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'Ring' Master

It's A Circus Act: Achim Freyer Tries To Tame L.a. Opera's Wagner.

February 15, 2009|Diane Haithman

A female voice floats from a loudspeaker, sounding preternaturally calm amid the morning chaos inside Los Angeles Opera's costume shop on South Alameda Street downtown.

"We're ready for a dwarf in Fitting Room 2," the voice intones.

In recent days, the costume shop has been transformed into a world of dwarfs and giants, gods and goddesses, maidens and monsters. Some can grow taller or smaller, like Alice after those "Eat Me" and "Drink Me" treats in Wonderland. Body parts and clothing accessories defy all conventional rules of proportion.

"It blurs the line between what's a costume and what's a set piece and what's a prop," observes John Musselman, administrative assistant for the shop, from his post at the front desk. "Some amazing things are going on back there."

Fitting Room 2 may be ready for a dwarf, but on this particular morning, less than three weeks before opening night, Los Angeles Opera is nowhere near ready for the first chapter of its most ambitious undertaking to date: the company's $32-million production of Richard Wagner's four-part mythological epic about gold and greed, "The Ring of the Nibelung."

The first opera of the four, "Das Rheingold" (The Rhinegold), opens Saturday; "Die Walkure" (The Valkyrie) begins April 4, and "Siegfried" will be unveiled Sept. 26. "Gotterdammerung" (The Twilight of the Gods) is scheduled to arrive at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 23, 2010.

After that, three performances of the four operas in sequence will be given between May 29 and June 26, 2010, as the centerpiece of a citywide Ring Festival L.A. That mega-event, still in gestation, will take place from April 2010 until the following June.

Scampering through the costume shop, paintbrush in hand, is the director-designer at the helm of all four operas, Achim Freyer This bearded, 74-year-old German, sporting black Converse-style sneakers and a swirling meringue of white hair, has become -- with all apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien -- L.A.'s new Lord of the "Ring."

Now you see him, now you don't; he's tweaking the seam of a big-shouldered overcoat or painting red veins on the white of an enormous eyeball. Freyer's daughter Amanda, who serves with her father as costume designer, is also busy in the backroom with a brush.

Freyer's mission: to create a timeless world for Wagner's epic that pays homage to its distinguished history yet rejects all previous staging conventions. "We have so many technical things that Wagner did not have," he says.


Filling many roles

Wagner coined the German word gesamtkunstwerk in 1849 to refer to an operatic performance encompassing music, theater and the visual arts. Freyer tends to use it too.

The director -- who confesses "my English is small" -- communicates with non-German speakers during rehearsals with the translating help of Christina Baitzel, whose official title is not translator but special assistant to L.A. Opera General Director Placido Domingo for the "Ring."

Even with little knowledge of German, one can pick out the word gesamtkunstwerk in Freyer's speech several times as he discusses the challenge of serving as a costume designer, member of the lighting design team and stage director of "Das Rheingold," tasks that usually fall to three people.

When he switches to English, Freyer's brief words sum up the personal toll of the job that has already gobbled up four years of his life: "I have too many to do!"

After decades of gloomy Northern European winters, the Berlin-born Freyer, when in Los Angeles, likes to follow the sun.

Before and after the morning session in the costume shop, he participates in a series of rehearsal-break conversations held in plastic chairs in the alley outside the opera's rehearsal space at Pico and La Brea. But he makes a habit of dashing to place the chairs at the best ray-catching angle depending on the time of day -- never mind that the ideal position might also heighten the possibility of being backed into by a truck.

In the sun, Freyer's hair looks less like meringue and more like a white-hot flame as he talks about how he got cajoled into this gargantuan undertaking by the late Edgar Baitzel, formerly L.A. Opera's chief operating officer.

Before his international career as a director of theater and opera, Freyer trained as a painter, and about four years ago he had reached a point in his career when he'd decided to give up stage work to "paint, paint, paint, all the time."

That was just about the same time that Baitzel approached Freyer about directing a new "Ring" cycle. Baitzel died last year of cancer; Christina Baitzel is his widow.

Freyer says that Edgar Baitzel, also a German native, chatted with him about doing a production of "The Threepenny Opera" by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill -- a logical choice for Freyer, who was a Brecht meisterschuler (master student) and has staged work for the Berliner Ensemble, founded by Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, in 1949.

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