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HARD TIMES: CULTURE AT A CROSSROADS

Art's big dreams are worth the cost

October 26, 2008|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Wotan built a house he couldn't afford. Credit was easy; he was a god, after all. He had a particularly wily mortgage broker in Loge, the god of fire, who knew how to manipulate questionable underground funds. The deal went bad. The titans of finance fell, and once the moral levee broke, Valhalla, Wotan's manse, was destroyed by flood. Power was turned over to the people, and gold was returned to anti-speculators who believed in hoarding wealth.

That's Wagner's "Ring" cycle in a ridiculously oversimplified nutshell. But this skeleton shows that one of the most ambitious and obsessively revered artworks of all time can be reduced to a cautionary tale of greed.

Only, the skeleton is worthless. Were the "Ring" really to boil down to an op-ed column about fiscal responsibility we would live right now in a better-managed but boring world. Wotan is not the most morally upright character in the "Ring," but he is the most endearingly human. He is the only one we shed a tear for. He loves his daughter. His heart, and ours, is broken when he is forced to abandon her. His heart, and ours, breaks again when Wotan is forced to do the right thing and forsake power.

Wotan's dream signified Wagner's dream to build something of greater significance than luxury housing. The composer talked King Ludwig II of Bavaria into financing his villa and an opera house specially designed for his work in Bayreuth, Germany. After 132 years, the exclusive Bayreuth Festival is still devoted exclusively to Wagner's operas, still run under the auspices of the questionable Wagner family and still relies on public money. The most difficult festival in the world to get a ticket to, it remains the stomping ground of captains of finance and industry. And improbably, it continues to foster operatic innovation that trickles into the international opera consciousness.

Can we learn from Wagner, who didn't take no for an answer and who didn't accept that society is sustained by counting money? The calls to cancel the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the early '90s during Los Angeles' last major recession nearly succeeded, and the hall was delayed for many years.

Fortunately, that didn't succeed, and Los Angeles has a building that lifts our spirits and serves as a symbol of a great city's aspirations. It also is an income-producing tourist attraction and magnet for downtown investment. How many times over has the hall earned its relatively paltry $265-million investment, which is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Wall Street bailout? Who got the better deal?

Moral issues can't, of course, be ignored. On a deep level, Wagner's "Ring" is a profound study in the gray areas of good and evil. Wagner himself got up to no good when he spewed anti-Semitism in his noxious prose. Hitler thought of Bayreuth as his Camp David.

But art helps us distinguish the good in dreams from the bad, and supporting art is never a mistake. The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which put artists to work during the Great Depression, helped inspire a discouraged nation and left us with a legacy of murals, theaters and lasting art.

With credit tight, delays in projects may be inevitable. But that doesn't make canceling worthwhile programs or letting dreams die an option. Los Angeles Opera's first "Ring" cycle starts next year. The L.A. Phil is about to initiate a groundbreaking inner-city education plan. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is in dire need of renovation. Much else of great advent is planned around town, and around the country.

These aren't exactly building landmarks, but they are, in a way, of landmark status. I have no idea of how we can afford any of this, but they needn't break the bank. Deals may have to be made with the devil and later broken -- Wagner's got helpful tips there. But the future, history teaches us, is still the future.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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