Friday, November 21, 2008

Ring Festival L.A. - Wrong Festival L.A.

Over the centuries people have come to Southern California from all over the world. They bring their art and religion and they build monuments to their own cultural heritage. In Southern California these monuments mix in unexpected ways.

I photographed an example of cultural heritages mixing: two architecturally antagonistic church steeples. They're one block apart and were built one year apart.(1) The congregations, although close physically, are heirs to very different cultures and mythologies. Their histories stretch back, along very different paths, to different parts of Europe. Neither church, neither congregation, neither religion, neither style of architecture is representative of Southern California by itself - but the area is richer for having both. And lots of others too.

Music can be a religion, it has a heritage and it has monuments. People often attend concerts to connect with their music history - like another Mozart symphony or another Rolling Stones tour. And just like the diversity of churches and religions, there are many different types of music in Southern California - hugely different heritages in close proximity.

One kind of music is opera. For many decades Los Angeles civic leaders dreamed of their own opera company and eventually they got it. Then they wanted their own Ring Cycle - as if that were some sort of validation. Their theory seems to be that Los Angeles Opera wouldn't be considered a "real" opera company without a Ring cycle, and without a "real" opera company Los Angeles wouldn't be a real place.


Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is one of the biggest musical monuments imaginable - nineteen operas, each over two full days in length. (Hyperbole!) The plot screams about lust, murder, incest and revenge - but all in a good way. (Sarcasm!) "Love" and "Redemption" and "Heroism" and "Magic Fire" and "Helmets of Invisibility" and "Women Warriors on Flying Horses with Longer-Than-They-Are-Wide Swords" make it no weirder than Star Wars.

Some people keep coming back to these operas again and again. Those people are called Ringnuts (although I think it'd be cool to call them "Wagnerds"). Read my favorite Ring synopsis here. (Better yet, go find a recording of it.)

Richard Wagner was quite the egomaniac, a short, offensive scumbag who hated Jews and loved adultery - all in a good way as well. (More Sarcasm!) And of course Wagner's most famous fan was named Adolf. He used Wagner's music as inspiration to become the most evil person in history. Unfortunately the music world has largely forgiven Wagner for the horror of Hitler's ways. (2)

I'm not a believer in any religion, most particularly not that of Wagnerism. Others can believe whatever they want and attend whichever ceremonies make them feel good. I don't have to pay any attention. The L.A. Opera production of The Ring is easy to ignore.


Recently the L.A. Opera announced that they would produce a Los Angeles-wide ARTS FESTIVAL to accompany the performances of their Ring cycle. Here's a press release announcing the participation of 50 local cultural and education organizations. You have to go here for the whole list.

In the press release Placido Domingo modestly tells us:
Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles,
This one-ring circus will start in April 2010. The final program won't be announced until January 2010 - 14 months from now.


Civic boosterism is a good answer: dollars and profit. As Eli Broad, the rich local patron who has given Six Million Dollars towards the opera productions themselves, said:
Ring Festival LA will bring worldwide attention to our city and attract an increasing number of visitors.
In other words: more tickets sold, more hotel rooms filled.

Less credibly, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is quoted as saying:
Ring Festival LA will highlight the wealth of arts and culture that is unique to our town.
Someone should mention to him that Wagner operas are never going to be unique to Los Angeles. We will not become Bayreuth on the Pacific. Someone should also mention that Los Angeles has a history of arts festivals - a history which reflects conflict between elitism and populism.

Westminster Gold album Die Walkure by Wagner - naked woman with VW hubcaps

Although from 1947 through 1966 there was the Los Angeles Music Festival created by composer Franz Waxman, apparently the first attempt at a city-wide multi-discipline arts festival was the Olympic Arts Festval in 1984.

Here's a bit of Olympic Arts Festival hype (from here)
[T]he 1984 Olympic Arts Festival threatens to become one of the wonders of the contemporary world. These projects are Los Angeles theatre, Korean dance, California sculpture, performers from the People’s Republic of China, and above all, “freeway murals”.
A second festival, the Los Angeles Festival, was produced 3 years later under the same director, Robert J. Fitzpatrick, using Olympic profits. Here's a 1985 New York Times article about that.

The programming of the first two festivals was still hugely Eurocentric in spite of the hype. Some local creativity and non-European artists were included. The freeway murals have not survived several generations of taggers. Art is ephemeral.

For a while Los Angeles expected to have a regular city-wide arts festival every three years. There was a change of festival leadership. Here's a 1987 New York Times announcement about the change.

The new director Peter Sellars had a different philosophy about the purposes of and communities served by a giant arts festival. Here's an article about the difficulties the changed festival encountered. (Here's another.)

The last Los Angeles Festival in 1993 suffered from the lack of large corporate donations. Although Peter's philosophy was both positive and praiseworthy, it didn't really fulfill the desires of the arts community. I guess they were mostly interested in European arts and so the L.A. Festivals died on a petard of multi-culturalism. No one, to my knowlege, talked about another festival again until now.


I am bothered that Ring Festival LA will be promoted as a centerpiece of our entire local arts community - a keystone to all things expressive in Los Angeles.

While it might be nice for some people who live here, this festival, as it was announced, will be far from representative of the arts community as a whole. In fact it is elitist in the extreme. As such it could well do our arts community - especially our creative music community - a grand disservice.

I'm assuming that the plethora of arts organizations taking part in Ring Festival L.A. will program events related to the Ring or to Wagner. This would be a a way of attracting the Ringnuts who are expected to infest L.A. during the festival.

Go here to read about the events announced so far - everything seems to be Wagner related. except for one "little" Stockhausen piece. (Sarcasm!) Stockhausen fits in because he was German and he had an ego even bigger than Wagners.

There's this gem (yep, more sarcasm):
LA's ground-breaking daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, led by Geoff "Double G" Gallegos, premieres a new work inspired by the revolutionary spirit of Wagner.
There are many "to be announced" festival events on their list. They might eventually include all sorts of things in the festival - Latin jazz, oriental dancers, gospel choirs, klezmer bands, etc. - events with significance to large segments of the other 97.6% of the city who couldn't care less about Wagner. Not holding my breath. (3)


The Los Angeles Opera should have their Ring festival. My fears could be allayed. Here are some suggestions. Only the first one is simple.

1) Change the name of the festival to "Ring Festival L.A. Opera" or "L.A. Opera Ring Festival"? Just don't claim to represent the entire Los Angeles arts community.

2) L.A. Opera also has a project called Recovered Voices which presents operas suppressed by the Nazis. Mix the Recovered Voices operas into the festival. In my best of all possible worlds you would only be able to attend a Ring opera if you had previously attended a Recovered Voices opera.
3) A big Ring Cycle production might someday appear on DVD. Before that let the masses listen in and watch for free. Broadcast all 4 operas live on radio and/or television. The opening of Disney Hall had live broadcasts. Share the operas.

4) A Los Angeles Ring should not further expunge the black marks on Wagner's personal rap sheet. The man should be viewed as reprehensible and his personal opinions and behavior are still highly relevant if his music is to get so much attention. Expand the educational seminar entitled "Richard Wagner and the Jews: The Use of Wagner by the Nazis." Los Angeles has the second biggest Jewish population on the planet and this subject should not be swept under the rug, especially here. One seminar in front of a few hundred people without extensive media would be an insult.

5) Be realistic about the debt which the Los Angeles film music community still owes to Wagner. Big ticket film scores draw their lifeblood from Wagner's leitmotivic composition methods. This is discussed interestingly here by John Mauceri. He's talking about emigre composers, but the practice persists. L.A.Opera has not had terribly good luck commissioning works from film composers - but that doesn't mean they should stop trying. Maybe they'll come up with something better than the Ring.

6) Hold a fringe festival at the same time as the Ring Festival. This is not something the L.A.Opera should do on its own. Instead the opera should give other organizations money to create an anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, anti-totalitarian festival showcasing local creativity. Let those Ringnuts see that Los Angeles arts have gone beyond Wagner and movie soundtracks.


In my best of all possible worlds I've picked a name for this fringe festival - The Wrong Festival. The Wrong Festival is the Right thing to do. Like a clapper hitting opposite sides of a bell - we can hear "ringgg" and then "wronggg". Ringgg. Wronggg. Two sides of the same sound. An aural pun.

Like the two churches at the start of this essay, the Ring Festival and the Wrong Festival can coexist. They can occupy adjacent space at the same time and still validly and vividly represent entirely different artistic traditions.

A Los Angeles Festival should show the world that the people here respect one another through their art and music. It should show how Los Angeles residents hail from a huge number of backgrounds. We should celebrate our diversity in festival. We should not trumpet elitism.

(1) The picture of two church spires on North Lake Avenue will be familiar to residents of Pasadena and Altadena. On the right is St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church (in Altadena) and on the left Westminster Presbyterian Church (in Pasadena). The one on the left is actually much taller; it's visible for miles. One is Gothic Revival, built in 1925, designed by Marston, Van Peet & Marbury. The other, in Mediteranean Spanish style, was built in 1926 and designed by Wallace Neff.

(2) Jews included. I believe that the contemporary pardon of Richard Wagner represents the loss an important lesson from the history of National Socialism. Namely, that the arts can be used for bad purposes. My parents taught me to avoid Wagner, not by telling me 'Avoid Wagner', but by simply avoiding Wagner themselves. All the while they were teaching me to appreciate other music instead.

In our current politics, the lessons of political appeasement before World War II are repeated endlessly as an excuse for our wars. Now and again society should remind itself about the powerful dangers of all encompassing arts. These days the danger isn't from opera - more likely that television or movies or country music or books could get everyone's brains into lockstep as we make yet another foolish national mistake.

(3) 97.6% - calculated like this: 4 complete performances of the Ring, NINETEEN operas per performance, all 3200 seats in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion sold out for every performance, no person ever attends more than once. Total attendance - 243,200 people or 2.33 percent of the total estimated population of Los Angeles County as of Jan. 1, 2008 - 10,363,850. More realistically, if they only performed 4 of the 19 operas the percentage drops to just under one half of one percent. And divide that figure by four if everyone attends a complete cycle. On anyone's scale an event accessible by barely one tenth of one percent of the population qualifies as elitist.

More links:
  • See more photos from LA Opera's Ring here.
  • Pictures of Valkyries come from here and here and here and here and here.
  • The blond woman in black is Katharina Wagner great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and current co-director of Bayreuth.
  • Robert J. Fitzpatrick describes the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival here.
  • Nibelung Real Estate is here.
  • Hitler and Wagner sites here and here and here. (The last one has a complete Bayreuth Ring Cycle mp3 recording to download.)

Just for the fun of it, here's some video of Hitler visiting Beyreuth.

Other Mixed Meters Musical Rants You Might Not Enjoy Either:

Wrong Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


od said...

Great post!!

I am not sure the LA Fest tanked only because a lack of support from the arts community. It seems the arts community, who ever that may be, was into it. Recession, backlash against multiculturalism in the wake of the LA Uprisings/riots, shifting global economies as Japan investment in LA real estate waned, the boll weevil and the cotton gin, all probably played a part in its tragic demise.

The World Festival of Sacred Music has been going since 1999 and Judy Mitoma, its organizer, had a hand in the Sellar's LA Fests as well. I think her goal is very much to celebrate diversity in the good old fashioned multicultural way, except perhaps by hiding it in sacred the festival's credit they have very broad view of the sacred, which has not (yet) included Wagnerism.

Final thought, maybe the ring is sign of things to come...sometimes you have to get things wrong to get things right. Fitzpatrick's fests (along with a pile of Olympic cash)spawned Sellar's.

ericnp said...


After the festival how about we invade Poland?