Classical KUSC Blog

May 15, 2010

LA Ring Blog – Installment #6

Filed under: Capparela's Blogarellium,LA Ring Blog — classicalkusc @ 12:37 am

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)

6. “That’s one giant rake for a man. One small misstep could be unkind.”

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


  1. The Ring is not my favorite opera. Not even close. And it took Bugs Bunny (how I would love that ipod Nano with the complete works of Puccini as sung by Elmer Fudd)for me to get close to the storyline. But, it is…epic. It’s the Star Trek Original Series of Opera, the one that goes where no baritone has gone before. It takes a visionary to get it on stage, it takes a visionary to keep people in their seats in front of that stage for five and half hours. And singers, no matter how brilliant they are, are just that…singers. They are paid to get up and make the story move forward. People who don’t ‘get’ Freyer’s production should go watch the Warner Brothers version, and write in their blogs about how the moon landing was faked. Of course, having Formula One cars racing up and down the aisles in between arias might be fun.

    I comment therefore I ham.


    Comment by maaijo — May 17, 2010 @ 4:22 pm | Reply

  2. Rich: I guess those singers might like James Cameron to direct with “performance capture” cameras on their faces. Then could all watch the opera realized on iPads that come complimentary with the $800 per seat admission.

    Comment by Bob Packham — May 17, 2010 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

  3. You have done it again. Superb read!

    Comment by Booker Mckenzie — May 27, 2010 @ 4:54 am | Reply

  4. Wagner’s Siegfried?
    Comment by Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D.

    Why is Siegfried a comical blonde curly-headed sub-adolescent with furry pants left over from his days playing with animals in the forest when he awakens the goddess Brunhilde in L.A. Opera’s Ring Cycle? And why is Brunhilde a larger than life symbol of femininity with pendulous breasts and a scratchy vagina placed high on a pedestal even after having come down to earth from her father’s heavens? Is this a joke? Or a psychological portrayal of a man’s worst nightmare of what happens when he falls in love? He wakens a princess to discover his mother? Where’s the mythology of a young man opening up to his vulnerability, coming into a sense of the divine within himself and the fire of love he feels? And where’s the mythology of the young woman awakening to the joy of life on earth, being human and becoming an individual in her own right after leaving her father’s house where she could only exist as his inner eye? And where is their mythology together, a love being born, brought into being by these two miraculous transformations of a boy into a man, a girl into a woman? Not on the stage in this production of Siegfried, that’s for sure.
    In fact, Siegfried is a man who has it all. He’s born to a line of gods, been raised in tune with nature and at odds with a step-father with bad intentions for him, exudes confidence and lacks fear of what strikes terror in the hearts of others, feels great about himself, comes into the awesome phallic power of his god-father’s sword, slays the mythical dragon of despair and takes its hoard of gold, the lost ring of power and a magical helmet of invincibility, receives direction from a guiding angel, climbs the mountain, crosses Wotan’s vengeful fireline around Brunhilde and instigates a reunion of opposites — man and woman, conscious and unconscious, earth and heaven, good and evil. This guy is definitely a hero but he’s not the guy running around on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion!!
    And it wouldn’t hurt if Brunhilde would come down to earth a bit and instead of singing her head off, sang from the pleasure and delight of being awakened to a love she longed for but could not imagine. If she were looking at the Siegfried, the mythical hero of one transformation after another of his own and benefactor of consciousness to many, she would be singing from the true voice of awakening Wagner meant for her. Her awakening, the awakening of the feminine sensibility of all things connected that reaches out, draws Siegfried into a full embrace of the complexities of love on earth that daunt the gods and requires the best of both of them is the moment of celebration. Humans are now taking what previously existed only in the realm of the gods. What mess is made of it, Wagner left to the rest of us. It is a shame that this production of Siegfried turned such awesome stuff into such silliness that we were laughing, not gasping for breath.

    Comment by Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D. — June 24, 2010 @ 11:59 am | Reply

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