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Ringlet of fire

Call it an opera-tizer. With an intimate, condensed version of Wagner's 'Ring' cycle, Long Beach Opera aims to please purists and tempt the wary as it ushers in a series of Southland stagings of the saga.

January 08, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

IT was most likely unintentional -- but in a recent interview, an enthusiastic Andreas Mitisek, artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera, coined an oddly appropriate word for most productions of Richard Wagner's epic four-opera cycle, "The Ring of the Nibelungen": gigantomanic.

"I personally think it was meant as a human drama, with interactions between people," Mitisek said of the German composer's mythic saga, considered the opera world's most ambitious undertaking with its customary length of 16 hours. The four operas are usually spread over five days to give the singers a chance to rest between the vocally challenging installments.

"It's usually on a huge stage, and then you have a huge orchestra between you and the stage," Mitisek said. "And when you do it in a gigantomanic way, you take away that real intimacy that can happen when two characters stand onstage and sing to each other."

The world of opera does not generally lend itself to puns and bad jokes -- but in this case, prepare for them in gigantomanic proportions: This month, Long Beach Opera is presenting an abridged "Ring" at the Center Theater in downtown Long Beach. The short version, conceived in the late '90s at England's Birmingham Opera Company by Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove, is a co-production with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, which presented the first two operas, "The Rhinegold" and "The Valkyrie," last summer and will complete the cycle with "Siegfried" and "Twilight of the Gods" in July. Jonathan Eaton, artistic director of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, came to Long Beach to direct this first West Coast production.

Yes, it's a "Ring"-let, a pocket "Ring," the Short Cycle, the Semi-Cycle. And the condensation -- which will be performed twice in its entirety, in English instead of German, over two weekends, next Saturday and Sunday and Jan. 21 and 22 -- is, of course, a great way to Ring in the new year.

But then, untold opera fans have deemed "The Ring" a life-enhancing experience since 1876, when it was first performed in its entirety at the theater in Bayreuth, Germany, that Wagner built specifically to showcase it.


An exercise in eclecticism

SIMILARLY, myriad directors and designers have been inspired by the composer's vast saga of Norse gods and goddesses and human greed and folly, which brought the world the amazonian Valkyries (chief among them Brunnhilde), the floating Rhine Maidens and the valiant hero Siegfried and which clearly inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's own "Ring" myth. There have been slavishly detailed "Ring" productions, starkly symbolic ones and scores in between. Washington National Opera announced last month that its new "Ring" would be inspired by the history and landscape of the United States. Designer Danila Korogodsky's renderings for the Long Beach version suggest a collision between abstraction and Tolkien.

One avid Los Angeles "Ringhead" -- a term frequently used to describe those who follow stagings of the cycle around the world -- is a little confused about how to add Long Beach Opera's mini-"Ring" to his bragging rights. "I've seen 74 'Rings' complete. The last one was in Amsterdam," says retired ophthalmologist Sherwin Sloan, president of the Los Angeles Wagner Society and a member of the Los Angeles Opera board of directors. "I think I'll call this my 74th-and-a-half."

All kidding aside, Sloan is so excited by the opportunity to see a new take on "The Ring" that he's organized a group of about 30 L.A. Opera board members to attend the Long Beach cycle; in the spring, he plans to lead another such group to Paris to see a full-length "Ring" staged by Robert Wilson. "I've never seen an abbreviated 'Ring' -- I think it's a good idea," Sloan says. "And we get it done in two days."

Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera, which presented full-length "Ring" cycles in 2001 and 2005, thinks a shortened "Ring" is a great idea.

"There are plenty of Wagner purists who are going to complain about it, but that's neither here nor there," Jenkins says. "The important thing is to introduce the cycle as much as possible to people who haven't seen it before. If Long Beach Opera succeeds in doing that, it's great for everybody, because almost anyone who sees a reduced version of something really great wants to see the whole thing."

More by coincidence than design, Long Beach Opera also will launch what is shaping up locally as the year of "The Ring." In early 2005, the Orange County Performing Arts Center announced that it would import the Kirov Opera's "Ring" from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006. Because the Long Beach staging comes earlier, however, the company beats OCPAC in the "Ring" competition, boasting the first production ever "in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas." It can't claim the catchier "first 'Ring' in Southern California" distinction because the Seattle "Ring" was staged in San Diego in the 1970s, albeit over four years.

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