Notes on Opera in the 21st Century: Wagner's Ring Cycle at LA Opera

Leela Subramaniam


To be honest, it is not that often that I will say an opera didn't sit right with me. Indeed, truth be told, any kind of visual display coupled with music I find enjoyable. I literally live for the art form. There is something about the spectacle, the combination of all art forms together, the rawness of it all. To me, opera has a serious hidden power that many people are unaware of, mostly because of having seen boring operas that lack innovation - operas that simply indulge in extravagance for the sake of doing so, with singers that don't sing from their soul, like Maria Callas did, even though she was rough around the edges.

Unlike other things I am passionate for, when someone tells me they dislike opera, I understand them. I understand the hate for the art form even while I love it so deeply. This isn't really true of painting, or sculpture, or any other art form for that matter. Taste is one thing; hatred for an entire art form is another. Let's face it: if an opera is too long and the plot consists of "I love you, but you don't love me and now I want to die!" (like at least 30 operas), then it's going to be awfully boring, even if the music is stunning. That is, unless the direction is innovative, experimental and fresh. Sometimes music can only do so much if all other aspects are not falling into place.

Callas was aware of the necessity for innovation in opera during her time. In her interview with Lord Harewood for BBC, she elegantly talks about the importance of fresh interpretation, and of opera's constant need to adapt to the demands of contemporary society, instead of continually looking backwards in a quasi bourgeois fashion. But we will come back to this.

When I entered the dress rehearsal of opera Siegfried, the third production in the Ring Cycle composed by Wagner, I was somewhat surprised that even though I love opera, I was scared to walk into a five hour opera by - of all composers - Wagner. Nothing could be more intense. Not to mention I had not seen the initial two Ring cycle operas and I shamefully knew nothing about the Ring, except for that Hitler loved it a great deal, and that Wagner was controversially an anti-semite. But these facts came to me from a professor, without any context behind it.

At first, director Achim Freyer's particular visual language seemed a bit kitsch. It seemed as though he was simply borrowing aspects of other visual/literary languages (german expressionism, picasso's harlequins, Flavin's fluorescents, a faustian twist, and strangely some aspects of Schumacher's batman forever?) and making them into an amalgam that didn't quite always cohere well together. Moreover, the use of the scrim and computer technology could have been riveting, but it ended up falling a bit flat because of the quality of the animation itself (ie. animated fire that looks like the kind families with bad taste put up on their tvs during christmas). And at points artistic decisions outrightly did not prove as effective as intended. I questioned, for instance, several awkward costume changes on stage, and the anticlimactic quality to the ending scene. Some things were just downright not elegant.

But even in being rough around the edges, in not being elegant, in all of the technical malfunctions because of a tilted stage, I thought that Achim Freyer's production of The Ring cycle was boldly and bravely fresh. It was opera as no one had really seen opera before in Los Angeles. Unlike other LA Opera productions, it was far from traditional, but not stale or too irrelevant to the opera at hand (ie. the overly-minimal Madame Butterfly production). It took theatrical convention and threw it out the window, and I thought this was commendable, even while this very fact caused many of the show's downfalls. Freyer's bold aesthetic vision made the lengthy production quicker - the audience waiting for the next thing to happen, like another painted stroke on the canvas. The production took risks and didn't apologize for them and in so doing Freyer's Siegfried proposed something new for 21st century opera. Callas would be proud, I think. But perhaps if there were more time for preparation, the production would have felt more coherent and smooth.