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'Ring' and a bind

The recession is making L.A. Opera's production of the Wagner epic an

February 20, 2009|David Ng

In Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the first opera of his four-part saga "The Ring of the Nibelung," a stash of gold resting at the bottom of the River Rhine serves as a catalyst for a centuries-long struggle among gods, mortals and other inhabitants of a mythological world.

Kicking off Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera's production of "The Ring" represents another kind of monetary epic -- a fight to come up with as much as $32 million in the midst of a recession that has severely affected donations, the lifeblood of high culture.

L.A. Opera's "Ring" is the biggest and most expensive project in the company's 22-year history. The first two chapters, "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure," open this season, while the final two installments are scheduled for next season. Plans call for the project to culminate in 2010 with three complete performances of the cycle.

The $32-million price tag of "The Ring" may not sound like a lot by Hollywood standards, but for L.A. Opera, whose annual budget over the last few years has ranged between $40 million and $60 million, it's an ambitious gamble that comes just as the company has been forced to make internal cuts.

"It scares me, quite frankly," says Marc Stern, L.A. Opera's chairman and chief executive. "But we'll persevere. We didn't anticipate the economic climate as it currently is, and we're doing everything we can short of impacting artistic excellence."

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Ambitious goal

The company acknowledges that it still needs to raise $8 million of its $19.5-million fundraising goal for "The Ring" by the end of its current fiscal year, in June. The fundraising efforts began in 2006, when Eli and Edythe Broad announced a gift of $6 million. Since then, the company says it has raised an additional $5.5 million for "The Ring." (The balance of the budget will be covered by ticket sales and general contributions.)

"It would be most advantageous if we can get the bulk of our fundraising done this year, and we're trying to do it when the economy is just awful," says Chief Operating Officer Stephen Rountree.

Rountree says the recession is causing patrons and donors to delay gifts, which has directly affected the company's operations. Last month, it announced the layoffs of 17 employees as well as cost reductions of 25%.

Those close to "The Ring" insist the cuts won't affect the artistic quality of the production. Still, L.A. Opera has had to find creative ways to keep "The Ring" on budget.

Most recently, it decided to scale back the number of stand-alone performances next season for "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" (the last chapters of the cycle) to five each from the seven originally scheduled. The decision was based on a ticket sale analysis of how many performances the L.A. market could support.

The company is also saving money by having Achim Freyer, the production's German director, use locally hired dancers instead of his Berlin-based ensemble, which he usually imports when working abroad.

"It was really a calculus of practicality," says Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera's vice president of artistic planning. "We had to consider the cost of bringing in 12 people over a period of two years."

Of the $32-million budget, $11 million is allocated for physical expenses, including sets and visual effects. (Freyer's production is a futuristic interpretation with video projections and lightsabers.) The remaining $21 million is earmarked for labor costs, which include a cast of 29 singers (playing 34 roles) and a 96-member orchestra.

Last year, the company held meetings to discuss the possibility of postponing "The Ring" in response to the recession. One idea was to produce one installment of the cycle per year over four years, allowing the company to spread its costs over a longer period. (In November, Washington National Opera -- led, like L.A. Opera, by general director Placido Domingo -- announced that it would indefinitely delay its planned production of the "Ring" cycle, citing the economic downturn.)

But by the end of 2008, L.A. Opera had already spent more than half of the $32-million "Ring" budget, mostly on production design and rehearsals. Leaders quickly realized that this freeway to Valhalla had no exit ramp.

"It would have been fiscally irresponsible not to go ahead and finish it," says Rountree. "That's not to say it won't be a real challenge to raise the rest of the money and to hold it on budget."

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Appeal is clear

Donations may be off, but "Ring" ticket sales are proving relatively strong. As strange as it may sound, the cycle is remarkably recession-proof when it comes to drawing big crowds, according to industry experts.

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