Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Modest Proposal for Replacing Placido Domingo at LA Opera

In a November 2008 press release Placido Domingo, Los Angeles Opera's leader, optimistically announced  
Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles.
A year later, in another press release, RFLA's Leader Barry Sanders predicted 
Ring Festival LA will be the most significant arts festival since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.
At RFLA's website, Sanders, apparently with a straight face, referred to the festival as
the most interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, collaborative artistic and cultural event to occur anywhere.
By the time Ring Festival LA ended, about six weeks ago, anyone could see that it had not lived up to this hype.  Not even close.  I suppose we have to cut Placido and Barry some slack.  I'm sure they had the best of intentions.

Oscar Wilde said
It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.
Here's the RFLA street flag on Riverside Drive together with an ad for another Los Angeles event, ExxxoticaExpo.  (Click the picture to enlarge.)

Of course festivals and hype are the stock and trade of Richard Wagner whose music inspired Ring Festival LA.  Wagner's own festival, Bayreuth, has repeatedly presented the exact same ten operas for well over a century.  Such a festival exudes the feeling of a religious ceremony.  "John Marcher" (an anonymous San Francisco blogger and opera fan) recently mentioned that he was looking forward to his first visit to Bayreuth.  He called it his "Bayreuth baptism".

Of course festivals and hype are the stock and trade of Los Angeles which always has a lot of arts festivals.  Here's a list.  There are even more film festivals in LA including many ethnic ones: African-American, British, Iranian, Chinese, Chicano, Italian, Croatian, Danish, Filipino,  etc. etc.  On the radar screen of all local fesivals, Ring Festival LA was barely a blip.

And of all the festivals which Los Angeles has ever seen come and go, only one ever reached the level of "a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles".  That was the wildly successful 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.  It had a huge budget, adjusted for inflation, worth $24 million today.  After barely a decade, the positive effects disappeared, swallowed by an era of recession and riots.

The Olympic Festival, and the equally successful 1987 Los Angeles Festival, were led by Robert J. Fitzpatrick, then President of CalArts.  With money to spend and the support of city leaders, the festivals included the widest possible variety of dance, opera, jazz, music, theater, art, and film - from all over the world and from right here in Los Angeles.

One uniquely Los Angeles component of the festival was a Freeway Mural Project - in which sections of local freeways were turned into art galleries visible to people as they drove past.  Some of those murals are still slightly visible through a 25-year patina of gang graffiti.  (Again, click to enlarge.)

Eventually Fitzpatrick got a job offer he couldn't refuse - to become head of Euro Disneyland.  It would turn out to be a bad career move for him.  As a result a new head of the Los Angeles Festival was needed for the next event scheduled for 1989.   In a 1987 LA Times article Fitzpatrick touches on who his replacement should be:
Conversation skips to Festival 1989, which he hopes will focus on Latino and Asian culture. He suggests picking as his successor "someone who has the ability to stage a festival, to get a fresher perspective."
The person chosen was theater director Peter Sellers.  For that festival - postponed a year until 1990 - Sellars took the idea of "Latino and Asian culture" and ran with it.  The 1990 Festival became a Pacific Rim festival.  This is from a 1989 LA Times article:
Declaring flatly that there would be "no European works at all" at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, Peter Sellars said Tuesday that he hoped the three-week September event would prove to traditional arts patrons that the kind of work "previously considered the margin was, in fact, the center."
"I would like the festival to do for this city things that none of the (existing) institutions in this city can do," he said. "Collective power is what I hope the L.A. Festival will be about."

All this is my way of introducing a fascinating review of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival.  Since these festivals were all pre-Internet, there is not much information about any of them online.  This particular piece, entitled HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: Los Angeles Festival 1990, was posted by the author Don Shewey to his own website.  Here are some quotes - but if you're really interested in this pinnacle of a local arts festival I suggest you read the entire article.
"I was all ready to bring a bolt of my Mozart opera productions and whatnot," Sellars has said. Then he took a good look at Los Angeles, noticed that the population was dominated by Asian and Latin American people whose cultural traditions had nothing to do with Mozart or Europe, and changed his mind.
Shewey discusses the spiritual aspect of many of the performances he witnessed.  Remember that this was the controversial era of Jesse Helms, Robert Maplethorpe and Andre Serrano's Piss Christ.

That's right, it was a religious festival, a celebration of spirituality. Of course, selling the Los Angeles Festival that way would probably have caused no less of an uproar than if it had been billed as a celebration of babykilling. That's why you never heard the words "religious" and "spirituality" officially attached to the festival -- in the cultural climate we live in, those words are taboo, especially within the arts community, which feels itself to be under attack by the religious Right.
And later:
And yes, the Los Angeles Festival was a political festival as well -- another no-no and another attribute that somehow Peter Sellars found it convenient (and probably wise) not to trumpet too loudly in the press. In fact, you could say that the festival took place at the intersection of religion and politics. I was going to say that the Asians supplied the religion for the most part and the Latin Americans the politics, but I realize those are cultural cliches -- the spiritual Orient and the fiery Latin rebel. The fact is that the intersection of religion and politics takes place at the center of virtually all Pacific cultures (Korean, Mexican, Polynesian Chilean, Filipino, etc.). That's exactly what makes those cultures profoundly alien to American mainstream culture, which is so eager to avoid religion and politics that it will climb mountains of junk and swim through oceans of trivia to get away from them.

The Los Angeles Festival was ingeniously designed as a corrective to this American attitude. Ingenious because it sold itself neither as exotica (an array of dazzling freak shows) nor as medication (a bitter potion to choke down because it's good for you). In fact, it sold itself pretty much the same way its two predecessors did, as a celebration of world culture, without the slightest hint of apology for the omission of international superstars along the lines of Peter Brook, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pina Bausch or Ariane Mnouchkine.
One of the international superstars of the 1984 festival which Shewey doesn't list was the Royal Opera of Covent Garden which brought works by Mozart, Puccini and Britten to LA.  Placido Domingo sang the lead in Turandot.  Those performances inspired the elite of Los Angeles to form their own opera company.  Apparently they were embarrassed to admit to their equally over-rich friends from other cities that Los Angeles had no opera company to call its own.  Such, I suppose, are the tribulations of too much money.

Placido Domingo was artistic advisor and board member for LA Opera from the very beginning.  Later he became General Director.  He has guided the company in one way or another for over 25 years.  And today, of course, Los Angeles does have an opera company that our elite can boast about to their friends.  It has proved its technical, musical and artistic prowess by producing a complete Ring cycle.

But it is also now burdened by a huge deficit and a huge debt, the result of a perfect storm of over-reaching, bad management decisions and a collapsing economy.  It certainly failed to define anything about the cultural history of Los Angeles, except possibly that it's out of touch.  It even failed to satisfy traditional Wagner fans.  It made barely a dent on the consciousness of Angelenos via marketing and community outreach. 

With the Ring in its rear view mirror Los Angeles Opera could decide to now set itself the goal of really creating a defining moment in Los Angeles culture.  The first thing it would need to do is thank Placido for his services and send him packing.  His contract has only one more year to run.  At least Placido has not left LA Opera in as bad a situation as his other opera company in Washington D.C.

Any new leader must be intimately familiar both with the traditional European art form called opera and also with the incredibly multi-cultural place called Los Angeles.  Only half in jest, I'd like to suggest that Peter Sellars be considered for the post.  He's uniquely qualified, never dull, always thought provoking and lives right here already.  He even won something called the Erasmus Prize for contributions to European culture.

Peter probably can't raise money the way Domingo's star power can nor is his track record as an administrator particularly stellar.  But others can count beans and stand as figureheads.  Sellars is an idea man.  I guarantee any ideas Sellars comes up with will be better for LA than trying to create Bayreuth on the PacificLA Opera needs a good idea or two to explain why the rest of the community should care about it. 

The company needs to preserve those aspects of opera that keep the current fans buying tickets while convincing even a sliver of the rest of the population to give it a chance.  The good news is that opera shares many things with popular storytelling - movies, television, novels and opera are all filled with love, romance, intrigue and death.  People like that.  The bad news is explaining why opera seems so foreign, so formal, so habitual, so burdened by tradition, so old fashioned.   

Opera is never going to shed its European heritage completely, nor should it.  But if it really wants to be some sort of defining force in Los Angeles, a metropolitan area of 15 million people from all over the world, the European model needs to change.  That a local organization like LA Opera can spend so much time, resources and energy recreating old world models is the real reason why all of us, not just the wealthy elite, should feel embarassed about opera in Los Angeles.  Recreating what goes on in Europe is what makes Los Angeles a profoundly provincial place.  Of course the opera's board of directors may be quite happy living in the provinces.

Los Angeles is a big city and our own opera company is now officially world-class.  Now someone needs to ask "what is an opera company for?"  I think it's time to start imaging how to make better use of it.  You won't be too surprised to learn that I've got some other ideas about how to do that.  If I can get my energy and indignation levels back up, it's pretty certain that I'll share those ideas here.

Los Angeles is an intensely multi-ethnic place.  Last January LA's mayor - speaking at the opening of LA Arts Month - said that 46% of Angelenos are foreign born and 67% are people of color.  He also said they speak 224 languages and represent 37 national groups which are the largest outside their home countries.
We come from every part of the world.  And we come with our culture.  We come with our music.  We come with our traditions, our food, and we bring all of those here to this great city.  And I think that's where the spirit of LA arts scene lies.  It's where the soul of the city (is).  It's what makes us different - with all respect to the ex-New Yorkers here.
You can watch him ramble here.

Surprisingly, Los Angeles County already has an opera company with a much better idea of how to exist in modern California society than LA Opera.  It's in Long Beach.

Here's a short history of LA Opera.

Here's a fascinating article by Ivan Katz called How Do You Lose $5,960,000 on an Opera?  Here's a quote:
$30,000,000 should buy you more than a Wagner comic book larger than life. Hell, $30,000,000 ought to buy you three first-class new Ring productions.

Peter Sellars once said:

There are a lot of parallels between Jimmy Swaggart and (Richard) Wagner -- both were cult figures who cloaked themselves in public religiosity and promoted themselves shamelessly.
Of course he said that back when people would have understood what an incredible hypocrite Jimmy Swaggart actually was.  I suppose you can't be a hypocrite without lots of hype.

Here's a 1990 article from a Seattle newspaper about the Olympic and Los Angeles festivals.

Read about the current state of the freeway murals here.

Peter Sellars' picture, taken in 1991, came from here. (Check out the pictures of composers.)
Placido's picture came from here.

Read the MM post Placido Domingo: High Culture Meets Pop Culture

Idea Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


John Marcher said...

Sellars would be an interesting choice indeed and I like the idea tremendously but doubt it would ever happen.

I really don't think LA is provincial- but San Francisco certainly is, and our opera company is much more conservative at this point than yours.

David Ocker said...

Thanks for the comment John. In the nature of "modest proposals" everywhere, I'm sure it will never happen.

I suspect most West Coast cities think themselves to be provincial. Maybe all cities except New York, Paris, Berlin. We could have a "we're more provincial than you" contest. On second thought, not.

San Francisco Opera has announced its own Ring Festival for next year. That will give ample grounds for comparison. San Francisco has a much longer opera tradition, a more traditional production, a more compact geography and no history (that I'm aware of) of huge city-wide festivals to make silly comparisons to. Maybe the economy will improve by then and legions of RingNuts will attend.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Your blog always entertains me. I'm to much of a rube to put in a meaningful comment so I come back and forth...hang out, say hello.

My partner saw the "rings" free ticket

David Ocker said...

Glad to see you're still lurking, PasAdj. Someday Mixed Meters will return to a more mixed content. I'm pretty sure I have only 2 more Wagner/Opera posts left in me - but past subjects have shown the ability to multiply.

Free tickets to the Ring? I wasn't ever aware of the LA Opera papering the house (you know the routine "We have a pair of tickets to Siegfried for the first five callers"). They did slash prices but not to zero.

Maybe your freebies came from someone who had paid hard cash for them and then didn't care to attend?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

The theme thing is easy to do. Once you start doing a little scratching all sorts of connections start happening.

The ticket came by way of Rex at the San M public library. Vic holds Rex a place in the early morning bread line over at the Pasadena Saturday outdoor market. Rex owed him

David Ocker said...

"Bread Lines" in Pasadena? What's the economy coming to.

(Yes, I've been at that farmers market in the high school parking lot. What type of bread could be that important?)

MarK said...

The pre-festival pronouncements were all in the realm of wishful thinking and way over the top which is why disappointment was almost guaranteed. But in my opinion the main reason that the festival failed to live up to realistic expectations, let alone inflated ones, was that the operatic production itself was not successful - most people did not like either the staging or the set design (often both) for various reasons, and musical side of it was quite uneven too. When the centerpiece of the event is a failure, then there is no way of building anything worthwhile around it.

David Ocker said...

Mark: you raise two points I find interesting. The pre-festival announcements may have never had a chance at coming true, but they were parroted repeatedly by news outlets. Saying things like "this could be the greatest festival since 1984" or "according to Placido Domingo..." or "Not since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival has LA experienced a citywide cultural festival as large..." A Google search turns up quite a number of such comments. These are now part of the permanent record.

I'm interested in your comment that the musical side of the LA Ring was "uneven". I remember hearing/reading very positive reviews of most of the singers and especially of the orchestra. Of course, I didn't attend a performance. By chance I did catch a segment of Gotterdammerung broadcast on KUSC. I was surprised to hear strange balances in the orchestra (which might be due to bad mike placement) and ragged string playing. I had been led to expect a much better performance.

MarK said...

About inflated pronouncements: that is the world we live in - from promises of political candidates to hype of cultural leaders, everything is in the realm of fairy tales, but is tirelessly trumpeted by the media nevertheless. It is our job to ignore it and make our own judgment.
As for the musical qualities of the LA Ring, it depends on one's expectations and standards. If we are talking in terms of an ambitious "local" (read: "provincial"?) company, then it was a very respectable showing. If, however, we are looking at it in comparison with other internationally prominent opera houses (which may have been my mistake), then it was very uneven, especially on stage, but also (though not as much) in the pit.