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L.A. Times music critic explains why he did not cover L.A. Opera booing

(Apr. 14, 2010)

          Los 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 Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” 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 Dodger Stadium.
          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 musical discussion.

          Why 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 account:
          During the curtain calls, director Freyer’s poof of white hair suddenly appeared, stage right, but was quickly withdrawn.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 right to 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 boo’s won.
          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:
          The End.
          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” cycle.

          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 warranted.
          I wrote to the man and asked why he did not report the booing incident following “Götterdämmerung.” He 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 column.)
          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 review.
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." Mangan buried this lede, but at least he reported it.

          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 brown shirts.
          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 shirt.” Gadzooks!
          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 (print edition.)
          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. Sheesh.
          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 prime rib.
          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” review:
          “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, doesn't it?
          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 is spreading.”
          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:
          “’Götterdämmerung,’” I thought, never had it so good. Not everyone -- given a beet-red-faced, vein-popping booer near me – necessarily agreed.”
          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, Cultural Monster.

---Mark Swed.


More on Gotterdammerung/L.A. Ring:
Robert Hofler in Daily Variety
RR's Reviews and commentaries of L.A. Opera's controversial
staging of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Val-hell-a  (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.

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 as my year end piece (it's right after the digs at city
council members):

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, and
given my opinions about the Ring Festival LA, thought it would be a good idea to
keep track of what you write.

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