ANOTHER BOO FOR MR. SWED
L.A. Times music
critic explains why he did not cover L.A. Opera booing
(Apr. 14, 2010)
Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed needs to retire, or
to be reprimanded by his bosses. Or hired by Los Angeles Opera,
for which he seems more inclined to work.
The first duty of a
reporter---and reporting is half the job of any critic---is to
report. This is not meant to be facile. You review an event, you
are obligated to report about the event as well as evaluate it.
The lead singer is taken
ill, but continues on, and you report it. A set collapses on
stage in an otherwise seamless production, and you report it.
The audience is thunderous in approval, and you report it.
The audience is
thunderous in disapproval, and you report it.
Swed did not do this.
In the 40 years that I
have attended concerts and operas in Los Angeles at the
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I have never heard anything close to
the amount, volume, and ferocity of the booing following the
April 3 premiere of Los Angeles Opera’s production of Richard
as staged by Achim Freyer.
I checked with an
acquaintance, who has attended exponentially more concerts and
operas than I have at that same venue over a longer period (and
more than Swed), and
he confirmed this. He had never heard such booing in Los
Angeles, except when Barry Bonds used to step to the plate at
This is news.
Swed did not report it.
The omission can only be described, by any
reasonable journalistic standard, as irresponsible.
At the Los Angeles
Herald-Examiner, where I used to work with Swed, it would have
been scandalous, and I would venture to say, possible grounds
for sacking. It gives me little pleasure to write this, as Swed
is a brilliant, collegial fellow with whom I have enjoyed many a
RENSE COMMENTS ON L.A. OPERA'S FINAL RING CYCLE INSTALLMENT, "GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG,"
did he not report the booing? He could have praised the
production (which he did) and condemned the booing. (He
condemned booing in a past L.A. "Ring" Cycle
commentary.) It would
have been his right to do so as a critic. But to not even report
it is journalistically reprehensible, especially considering the
dramatic manner in which it happened. Here’s my boo-by-boo
During the curtain calls,
Freyer’s poof of white hair suddenly appeared, stage right,
but was quickly withdrawn. That glimpse sent the house into
momentary massive howls. When the director did take the stage
a moment later, the chorus of howling resumed, and it was
shocking, as if the place was suddenly filled with Lon Chaney Jrs. under a full moon. And then. . .
Freyer jauntily jogged
the front of the stage, smiling, as if to challenge both booers
and the rising rival chorus of bravos, a sort of “quien es mas
macho?” move. This went on for perhaps ten amazing seconds. The
Yet there was not a word
about this remarkable moment in the
L.A. Times from the man on the scene, Mark Swed. Instead,
his review began:
Saturday afternoon, a bit
before twilight, “Götterdämmerung” (“The Twilight of the Gods”)
reached its final, transcendental moments at the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion. The multitudes of singers, musicians and
stagehands passed their endurance tests. Breathlessly conducting
nearly five hours' worth of music, the energetic James Conlon
never flagged. With the last and longest opera of Wagner’s
tetralogy, Los Angeles Opera proved it could complete a “Ring”
Huh? Swed's angle:
that L.A. Opera finished a Ring cycle! Er. . .was there ever
any doubt? What a preposterous, dull thing to write, as the critic
himself more or less confirms in the second paragraph: That
the company had the artistic capability to mount this Everest of
the opera world it had for so long strived to conquer was never
in any doubt.
What kind of criticism
and reporting is this? He didn’t bury the lede---he never wrote
one. This is like going to a mayoral press conference that ends
in assassination and leading with what the mayor said. Swed
should take a tip from his former colleague, Timothy Mangan,
longtime music critic of the Orange County Register, who wrote
in his (positive) "Gotterdammerung"
review, "I’ve spent this little bit talking about Freyer’s
vision because when he came out for bows at the end, he was
greeted with the loudest chorus of boos that I have ever heard
as well as a standing ovation." (Of course, many of the standees
were just trying to see when Freyer took the stage, in order to
boo.) The loudest chorus of boos I have ever heard.
Why did Swed ignore this? A
couple reasons, I think. First, the critic is a longtime
champion of revision, reinvention, new music, new
interpretation. . .newness. So he has been very hard pressed to
write negatively of Freyer’s wacky “Ring,” seldom going beyond
calling parts of it “weird,” or even more benignly, “singular.”
He is also undoubtedly worried about the future of financially
strapped Los Angeles Opera, and perhaps trying to protect the
company from further controversy. If so, this latter motivation,
while kind, is simply dishonest. It is compromising journalistic
integrity on behalf of the entity you are charged to cover.
More commonly known as
being a house man.
This is speculation on
my part, but Swed’s history of cheerleading for L.A. Opera
and the L.A. Phil is well known, so the speculation is well
I wrote to the man and
asked why he did not report the booing incident following “Götterdämmerung.”
wrote back, but I’m not sure he answered the question. He did
not grant permission to quote, so I will paraphrase our on-line
conversation. (Please see his official statement following this
First, Swed said, he was
sorry to disappoint, and cited the booing for Zubin Mehta's
performance of John Cage's Bicentennial commission, ‘Renga’ with
‘Apt House 1776,’ as being louder than the post-"Götterdämmerung"
denunciation. It was so loud and angry, as he put it, that there
are probably still traces of that bad karma in the corners of
the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He further noted that on the
first night of the Cage premiere, composer Meredith Wilson (or
someone who looked like him) stood up during the performance,
gave a thumbs down sign, and was followed out by perhaps a
hundred people. This, Swed admitted, could be the root of his
distaste for booing.
Well. That the critic
recalled a single night when the booing was allegedly more
pronounced than after “Götterdämmerung”
is immaterial. (Plus one expects the notoriously
avant-garde Cage to be booed.) This is a $37 million production that marks the
first complete Ring Cycle in Los Angeles history, and that has
sent L.A. Opera begging for $14 million from the County to stay
afloat. There has been booing after each of the four “Ring”
Operas, but nothing approaching that which occurred after “Götterdämmerung.”
The controversy here is germane, important, and a well
established, ongoing news story, which Swed avoided in his
|Swed should take a tip
from his former colleague, Timothy Mangan, longtime music critic of
the Orange County Register, who wrote in his (positive)
review, "I’ve spent this little bit talking about Freyer’s
vision because when he came out for bows at the end, he was greeted
with the loudest chorus of boos that I have ever heard as well as a
standing ovation." Mangan buried this lede, but at least he
His next comment was very
revealing. He wrote about speaking to someone who was actually
at the infamous Paris premiere of Stravinksy's "Rite of Spring,"
and how the booing sounded downright Fascistic. That's Swed's
term. He added that a man booing "Götterdämmerung"
near him looked so out-of-control that the critic could not help
but think of what he termed
So one must read into
this that Swed equates booing with incipient Nazism. Really. No
joke. He is so unnerved by disapproving crowds that he makes a
leap right to images of the goose-stepping Nazi stormtroopers.
Is it any stretch to conclude that he can't give publicity to
booing because he thinks it is just short of encouraging the
seeds of a new Holocaust? I don’t think so.
Need it be said that
this leaves little space for nice people who simply
don’t like a particular piece of art? For members of the public
who have forked out hundreds of dollars in Rheingold,
only to feel badly cheated? Swed has revealed that his
fears---if not paranoia---have distorted his thinking. And that
this, in turn, has prevented him from objectively covering, at
least in this instance, the salient news angle. Imagine that: boo, and in Swed’s eyes, you’re almost a “brown
He continued, coming
closest to explaining why he did not report the booing incident:
L.A. Opera, he told me,
still has a long way to go to match the kind of vocal reaction
that is commonplace in Bayreuth, Salzburg, Munich, Milan, Paris,
London and increasingly New York. Swed said that he thinks it is
provincial to make too much of the booing here.
This is amazing. Never
mind Los Angeles. Never mind that his newspaper is called the
Los Angeles Times. Never mind that this is Los Angeles
Opera, and that the majority of people attending these
performances live in Los Angeles, and likely have not been
fortunate enough to see operas in Bayreuth, Salzburg, Munich,
Milan, Paris, London. Perhaps Swed should be writing for the
International Herald-Tribune. Oh, wait, it’s out of business
So to interpret:
because the vociferous booing in L.A. did not match displays
witnessed by Swed in various European cities and New York, it
was not relevant! And to write about it would have been
“provincial” on his part. Well, God spare him from such an
embarrassment among his globe-trotting sophisticate peers.
What the critic does not
seem to understand is this: he is covering a local event
for a local newspaper. A local event with a
local history of controversy, cost overrun, and booing. A
local story in a city where standing ovations are
practically automatic, and booing is as rare as Musso & Frank's
Local news. So
what if people boo louder in Bayreuth, or Beijing.
And here is yet another
fact that Swed has egregiously failed to report: there have been
vast numbers of empty seats for the Freyer “Ring,” and they
appear to have grown with each new installment of the cycle.
There were dozens, if not scores, of empties in the orchestra
section alone for “Götterdämmerung,”
and scores in loge and balcony (with new desertions after each
act.) Here is Swed’s lone, misleading, inaccurate, and glib
reference to the matter in his “Götterdämmerung”
“Freyer’s production has
not been universally loved, but Wagnerites love to complain, so
this wasn’t about to keep them away.”
Has not been
universally loved. That’s what Swed’s readers get, in
reference to a production that elicits titanic booing, and
leaves oodles of empty seats. This is not merely poor reporting,
it is distorted and dishonest, with the appearance of shilling
for L.A. Opera. Has not been universally loved. This is
like saying the San Diego Freeway is not always free-flowing.
This wasn't about to keep them away. Suggests a solid house,
As for the derisive
“Wagnerite” remark, Swed has made this point several times in
his reviews and commentaries concerning Freyer’s “Ring.” Oh,
those grumpy, stuffy old Wagnerites! But here’s some news for
the critic. I’ve been in touch with the Wagner Society of New
York, and have been told that they know of no members---that’s
zero---who will be attending any of the L.A. Ring Cycles. These
are people who routinely travel the world to see “Rings.”
Between this, and the huge swaths of lonely seats in the house,
I’d say that Wagnerites and non-Wagnerites alike are indeed
“staying away.” And then there is this statement, from a source
with contacts inside L.A. Opera:
“I'm told there are still
plenty of seats for the Ring (cycles), and they are selling
tickets for individual operas now. Rings all over the world sell
out months in advance, so the real word-of-mouth about this one
Yet the L.A. Times’
man-on-the-beat has not reported any of this. And here is
the lone reference to any vocal dissent, from his review:
thought, never had it so good. Not everyone -- given a
beet-red-faced, vein-popping booer near me – necessarily
Right. One booer. To read
Swed’s review, you would conclude that one person booed Achim
Freyer. And you would have no idea that attendance is down. But
this is apparently perfectly fine in the world of Los Angeles
Times music criticism, where fudging facts, ignoring facts, and
misrepresenting facts seems to be fair play.
Here is the critic's statement to The Rip Post:
I feel that we have given quite a lot of attention to the fact
that Achim Freyer's production is controversial. In fact, he is
often described in the Times as a controversial director. And I
have mentioned the booing in my reviews.
But I don't think this continues to be especially newsworthy.
Booing innovative opera directors is practically as commonplace
as standing ovations at concerts -- and far more so in Europe.
Nor is booing anything new here. I've heard louder protests at
the Chandler, to say nothing of the kind of booing that gets
expressed at the Met.
To put this in perspective, I cannot think of a celebrated
director I haven't, at one point or another, heard booed -- they
include Peter Sellars, Robert Wilson, Luchino Visconti, Pina
Bausch, Peter Brook, Patrice Chereau, Peter Stein, Francesca
Zambello. The Met's traditional "Ring," possibly the kind of
thing the anti-Freyer crowd would like in Los Angeles, was booed
by those wanted something adventurous. Don't forget that
Pavarotti, Sills, Fleming and Callas were all booed.
Those who protest productions or disagree with me and want to be
heard in the Times can be; we welcome them onto our blog,
More on Gotterdammerung/L.A. Ring:
Robert Hofler in Daily Variety
L.A. "RING" COVERAGE. . .
RR's Reviews and commentaries of L.A. Opera's controversial
of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."
(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
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
(Oct. 5, 2009)
RR Reviews L.A. Opera's "Siegfried."
L.A. Times's Mark Swed on "Siegfried" (Oct. 5, 2009)
RR counters Swed's cheerleading for absurd Achim Freyer production.
E-MAIL ON THIS COLUMN:
Thanks for that column.
Aside: I actually, literally, forgot to go to Siegfried. Of course I
had just gotten back from the silent film festival in Italy, but to
miss one of the rare Wagner operas at LA Opera is entirely unlike me.
But then again, I had seen Rheingold and Walkure, and wrote about
Freyer's offense against culture along with Antonovich's ugliness in
Citywatchla.com as my year end piece (it's right after the digs at city
I also took a one sentence shot at the local arts community for being
mute on how ugly this production actually is. I therefore appreciate
the fact that your column and Roderick's link have exposed the lack of
journalistic integrity surrounding the home town hype in such a superb
and thorough manner. I also appreciate Roderick for exposing me to your
column, which I had not known about until now.
The one who has been the biggest booster is Rich Caparella at KUSC, who
has nothing but praise for the production, bragging about how many
times he is going to each performance. Either he is very wealthy or
KUSC has a pile of press passes on the table for him to grab.
I'm willing to see innovative approaches to classic works. I've seen
Shakespeare performed on giant plexiglass boxes and with the actors
pumping giant slinkies, and it worked. The problem with this production
is that it subtracts from the meaning and emotion and depth of the
Ring. Besides being distracting, it leaves viewers who don't already
know the story in a state of ignorance about what is going on. Placido
sang well. Not as powerfully as Vickers, but beautifully.
I read your article about Mark Swed's review of Gotterdamerung this morning,
given my opinions about the Ring Festival LA, thought it would be a good
keep track of what you write.