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Wagner's 'Ring' has an ardent circle in Los Angeles

Devotees clash, calling the staging fascinating, delightful, static, confusing. Mostly, they're glad 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' is here.

March 29, 2009|David Mermelstein

Typically, artistic ventures are judged two ways: by the critical community and in the court of public opinion. But in the case of Richard Wagner's four-part "Der Ring des Nibelungen," attention must be paid to a third constituency: enthusiasts of the cycle. These opera-goers -- "Wagnerites" if you want to be kind, " 'Ring' nuts" if you're less charitable -- are not professional evaluators, yet they are likely to have seen more "Ring" productions than all but the most assiduous music critics. Yet unlike critics, they are unabashed fans, rooting for Wagner's music dramas no matter how outlandishly rendered.

"As long as I continue to have a pulse and go to operas, going to 'The Ring' is something I aim to do," says Tim Toohey, an intellectual property lawyer from Pasadena. "It's the most revitalizing experience I have in opera."

Hence it was inevitable that when Los Angeles Opera finally mounted the first installment in its long-promised "Ring" cycle -- staged and designed by the avant-garde German director Achim Freyer -- tongues would wag and e-mails would rip. The flurry started even before Feb. 21, the formal opening of "Das Rheingold," the nearly three-hour prelude that sets the scene for the far longer operas that represent the heart of "The Ring": "Die Walkure," "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung."

Invited by the company to various rehearsals, members of this rabid interest group began forming the opinions they would later refine as they returned, often more than once, to see Freyer's production in its finished form.

Now, with "Rheingold" concluded and "Walkure" set to open Saturday ("Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" are scheduled for next season), these enthusiasts are mulling over Freyer's vision of gods, monsters and mortals vying for a cache of gold -- a vision colorful and provocative but also symbol-laden and sometimes obscure -- and either excitedly anticipating more or making their peace with aspects of the conception that leave them cold.

Perhaps the most intense discussions have occurred within the 26-year-old Wagner Society of Southern California, a 300-member association of enthusiasts led by Sherwin Sloan, a retired eye surgeon who has seen 87 "Ring" cycles since discovering Wagner in the mid-1970s. "I'm a real Wagner cuckoo," he says.

Sloan says that reaction from his group to Freyer's production has been mixed but generally positive. "I personally found it fascinating and imaginative, though it was also static at times," he says. "But just to have it here is positive."

That conviction is virtually holy writ for local Wagnerites, and not just those enrolled in Sloan's society. By common consent, "Ring" cycles, with their enormous scope and ambition and equally large budgets (L.A. Opera says its price tag is $32 million), announce a company's arrival on the world stage.

"We don't have a season that allows for people to come here and see three operas in four days," Sloan says. " 'The Ring' will attract people and serve a public-relations function, increasing interest in Los Angeles. We're already on the cultural map, but this will be more so."

Sloan is referring to the company's plan to mount all four "Ring" operas in the space of nine days in June 2010. Three such cycles are scheduled.

For Wagnerites, seeing the entire "Ring" within roughly a week is a defining element of the experience. It is how Wagner himself intended for the works to be appreciated. He went as far as founding a summer music festival in Bayreuth, Germany, for the purpose.

"It's very different seeing it all together as opposed to in pieces," insists Toohey. "The experience allows one to draw connections, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Also, musically it has a much bigger impact."

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Repeat buyers

Nowadays, thanks to jet travel, attending such events throughout the word is viable -- at least for those with funds and time to spare.

Eleanor Gnup, a retired high school librarian, and her husband, Eddy, began studying "The Ring" in 1980. They've now seen the cycle 22 times -- 13 at Bayreuth. "Before our first 'Ring,' we had never seen a Wagner opera, and I wondered if I'd really like it," the Fullerton resident says. "But once we got into it, there's no question we're addicts. My daughter asks, 'Mom, how many times do you want to see this?' And I say, 'It's always a different experience, and the music is so great.' "

Enthusiasts such as the Gnups are arguably the most important consumers of Freyer's new "Ring" -- repeat buyers, if you will. So it is good that they are mainly supportive, implicitly backing Placido Domingo, L.A. Opera's general director and this project's driving force. (Domingo will also sing the role of Siegmund in "Die Walkure.")

But not all local Wagnerites have been charmed. Eighty-year-old Herbert Berk of Los Angeles, whose interest in "The Ring" goes back to his boarding-school days, found "Rheingold" "confused and confusing."

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