Ho-jo-to-ho! High Art And Pop Culture Put a Ring on It, LA Style

05/19/2010 05:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Barry A. Sanders President, Board of Commissioners of the Recreation and Parks Department, LA

The legendary diva Maria Callas once said: "An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down." She could have been referring to all that happens behind the scenes before an operatic production hits the stage and how the experience lingers in the memory long after. LA Opera's Ring is sure to leave a lasting impression on the LA arts scene, but the origins of this production actually go back more than a half-century.

The director and designer of LA Opera's Ring production, Achim Freyer, was mentored in the 1950s by Bertolt Brecht, the influential German playwright and theatre director. Brecht abhorred the idea of theatre as escapism. He felt the audience should always remember that the play is a representation of reality, but not reality itself. He wanted audiences to keep their distance and critical faculties instead of regarding theatre as escapist entertainment.

Achim Freyer's directorial style and approach to set design owe a debt to Brecht. Rather than creating a traditional Ring, Freyer wants audiences to see the conflicts, issues and dramatic action in a different, Brechtian, way. Freyer employs unusual and surrealistic imagery, brilliant colors, innovative lighting, and a stage that is tilted to an extreme angle, making it possible for the audience to view the action with a different perspective.

The Ring of Freyer has its avid supporters as well as enthusiastic detractors. Though some have been quick to protest with battle cries as fierce as Brünnhilde's famous "Ho-jo-to-ho," many more exclaim that the Ring has been illuminated in new and interesting ways. But one cannot be a critic without a ticket. You will have to have a seat to find out what all the excitement and controversy is about.

As I have mentioned before, LA Opera's Ring is the centerpiece for Ring Festival LA. And the Festival balances serious contemplation of all things Ring, along with fun forays into pop culture.

On the serious side, there are a number of events coming up that you will want to mark on your dance card. In an event at REDCAT on May 30 neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute will host a conversation entitled "Myth, Wagner & the Human Brain" with theatre, opera and film director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola. Each of these men is renowned in his field. Your neurons and dendrites will never be quite the same - guaranteed.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will present Grammy Award-winning American soprano Christine Brewer in recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 1. This program provides a rare opportunity to hear a major Wagnerian sing the remarkable Wesendonck Lieder. Wagner held this cycle in high esteem. He proclaimed, "I have nothing better than these songs." While busy at work on The Valkyrie, Wagner made time to compose song settings to poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, a wife of one of his wealthy benefactors. He considered two of the songs ("Im Triebhaus" and "Träume") to be study pieces for his opera Tristan and Isolde. The more scandalously inclined musicologists may repeat the gossip that Wagner had an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, who inspired him to set aside The Valkyrie in favor of composing Tristan and Isolde, but there is no real evidence to support that the affair was consummated. (Sorry TMZ and Gawker.) The glorious songs that Wagner set to Mathilde's poems, however, certainly cause one to wonder about the music's origin.

On the pop culture front, Ring Festival-goers can look forward to Das Barbecü (June 14), a satirical country-western take on Wagner's Ring as performed by the Musical Theatre Guild. As their website proclaims: "Opera-lovers and opera-haters alike should be ready to kick back, laugh and have a good 'ol toe-tapping time."

Now that we have seen the new "Light of the Valkyries" show at the Griffith Observatory planetarium we can attest that it is out of this world. Make sure to get there soon, and take your family.

Grand Performances, the intrepid arts presenter in Downtown Los Angeles that organizes a fine series of free, high-quality world music concerts every summer at California Plaza, has commissioned Geoff Gallegos to compose music for an evening of "Gangsta Wagner" on June 19. Grand Performances captures the unique quality of this Ring Festival LA event on their website with the following apt description:

"Double G (daKAH's co-founder/conductor/composer, Geoff Gallegos) is creating a new soundtrack in the tradition of Wagner's influence on Hollywood movie music. Gangster Wagner acknowledges the more sinister side of the Ring and marries it to distinctly LA flavors. Adrenaline-pumping, fear-inducing and gut-wrenching, the music reflects the intensity of both Wagner's Ring cycle and, appropriately, the West Coast brand of Gangsta Rap. It's Hip Hop orchestra with all of the exquisitely strong strings and winds necessary for the symphonic sound, augmented with an electric rhythm section, drums & percussion, turntables, aggressive guitars, a vocal chorus and MCs."

The LA Derby Dolls (that's women's banked tracked roller derby - think Drew Barrymore's directorial film debut Whip It) have apparently been infiltrated by some Ring-heads. LA Opera was invited to be involved in last Saturday's rumble in Echo Park in the Fight Crew vs. The Swarm (San Diego Derby Dolls vs. LA Derby Dolls, unfortunately LA lost). The LA Derby Dolls, or should we say Derby Divas, graciously invited Ring Festival LA and LA Opera to have a booth with Ring Festival/Ring Cycle information and also provided an opportunity for slide projections at the event. Talk about Ho-ho-to-jo! That's a whole new battle cry for the LA Derby Divas. Check out the video of them appearing on Oprah (not opera!).