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No Myth: Wagner Is Big Biz

'Wagneroos' follow productions of his `Ring' opera cycle around the world. The economic impact for a host city can exceed $30 million.

October 11, 2006|By Christopher Reynolds

Here's the thing about Wagnerians and their favorite composer's beloved "Ring" cycle: If you stage the operas, pretty much anywhere, they will come, from pretty much anywhere else.

Hence the presence in Costa Mesa this week of Leona Geeves of Sydney, Australia; Ray Gildea of Madison, Miss.; June Slobodian of Winnipeg, Canada -- she's the one in the plastic Viking helmet -- and scores of other impassioned strangers with deep knowledge of Norse myth, Romantic orchestration and German pronunciation.

"I have mortgaged my house to go to 'The Ring.' I have quit my job. I've done things," said Slobodian, a veteran of several cycles in several countries, as she eyed the gowns and tuxedos at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday night. " 'The Ring' is the most powerful work ever written. You learn about yourself every time you go."

Nearby stood Sherwin Sloan of Los Angeles, a 70-year-old retired ophthalmologist on the board of Los Angeles Opera.

"This will be my 80th 'Ring,' " he said. "We meet the same people in different places all the time. It's like this rock group. The Who? The Grateful Dead? It's a similar phenomenon."

The "Ring" cycle is really four operas, their interlocked plots drawn from pagan myth, the score requiring 100 or so orchestra musicians (and several anvils), the stories entailing more than 30 characters, including swimming maidens, gods and mortals, dwarfs and giants. It has incest, a rainbow bridge, a ring of fire that predates anything imagined by Johnny Cash, and a climax in which, yes, a portly lady in a helmet sings and the Rhine River overflows its banks.

The total running time varies roughly from 14 to 17 hours, depending on the production, and most companies present the four parts over the course of a week.

Its fans know that putting on "The Ring of the Nibelung" costs more than most opera companies can afford, and to keep on seeing it, which seems a common compulsion, you have to keep your bags packed and your checkbook ready. So when word was passed that the Kirov Opera's production of "The Ring" would be imported from Russia to Orange County, they were ready.

To spot them, look for the Viking helmet (before the show), weeping men (during the show) and whispering ladies appalled by the performers' German pronunciations (after).

"It helps to be a bit mad," said Geeves, a research librarian. "Or obsessive, perhaps. In Australia we call them Wagneroos."

Geeves is seeing her 14th "Ring," having taken in her 13th last month in Toronto. She was about to explain more when she recognized a man across the room.

"Terrence!" she called out. "Another Wagneroo!"

This devotion may mystify outsiders, but those in the business of tourism take these people plenty seriously. For where Ringheads roam, great wads of cash are spent and precious cultural cachet is accumulated.

By some estimates, a big-city "Ring" cycle, and the travelers it brings, can have a total economic impact of more than $30 million. That's the kind of number that helps explain why, in order to mount the "Ring" in Toronto last month, the Canadian Opera Company spent six years in planning and laid out $11 million -- far more than ticket revenue alone could ever bring in.

The math is similar at the Seattle Opera, which spent $10 million to unveil a new "Ring" production in 2001 and has emerged as an American Valhalla for Wagnerians over the last two decades. (Seattle remounted that "Ring" in 2005 and will bring it out again in 2009 and 2013.)

Last month, when billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad offered up $6 million to help underwrite a Los Angeles Opera "Ring" cycle from 2008 to 2010, the company's first such effort, he admitted he wasn't a great fan of opera. But to be counted among the world's cultural capitals, Broad said, Los Angeles needed this kind of "esteem."

"The point is not to make money out of one, or four, specific events but rather to be recognized," said Rand Corp. arts analyst Kevin McCarthy. "By itself, it isn't going to pencil out."

The Costa Mesa performances -- Friday, Saturday, Monday and today -- weren't as risky a venture as many other "Ring" stagings because Orange County Performing Arts Center leaders imported a preexisting production rather than creating their own. It didn't sell out.

But the center has nevertheless secured a distinction. This presentation, at $308 to $1,500 for the four-night package, has been the first major staging of the cycle ever in Southern California.

The center's box office reported ticket buyers from New York, Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Japan and Switzerland -- not forgetting Sheridan, Wyo.; Victor, Mont.; Bath, Maine; and Kodiak, Alaska -- many of whom coordinated their visits through the Wagner Society's chapters worldwide.

This society is vital, Northern California chapter President Steve Sokolow said, "because frankly, our friends and family don't want to hear any more about Wagner.... We're like a 12-step group."

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