Der Blog des Nibelungen
Commentary and observations on Los Angeles Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle — by Rich Capparela (and Wagner friends and foes everywhere)
Neil Armstrong. That was the first name that came to mind as I read the Friday edition of the Los Angeles Times. In a front page piece by David Ng, two of the production’s lead singers, John Treleaven and Linda Watson (Siegfried and Brunnhilde, respectively), expressed their displeasure with director Achim Freyer’s staging: the steep rake of the stage, the heavy costumes, the masks. And, alas, with the whole of Freyer’s enterprise, it seems.
Why did Neil Armstrong come to mind, you ask? As I read the story I felt the same sort of conflict I did upon hearing of Armstrong’s criticism of the current administration’s plans for the manned space program. My conflict arose from being sympathetic to both points of view: Armstrong is a genuine hero and has what one might describe as “an investment” in sending humans into space – he’s the poster boy – the first human to walk on the moon. Meantime, a new President of these United States, faced with an economy that can be described with some accuracy as dreadful, is trying to re-prioritize NASA’s mission and NASA’s budget. Robotic missions aren’t as sexy as putting brave humans atop large rockets, but it sure is cheaper. As a space buff I’ll miss all of those blastoffs and the prospect of humans on mars in my lifetime. On the other hand, I’d like to figure out how to make oil drilling a safer bet than the slots in Laughlin. Or, hey, how about an alternative to oil altogether?
Neil Armstrong is the face of this country’s greatest technological achievement. He is a superstar. A great man. But that doesn’t necessarily make him best suited to make decisions on the future of the space program. His perspective is too tied to his own role. Those kind of decisions are best left to people wearing jackets and ties, not pressurized suits.
And now we return to Los Angeles Opera’s Ring Cycle, Achim Freyer and unhappy singers.
Safety first. The issue of safety is of paramount importance and, having been at the performance of Siegfried when John Treleaven slipped on stage during the third act and was visibly limping by the end of the opera, I understand his justifiable concerns about serious injury. This production is indeed built upon a steeply angled platform, albeit a platform now equipped with small singing stations that enable the cast to deliver their lines much of the time without coming down with vertigo (or worse).
Costumes & Masks. Yes the costumes look to be pretty heavy. But they are a vital part of the production. Those costumes – sometimes grotesque and hypersexual – do move the story forward. They are essential to the narrative. Then there are the masks. I’ve tried closing my eyes when I knew a character would be donning or removing a head piece (Siegfried disguising himself as Gunther). Surprise! Couldn’t hear a difference. So there may be issues with the masks for the singers, but as a listener, it’s not a problem. (And for those who miss being able to discern subtle changes in facial expressions, my reply is this: not everyone gets to sit in the first five rows. For the rest of us, those characters on stage are just that: characters. We’re too far away to pick up a subtle raising of the eyebrow or a fleeting smile).
Who’s production is this, anyway? My point in all of this is simple: I’d like to separate the issue of singer safety from that of singer convenience and singer taste. We should give plenty of respect to both the singers who, when it comes to Wagner, have to be about as heroic as a Neil Armstrong, and the director who’s job is to create something from nothing – also an heroic undertaking. But a singer’s perspective is affected by their place in the production, and that’s the way it should be. The singers’ views are, understandably, singer-centric. They are stars. They are the face of the production. But are they the best people to judge a given production’s value? I think not. The director is hired to give a look to the music we are hearing. A production’s success or failure is for us, the audience, to decide. The Times article quotes Treleaven as saying “The character development that I bring to the part is almost expunged by this clown-like makeup.” It’s safe to say that many audience members understood this singer’s character development just fine, makeup or not. I’ll leave it for someone else to argue that the clown-like makeup actually enhances the role of Siegfried. And this sort of issue of perspective exists in every field. Heck, if radio DJs were to make all of the decisions, there’d be a ratio of 90% talk /10% music (the music being aired merely to facilitate pee breaks). We do like the sound of our own voice, you know.
Controversy sells. If Los Angeles Opera can take one ray of hope from Watson’s and Treleaven’s comments it is this: if you want to get people to shell out good money for the privilege of sitting in the dark for 5 hours, one way to get them into that seat is the promise of controversy. After all, who doesn’t like a little drama with their drama, right? Or maybe just a whiff of danger. Perhaps Los Angeles Opera’s Ring has inadvertently stumbled upon the long sought-after answer to the question: Just how do you get those NASCAR fans into the opera house?
– Rich Capparela