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(May 20, 2010)

          I phoned L.A. Opera a week ago, after receiving a recorded “robo-call” with KUSC’s smooth-voiced Rich Capparela touting the embattled Achim Freyer-directed “Ring Cycle.”
          That's correct, my phone rang with The Ring.
          I don’t like robo-calls, Capparela or not. I had not invited L.A. Opera into my home, or to interrupt me when I was writing. I don’t interrupt L.A. Opera when it is rehearsing.
          So I phoned to confirm that the call had really come from LAO. That the esteemed organization had stooped to such obnoxious and desperate self-promotion, enlisting Capparela in its plot. After a bit of “menu option” button-pushing, I got a chatty LAO phone rep on the line. And this, so help me Wotan, is what he said:
          “Yeah, that’s us, all right. God help us, we bit off more than we could chew with this Ring. The timing was bad, and it’s a bit of an avant garde production. . .We’re in over our heads on this one. . .Tickets are not selling, but we’re gonna robo-call and do what we can to entice a few more people down. . .Probably shouldn’t have spent, what is it, $40 million? (Officially, it’s $32 million.) But we did and we have to see it through, and Achim Freyer’s gotta be paid. . .”
          No, the quote is not word-for-word. I rushed to a pad as soon as he hung up, and scribbled it down. But it’s accurate. Can you imagine? An official spokesperson for L.A. Opera saying these things? Bit off more than we could chew. . .Probably shouldn’t have spent, what is it, $40 million?. . .Achim Freyer’s gotta be paid. . .
          I mean, knock me down with a Nothung.
          I would say that this little phone chat makes it official: the first ever Los Angeles production of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” is a debacle.
          And if that doesn’t quite sway you, let’s not forget the astounding criticism last week from the two “Ring” leads, John Treleaven and Linda Watson. It’s not every day that the cast principals in a “Ring” cycle---or any operatic production---denounce it just before it opens. But they did, in an exclusive scoop by David Ng of the L.A. Times.
          Yes, Treleaven and Watson called the steeply angled giant lazy Susan on which most of the Freyer “Ring” “action” (what there is of it) takes place “dangerous.” And there is proof: Treleaven was twice injured on the Freyer Frisbee, and was seen to hobble around stage as he sang.
          Of all the weird portrayals of Siegfried, I don’t know of any that have cast the “greatest of heroes” as physically challenged.
          What’s more, both Watson and Treleaven bravely decried the lack of character development in Freyer’s exasperatingly static staging, with Watson (Brunhilde) at one point telling the director to “buy one of my CD’s and put it on instead of me.” Really! Treleaven revealed that he no longer even speaks to Freyer, telling the Times that "the character development that I bring to the part is almost expunged by this clown-like makeup.”
          Clown-like, to be sure. For those who have not seen Treleaven’s Siegfried get-up, it resembles Harpo Marx after several years of “performance-enhancing” drugs. If Freyer was not overtly mocking the character, then Wagner was a modest fellow and wore a yarmulke on shabbas.
          So with just days before the first of three complete---and reportedly very undersold--- “Ring” cycle performances (May 29), Siegfried and Brunhilde have courageously called their emperor naked and shivering. Hmm. Perhaps LAO can replace them with Siegfried and Roy. That would not only be a bigger draw, but not out of place in Freyer’s cheesey fever-dream. This papier-mache and cardboard cutout goof cost thirty-two million bucks?
          I’m not one of those opera house bravo-shouters, but to Mr. Treleaven and Ms. Watson, here’s a hearty bravo, and brava.
          Oh, but Timothy Mangan, it seems, does not share my enthusiasm. The music critic for the awful Orange County Register, Mangan blurted---I mean blogged (what's the difference, really?)---that Treleaven and Watson “sound like a couple of cry babies” and show a “certain lack of class” (as opposed to a general lack of class?) to “go public with their complaints. . .just before the cycle is to open.”
          These are the thoughtful pronouncements of a seasoned music critic? No wonder the job is being fazed out as newspapers slash and burn budgets. The snippy scribe seems to think it is his task to defend LAO, the establishment that is foisting this $32 million absurdity on the public, as opposed to. . .investigating the story. And believe me, when principal singers risk their careers to complain, there is a hell of a story to investigate.
          You have to wonder: would Mangan consider the fearless souls who blew the lid off the Enron scandal to be “cry babies?” Or that those who first complained about Toyotas showed a “certain lack of class?”
          But this critic totally loses what’s left of his credibility, as far as I’m concerned, when he resorts to this snide swipe:
          “Neither singer is a paragon of athletic fitness.”
          Well, having suffered through all four Freyer “Ring” operas, I’ve spent hours in the presence of both Treleaven and Watson, and gosh, they seemed perfectly healthy and fit to me. The energy exerted during their love duet at the end of “Siegfried” (after Treleaven had sung on-and-off for about three hours) would light Nibelheim. And correct me here, folks, if I’m off-base, but I don’t think that being buff is a prerequisite for singing opera. What’s more, I suspect that even Fred and Ginger would have trouble negotiating on-stage Freyerland, while imprisoned in various cardboard cages and head masks.
          Speaking of critics, how ‘bout the latest remarks by the redoubtable L.A. Times music man, my old colleague, Mark Swed? Now, understand that Swed is a really smart fellow, fine writer, and a gentleman. And he’s not the first smart fellow and gentleman to cave into conspiracy theory. The thing is, conspiracy theory usually involves, oh, Dick Cheney, or the Carlisle Group, Monsanto, or if you’re a real conspiracy champ, “The Illuminati”---not operagoing schlubs. But, from a May 16 “Critic’s Notebook”. . .
          Herrrrrrrrre’s. . .Marky!
          "The four operas have been individually mounted, and many local Ringsters have been won over by Freyer's vision, but some will be attending knowing full well that they will object and are likely organizing cliques of booers — a longtime ‘Ring’ phenomenon, made newly easy by the Internet."
          For starters, Swed has continued his tone of playing down---and often not even reporting---all the booing that has haunted this “Ring” right from the premiere of “Das Rheingold” over a year ago, and the increasingly empty houses for each new installment by Deep Freyer. No, Swed propagandizes, “many local Ringsters have been won over by Freyer’s vision.” Yes, Mark old boy, it’s a good thing you aren’t a sportswriter. The Dodgers would lose the seventh game of the World Series, and you would lead with how many hits and strikeouts they got, and how the fans had a good time until the 9th inning. And how those Dodger Dogs are sooo tasty!
          But this conspiracy business, well, it’s a knee-slapper, jaw-dropper, hair-raiser, tail-twitcher. I mean, yikes, Mark. Yes, the entire outrage over the Freyer production must be a conspiracy of “cliques of booers” organized through the Internet! Wow! Never mind the unfavorable reviews (of the staging, not the singing or music) by major critics. Never mind Treleaven and Watson(!). Never mind the increasingly empty houses. Never mind the poor ticket sales for the three cycles (despite hearty endorsements by Swed.) Never mind the carefully weighed---though admittedly a tad sarcastic---analysis of this whole thing by the likes of. . .me.
          Never mind that the story and behavior of the characters on stage often have next to nothing to do with the music. Never mind that Freyer’s staging was based far more on the libretto than the score (he has said he wants to stage the libretto without music.) I’m not going to extensively illustrate this point here, as I suspect it would be tiring for those readers who have read my past articles where it has been extensively covered. Suffice to say that, for random example, when you hear music that conveys lumbering, ominous menace, meant to suggest the entrance of a dragon, and you see a tiny, bouncing, antic cartoon lizard resembling Wally Gator, it is pretty clear that Achim wasn’t too interested in Wagner’s musical intent. Either he set out to totally burlesque The Ring, which he should have admitted, if true, or he largely ignored the music.
          For the record, Markus AuRingus, I have never organized an Internet clique of booers. I suggest that if you have evidence that such a conspiracy is under way, you do a little investigative reporting and expose it. To make such a contention otherwise makes you seem paranoiac, let alone doing more shilling for LAO. It’s incredible, really: Swed just will not admit that the loudest and most ferocious booing in LAO history could possibly be spontaneous, or grounded in serious consideration.
          But let's say, for argument’s sake, that the booing is at least partly pre-arranged. Well, I would again go against habit and shout, “bravo”---to the booers! Yes, I would cheer any and all Internet-arranged cliques that buy tickets in order to boo operatic productions done by pseudo-intellectual mountebanks. It’s time to make a statement against such nonsense as Ian Judge’s turning of “Tannhauser” into a cross between “Fellini Satyricon” and “Behind the Green Door.” Against Robert Wilson’s turning “Madame Butterfly” into “minimalist” Kabuki-esque statuary. Against Achim Freyer making the Ring Cycle all about. . .Achim Freyer.
          Booers of the world, unite! Enemies of fraudulence, galvanize! (Well, that doesn’t have much of a ring to it, so to speak, but you get the point.)
          But, seeing as this is (I hope) my last piece on the LAO “Ring,” I want to put in a good word for the proceedings. Yes! Really! Brace yourself for a shock: I actually like Freyer’s basic idea of setting the entire “Ring” in a kind of ur-universe, a proto-cosmos where scenery and creatures have been reimagined. Perfectly nifty concept! It’s his execution that’s the, uh, problem. What’s more, I think poor old Freyer really flogged his brain to come up with this craziness, and he sure put cast and crew through unimaginable sturm und drang to realize such a peculiar, distracting, unrecognizable, and often downright asinine vision of Wagner’s epic.
          Yes, unrecognizable. It's true that if you were to watch any of the operas without the music, and you had no idea what you were witnessing, you would be very hard pressed to figure out that it was Der Ring des Nibelungen. Especially the part where about ten Wotans appear at the same time in “Die Walkure,” including one somersaulting down from the rafters. (Here’s an idea: dump Wagner, keep the staging and libretto, and commission John Adams to write a new score!) But hell, Freyer ignored the music, so you can, too! Or do the opposite: close your eyes, and luxuriate in the magnificent singing and the skillfully couched reading of the most ambitious score in all opera by James Conlon and the L.A. Opera Orchestra. These people have been upstaged by Deep Freyer, and they did not deserve to be.
          So we are left with a “Ring” cycle that will indeed have made its mark in L.A. history, though not for reasons anyone wished. The $32 million spent on this thing is an obscenity at a time when the economy is in chaos, the city is effectively bankrupt, teachers are being laid off. As for the grand idea that the LAO “Ring” might inspire new opera fans, well, that's about as dead as Fasolt and Fafnir.
          Finally, there is this:
          A well-placed source who has closely followed the Freyer Farce tells me that the Music Critics Association was all but ready to meet in L.A. for its annual conference this spring, but instead opted to go to Dallas at the last minute. The reason? They reportedly thought the San Francisco Opera “Ring” cycle next year would a happier venue for a conference than the L.A. one, and plan to meet in SF next June.
          The San Francisco Ring. Right, the “American Ring,” set wackily during the Gold Rush, with valkyries dressed like lady barnstorming biplane pilots. Complete with goggles. The Music Critics Association liked that better!
          Added the source:
          “I wouldn't be surprised if the L.A. Ring falls apart before it ends its run.”
          Cue the “Curse” leitmotiv.

E-mail: Good column! They have been calling here as often as 3 times a day. My husband made the mistake of answering one evening and that is when the 3 times a day calling started. I have caller ID I just don't answer.
---Phyllis, Santa Monica.
RR's reviews and commentaries on L.A. Opera's controversial
 staging of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

From left: Larry, Moe, Curly.

(Feb. 25, 2009)
RR reviews "Das Rheingold," the first in the series of four operas.
The Lonely Booer 
(Apr. 8, 2009)
RR reviews "Die Walkure," the second in the "Ring" cycle. Also, RR reacts to L.A.Times music critic Mark Swed noting the presence of a "lonely booer" letting loose at the sight of director Achim Freyer. The "lonely booer" was. . .Rense.
A Boo For Swed
(Apr. 8, 2009)
RR comments in sidebar on Swed's assertion that listening to Wagner might make you "want to keep company with Hitler."
The Lonely Booer 2 
(May 1, 2009)
L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed boos back at RR, and RR responds.
Southland Uber Alles 
(July 29, 2009)
RR comments on L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's motion to quash a citywide "Ring" Festival on the basis that Wagner was an anti-Semite.
Siggy Stardust
(Oct. 5, 2009)
RR Reviews L.A. Opera's "Siegfried."
Rense Rebuts L.A. Times's Mark Swed on "Siegfried"
(Oct. 5, 2009)
RR counters Swed's cheerleading for absurd Achim Freyer production.
Der Ring des Nibelooney
(Apr. 14, 2010) Rense comments on the final Freyer "Ring" installment, "Gotterdammerung."
Another Boo For Mark Swed
 (Apr. 14, 2010) Rense asks why the L.A. Times music critic did not mention the loudest booing in L.A. Opera history, following "Gotterdammerung," and Swed responds.

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