009, Siegfried the following autumn, and Götterdämmerung in the spring of 2010, followed by three complete cycles presented in the summer. It was, of course, incredibly divisive, especially on that opening night of Rheingold, when prolonged bravos and boos echoed through the theater. Nobody, however, questioned James Conlon’s triumph in the orchestra pit, or the company’s audacity in creating a Ring like no other.

The Broads’ stamp of approval helped inspire significant generosity from a number of philanthropists and music lovers. The Broads have been the impetus behind numerous major civic projects in Los Angeles. “Edye and I believe that Los Angeles is one of the world’s great cultural centers,” said Mr. Broad, “and we were happy to support efforts to produce a Ring.” The Broads’ involvement in the creation of the city’s signature Ring led to one of the company’s most important partnerships: Ring Festival LA, which launched the company into a new era of grand-scale initiatives.

The Broads knew that the Ring cycle could have an enormous impact on the Los Angeles community. Domingo knew it, too.

Eli and Edythe Broad

Eli and Edythe Broad

At a 2008 roundtable of prominent arts leaders, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, he came up with the idea of an arts festival surrounding the 2010 performances of the cycle, with various institutions throughout Los Angeles presenting works that had relevance to the Ring. The idea was greeted with great enthusiasm, and LA Opera board member Barry Sanders agreed to take the lead in planning a festival.

By the time the complete Ring arrived in the summer of 2010, an astonishing 115 organizations across Los Angeles County had signed on as partners in Ring Festival LA, the largest countywide arts festival since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. The ten-week festival gave Angelenos and visitors alike opportunities to enjoy films, symposia, art exhibitions, lectures, musical presentations, theatrical performances and other special events, each of which illuminated some facet of the Ring. The festival’s breadth and diversity was incredible. Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge created a special “Trees of Norse Myth” tour. Griffith Observatory offered a “Light of the Valkyries” planetarium show. Musical Theater Guild presented Das Barbecü, a country-western parody of the cycle. Scholarly offerings included the seminar “Art & Morality: Music of an Anti-Semite” at American Jewish University, with the participation of the composer’s great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner.

By exploring one subject in multiple ways, Ring Festival LA showcased the astonishing diversity of cultural organizations in Los Angeles. It also forged a new model for collaboration between cultural, community and educational institutions. In subsequent years, two similar initiatives would follow, directly inspired by LA Opera’s programming: Britten 100/LA and Figaro Unbound.

The Turn of the Screw (2011); Photo: Robert Millard

The Turn of the Screw (2011); Photo: Robert Millard

English composer Benjamin Britten would have celebrated his 100th birthday in 2013, an occasion observed around the world by musicians and institutions of every kind. James Conlon, who was a champion of Britten’s music, paid personal tribute by conducting numerous performances of the composer’s works throughout Europe and the U.S. over the course of three years. This included, at LA Opera, The Turn of the Screw in 2011, Albert Herring in 2012, a revival of the popular Noah’s Flood at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in 2013, and Billy Budd in 2014. The Britten centenary inspired Britten 100/LA, a countywide collaboration of more than 90 different organizations. The festival featured conferences, exhibitions and more than 100 musical performances of sacred choral works, songs, orchestral music and operas, including a production of The Rape of Lucretia conducted by Conlon at The Colburn School, with a cast drawn from LA Opera’s young artist program.

The Ghosts of Versailles (2015); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The Ghosts of Versailles (2015); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

In 2015, Figaro Unbound took center stage. In the spring of that year, LA Opera produced three operas inspired by the works of Revolutionary-era French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. This “Figaro Trilogy”—John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro—all conducted by James Conlon within the span of a few months, immersed audiences in the world of one of opera’s most beloved figures. Figaro Unbound investigated the continuing relevance of the Beaumarchais trilogy with carefully curated events that included the west coast premiere of Mercadante’s The Two Figaros at Opera UCLA; a reading of the rarely performed third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, by LA Theatre Works; LA Opera’s world premiere staging of ¡Figaro! (90210), librettist Vid Guerrerio’s provocative update of Mozart’s opera to present-day Los Angeles; Charles Morey’s new stage adaptation of Beaumarchais’ Le mariage de Figaro at A Noise Within; and special exhibits at museums throughout Los Angeles.

The Ghosts of Versailles (2015); Photo: Robert Millard

The Ghosts of Versailles (2015); Photo: Robert Millard

The showpiece of Figaro Unbound, undoubtedly, was The Ghosts of Versailles, an opera that incorporated the major characters and plot of Beaumarchais’s story The Guilty Mother. With the extraordinary support of the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, LA Opera was able to create a spectacular new production and audio recording of this west coast premiere of Corigliano’s “grand opera buffa,” the first full-scale U.S. staging since the work’s 1995 appearance at Lyric Opera of Chicago (recording is now available). With an astonishing 41 vocal soloists—including Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette, Christopher Maltman as Beaumarchais, Lucas Meachem as Figaro and Broadway legend Patti LuPone atop a pink elephant as the Egyptian entertainer Samira—Ghosts featured the largest cast ever assembled in LA Opera’s history, in a beautiful, theatrically incisive new production created by director Darko Tresnjak (who will return to stage a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth this fall).

While LA Opera spearheaded the countywide collaborations of Ring Festival LA, Britten 100/LA and Figaro Unbound, it also created two other major initiatives closer to home: Recovered Voices and LA Opera Off Grand.

The Broken Jug (2007); Photo: Robert Millard

The Broken Jug (2007); Photo: Robert Millard

In 2007, LA Opera inaugurated the Recovered Voices series, dedicated to showcasing music that was close to James Conlon’s heart: the works of composers whose voices were silenced by the rise of the Nazi regime. Thanks to visionary leadership support from philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, a vice-chair on the LA Opera board, LA Opera became the nation’s first major opera company to regularly present these unjustly neglected works. “The creativity of the first half of the 20th century is far richer than we think,” noted Mr. Conlon. “We have a special opportunity at LA Opera to present works recovered from oblivion and at the same time mitigate a great injustice.” Productions staged under the Recovered Voices rubric included Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf (2007) and Walter Braunfel’s The Birds (2009), a semi-staged concert performances of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy (2007), and the U.S. premieres of Viktor Ullmann’s The Broken Jug (2007) and Franz Schreker’s The Stigmatized (Die Gezeichneten, 2010). The latter was the first time that any of Schreker’s operas had been performed in the Americas.

A live audio recording of The Stigmatized was realized, with support from Thurmond Smithgall and the Lanie & Ethel Foundation and most of the other operas presented through the initiative were filmed and released on DVD, giving these works a greater life beyond the Los Angeles performances. Most importantly, Recovered Voices returned these silenced works to their rightful place on the stage, revealing the full spectrum of what had been too long overlooked: the spiky comedy of The Broken Jug; the contrast of exquisite beauty and shocking depravity in The Stigmatized; the shimmer and heartbreak of The Dwarf; the dreamy romance of The Birds.

While Recovered Voices returned little-known works to prominence on the LA Opera stage, the company’s Off Grand initiative focused on bringing opera into the Los Angeles community outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Great Opera Choruses (2014); Photo: Jennifer Babcock

Great Opera Choruses (2014); Photo: Jennifer Babcock

The program was formally launched in 2013 with the world premiere of Dulce Rosa, by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks, conducted by Plácido Domingo at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica and underwritten by Rosemary and Milton Okun. Off Grand encompassed the annual community operas presented downtown at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, an idea Conlon had brought to the company in his first season, as well as Great Opera Choruses concerts led by Grant Gershon at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. Last season’s ¡Figaro! (90210) at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater was an Off Grand presentation that was also part of Figaro Unbound.

Abigal Fischer as Isabelle Eberhardt in Song from the Uproar (2015); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Abigal Fischer as Isabelle Eberhardt in Song from the Uproar (2015); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Earlier this season, Off Grand offerings included screenings of Dracula at the Theater at Ace Hotel with a live performance of the Philip Glass score, to be followed next season by Nosferatu with Matthew Aucoin’s new score in the same venue. The initiative includes an ongoing partnership with Beth Morrison Projects to present cutting edge contemporary operas at REDCAT. This collaboration has included the recent west coast premieres of David T. Little’s Dog Days and Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar, with the upcoming world premiere of David Lang’s Anatomy Theater set to close LA Opera’s current season in June.

Beyond the parameters of LA Opera’s multi-season thematic programming, the past decade has seen additional highlights each season.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (2007); Photo: Robert Millard

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (2007); Photo: Robert Millard

These included the mainstage debut of Renée Fleming as Violetta in La Traviata, Anna Netrebko’s star turn as Massenet’s Manon, and an unforgettable new production of Hansel and Gretel directed and designed by artist Douglas Fitch, all seen within the span of three months in the fall of 2006. Later that season, the company’s new production of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of the Mahagonny brought Broadway titans Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone to the LA Opera stage in starring roles. The company followed its Ring cycle with an outright triumph, the 2010 world premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino starring Domingo in a much acclaimed role. Domingo’s 2011 performance in Simon Boccanegra was the first in a series of notable performances in leading baritone roles. LA Opera also presented the first major U.S. productions in decades of two works ripe for revival: Verdi’s The Two Foscari and Rossini’s The Turk in Italy, respective showcases for Plácido Domingo and for Nino Machaidze. LA Opera’s recent history has also featured new productions directed by major filmmakers, including Woody Allen (Gianni Schicchi) and William Friedkin (Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica), and Renée Fleming returned  with a devastating portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

With three decades of past artistic success to its credit, LA Opera is squarely focused on the future.

LA Opera's 2016/17 Season

LA Opera’s 2016/17 Season

While no one can predict the future with certainty, multi-season themes will surely play an important role in shaping repertoire choices. Domingo’s ongoing exploration of the baritone repertoire has added an exciting new chapter to his longtime involvement with the company, likely to continue well beyond his upcoming appearances in Macbeth. Performances of Einstein on the Beach and Dracula gave audiences a new appreciation for the works of Philip Glass, which will soon include Akhnaten next season. Wonderful Town in December will launch a three-season celebration leading up to Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday in 2018. Off Grand performances at REDCAT and elsewhere will continue to delight audiences eager for new kinds of operatic experiences. Incoming Artist in Residence Matthew Aucoin will be showcased as both composer and conductor throughout his three seasons in Los Angeles. And there is sure to be more Wagner on the horizon for James Conlon. Time will tell…

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