Monday, May 30, 2011

LA Opera's Ring Festival LA - one year later

I stumbled across an events list for the San Francisco Opera's Ring Festival and I was reminded that just one year ago Los Angeles was in the throes of a similar event.

Apparently San Francisco, much more savvy about the place of opera in our culture, has avoided some of LA's sillier Festival features:
I wonder if San Francisco Opera has opened a beer garden outside War Memorial Opera House like the one last year outside the Music Center?  Endless operas can make a guy thirsty.

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

As better and better topics kept presenting themselves, I devoted nearly every Mixed Meters post for about three months to various aspects of Ring Festival LA and Wagner's legacy.  (See the end of this post for a complete list.)  Readership dropped as a result.  Apparently opera fans are not interested in contrarian views about their sacred music.  And non-opera fans are not interested in anything about opera. 

But, as it says prominently on Mixed Meters, this is a blog about me, David Ocker.  Even I wondered why I spent so much time obsessing about an event that was terribly easy to ignore.  And, if nothing else has changed in Los Angeles because of the LA Opera Ring, at least I gained some insight into my own emotional responses.  Unless you're my personal friend there's no reason you should care.  Even then, it doesn't much matter.

My motivations for all that effort can be sorted into three categories: my musical background, my Jewish background and my Los Angeles background. 

My Musical Background

My musical education - formal and otherwise - was always focused on the future of music, music as a forward looking thing.  I have always been intrigued by novelty, by the desire to know what happens next.  Even in high school I was constantly looking for new and wild things to listen to.   Eventually new music became my career - even if it wasn't my own music.  While I agree that there is much classical music that is beautiful, I recoil at the notion that it is somehow intrinsically superior music.

Unsurprisingly, there's an awful lot of music which I don't like.  I have strong opinions about music.  In particular I dislike a host of 19th century music and an awful lot of opera.  As such, Wagner is the quintessential music I would like to avoid.   In the context of my musical background, Wagner, probably the most unavoidable historical composer ever, is the prototypical example of everything I hate about music - endlessly long, crude-oil thick, college-lecture boring, evangelically sermonistic, narcotizingly stupefyingly heavy and musically irrelevant to the future.

My Jewish Background

I'm not a religious Jew but I am Jewish both socially and culturally - my parents got that much through to me.   When I was a kid the Holocaust was not particularly a big deal in our family.  Still, the incredible importance of the subject was somehow hammered home to me.  It was something that we were supposed to remember, "never forget".  "Who could forget?" I wondered.  I concluded that forgetting during my lifetime was not possible.

While my parents strongly encouraged my musical interests, they pointedly didn't listen to Wagner.  They told me that Jews didn't "do" Wagner.  The one time in my life when I saw my parents protest anything politically was at a symphony performance.  I was about 10 or 11.  They got up, along with other Jewish people, and left the concert to avoid hearing a Wagner overture.  Besides this one event I never once saw them attend a protest meeting, write a letter to the editor or get upset about politics.

Holocaust survivors in Israel didn't want to listen to Wagner.  They had good reasons.  Whatever those reasons were, they are the same reasons my parents taught me about Wagner's music.  In my opinion a County-endorsed public Wagner festival starkly represents the very act of forgetting the things which should not be forgotten.

My Los Angeles Background

While I still regard graduate school advice that I should move to New York as misguided, it would have been useful for me to experience an actual, intense creative new music scene someplace while I was still young.   But I had the notion that such a community could be created right here in Los Angeles.  After all, this town is big and has musical talent and media and patrons and foundations up the wazoo and it has had periods of intense creative activity in other fields - for example modern art or pop music.  I spent a lot of my youthful energy trying to make new music in Los Angeles happen.

Over the decades I've concluded that I was wrong: a Los Angeles new music scene patterned after my own dreams just isn't possible.   Sorry, it won't happen in LA.  (Please, prove me wrong before I die.)  The serious new music that Los Angeles wants to focus its attention on is almost always created elsewhere.  "Elsewhere" in this context mostly means Europe.  This pattern began even before Stravinsky and Schoenberg and continues to this day.  Sometimes audiences are happy with East coast music.  "Elsewhere", "Europe" "East Coast" all begin with E.  What does that mean?  

The Los Angeles of 2010 Ring Festival did not turn out like the one I imagined in 1976 when I took up residence in Los Angeles.   In November 2008 I was surprised by just how badly things had turned out in this regard when I read Plácido Domingo's announcement that

"Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles."

Can you imagine my disappointment?  Not only was a forward-looking music scene not going to happen here, but Domingo, an icon of music from Elsewhere, was announcing that we would henceforth define Los Angeles musical life around four boring operas based on medieval German mythology composed by a self-promoting anti-Semite who died more than 125 years ago.  What has that got to do with the future of any thing?  I can't think of anything less representative of Los Angeles.

Here's Plácido's quote in context:

More than a century ago, composer Richard Wagner conceived his epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen as a festival event that completely engaged the city of Bayreuth, Germany. In 2010, LA Opera will join forces with more than 50 cultural and educational institutions in Los Angeles to stage Ring Festival LA.  “Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles,” said Plácido Domingo, LA Opera’s Eli and Edythe Broad General Director. “The presence of so many of LA’s cultural, educational and civic leaders clearly demonstrates that the city’s creative forces can be brought together through a cultural festival — in this case, a festival based on LA Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Can Plácido really have thought that a festival centered on the Ring could define the cultural history of Los Angeles?  Not even all of Los Angeles - could he have possibly thought that the Ring would define the history just of music in Los Angeles?  Even just serious music?  Apparently so.  I am still infuriated by the thought.

Aside from my distaste for Wagner's music and Hitler's complicity in Wagner's legacy, the idea that music in Los Angeles - where I've lived well over half my life and don't expect ever to leave - could be defined by Wagner and his music is simply despicable.  Domingo was talking long term - he used the word 'history' after all - not just for the few weeks of the festival itself. 

Reading that quote was maddening, exasperating.  I wondered how could they could have the gall to even think thoughts like that.  While it's true that opera is relatively unimportant in Los Angeles, let me remind everyone that he was also suggesting that RFLA would be the biggest thing since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival - which was a massively big deal.  Fortunately that part of his plan turned out to be purely hot air.

I assume that Plácido is paid an awful lot of money to guide Los Angeles Opera.  Local opera fans seem to adore him.  He draws extra paying customers when he sings.  Moreover, the patrons of the opera must trust his judgement because they take his advice.  Indeed, part of his job is to help define what serious music in Los Angeles will become over time.  And the vision he brought us was "Bayreuth on the Pacific!"  It's simply shameful.

Compare his vision of Los Angeles - supported by millions upon zillions of dollars - with the vision I thought I might have a chance of creating back in the Los Angeles of the 70s and 80s.  Do you think that confronting the disparity of those images might still make me upset?  Don't bother to answer, I'll just tell you ... yes, it did.  A lot.  

And, frankly, there was nothing I could do about it except bitch.  So what did I do?  I bitched.

As a final wrap-up of the subject, here's a list of the articles (plus teaser quotes) in which I bitched about Ring Festival LA:

  1. November 21, 2008 Ring Festival L.A. - Wrong Festival L.A. "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." 
  2. July 16, 2009 Mike Antonovich and Ring Festival L.A.  "requesting that the “Ring Festival LA” shift the focus from honoring composer Richard Wagner, to featuring other composers as headliners, to provide balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent."
  3. July 21, 2009 Wagner with an Asterisk "This suggestion will in no way impede efforts by our local oligarchy to get Los Angeles recognized as a great European city by producing their very own Ring."
  4. February 17, 2010 A Windfall of Musicians "The combination of some of Europe's greatest musicians with two local music enthusiasts, Peter Yates and Lawrence Morton, turned L.A. into the bloodiest cutting-edge music scene anywhere for many years."
  5. March 24, 2010 Wolfgang Wagner (1919-2010) "'Once we have rid the world of the Bolshevik-Jewish conspirators, then you, Wieland, will run the theater of the West and you, Wolfgang, the theater of the East."
  6. April 5, 2010 Ring Festival L.A. Begins  "If you really speak about the festival's significance to the culture of Los Angeles, I'm afraid Plácido's statement has The Big Lie feeling about it"
  7. April 20, 2010 Ring Festival L.A. Meets Hitler's Birthday  "Has no one at Ring Festival LA noticed that this is one small step in the exculpation of Adolph Hitler?  Maybe they don't care about this aspect as long as the event involves Wagner in some way.  Maybe there's been drinking at RFLA as well.  Maybe they're ROFL."
  8. May 29, 2010 Listen to Wagner's Entire Ring Cycle In One Second  "the work of one California composer who, almost 50 years ago, dealt conceptually with the problem of Wagner's Ring."
  9. June 9, 2010 Composers of the Nazi Era "And if some music is good, I suppose it follows that some other music is bad, degenerate.  This attitude is the beginning of a slippery slope.  At the bottom of that slope you will find the story of how the Nazis used and abused music. "
  10. June 16, 2010 Kenton Wagner "If there is a Hell (which I personally doubt) Richard Wagner is there being forced to hear this album over and over for all eternity."
  11. June 17, 2010 Wagner Inspires Pop Music "Apparently, someone, somewhere thinks every popular musician in the whole world during the last 150 years somehow owes their musical style to Richard Wagner.  What a sad world it would be if that were true."
  12. June 20, 2010 Wagner Invades Poland "The comparison of Wagner's Ring to an opiate is apt."
  13. June 26, 2010 Suppose Wagner Had Been Jewish "as Ring Festival LA "leader" Barry Sanders said "We're not putting lipstick on a pig in this thing.""
  14. July 9, 2010 Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi "Wagner fans do not want to talk about that elephant.  The elephant is Adolf Hitler."
  15. July 18, 2010 Hitlerdammerung "Hitler actually got to perform his part from a Wagnerian plot and recreate a bit of German mythology at the same time, spilling real blood and burning real cities."
  16. August 15, 2010 A Modest Proposal For Replacing Placido Domingo at LA Opera "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 Plácido for his services and send him packing. "
  17. April 8, 2011 Eli Broad: Masterpieces, Money and Monuments "Many Los Angeles arts institutions have gratefully endured the sting of Eli Broad's money."
  18. June 7, 2012 LA Opera's Ring Festival LA - two years later  "By remembering Hitler when we perform Wagner, we give ourselves the best chance for preventing recurrences of such despicable and immoral behavior."

A good deal of this post was reworked from private email correspondence with my friend John Steinmetz, who prompted me to explore the reasons for my emotional reaction to Ring Festival L.A. Thanks, John.

Still Angry One Year Later Tags: . . . . . . . . .


John Steinmetz said...

You're welcome, David. And thank you for publicly exploring your thoughts and feelings about all this. (I really liked the Robin Williams clip, too.)

I might have made these comments before, but here goes: Before and during that time when I was participating in the Ring, I read a lot of what people said about them and about Wagner. Perhaps one of the factors keeping energy in the endeavor is the difficult, even painful, contradictions in the works and the man. Wagner was in many ways a horrible person, and at the same time he created work that a lot of people have loved and continue to love. (Many of those people are not Nazis, and some of them manage to love the music without forgetting the Nazis or the holocaust or Wagner's despicableness.)

It's a basic human problem: sometimes horrible people make beautiful things. What's the right response? I remember hearing about some temples in Burma, apparently breathtakingly beautiful, with gold roofs, and in order to make these temples people were basically enslaved their entire lives to pound out the gold, maybe even in basement rooms, going blind from the work. Is it okay to see beauty in temples that were made in such a way? Should the temples be destroyed because of the way people were treated? The reaction that makes sense to me is to be aware of both the beauty and the awfulness, to hold the contradictory truths. I think that those temples embody something basic about living on this earth as a human being: sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are unresolvably contradictory.

The Ring is at bottom a story of redeeming love, and at the same time it's full of violence, and the scene of Siegfried killing Mime is pretty disgusting. A lot of the story seems to concern the need to base power not on law but on love. In the text and music are moments of surprising insight about human beings. (I think the book I most enjoyed took a Jungian approach to the operas.) The operas have moments that I found very beautiful, and even though playing them was for me mostly an industrial activity, there were still passages that moved me. I sat under the stage, where the sound was distorted and I could barely hear the singers, and despite all that the music would sometimes get to me.

I have no problem with people saying they don't like this music; there's plenty of it that I don't like. And I can understand the non-musical reasons why people wouldn't want to hear it; nobody should make them.

As for the inflated claims of the Festival's importance, I guess I've heard that sort of thing so often that I mostly ignore it. It's impossible to know what will be defining moments; that only becomes apparent later.

I agree with you, though, that the Los Angeles classical music scene focuses too much on music from elsewhere and elsewhen. I wonder what music our communities most need now. What music would help our neighborhoods and towns and our megalopolis to be healthier, more vital, more compassionate? I think it would be useful to think about music's contribution to community: who is included and excluded, how does it help or hinder? In a city as vast and complicated and varied as L.A., we need a vast and complicated and varied musical culture that is somehow rooted in this time and place.

Scott said...

"Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles."

I believe Mr. Domingo got that one wrong. I believe LA's cultural history was defined in the 1930's by Walter Disney. In the short period that one can say LA has had any real history that can be identified as cultural, all the arts have basically been the poor step-children of the film industry. One must recognize Domingo's comments for what they; boosterish hyperbole in fulfillment of his role as artistic director of a very expensive, very risky investment. LA's cultural history will never be remembered in terms of any sort of musical event so long as we are in thrall to the culture of cinematic celebrity. I don't see that changing.
Scott Fraser

John Marcher said...

It is with no small amount of glee I am pleased to inform you of the installation of a "Biergarten" on the balcony of the War Memorial Opera House during the Ring operas, only proving that we are almost as stupid up north as they are down south.

One big difference? At least LA Opera's Freyer Ring itself was a cycle of glorious, fascinating genius. SFO's under Zambello is not nearly as interesting and could never be considered ground-breaking.