L.A. Opera and its $32-million Ring
The production of Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle is a big investment -- with big expectations. Here's what went into it.
Achim Freyer, director of the Ring cycle for L.A. Opera, is surrounded by costumes for "Gotterdammerung," the next opera upcoming in the series at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Achim Freyer can relate. Los Angeles Opera has put him in charge of its own mighty hoard -- the $32 million budgeted for mounting L.A.'s first-ever production of the Ring, a four-part work that connoisseurs consider opera's Mount Everest. The nearly five-year endeavor is heading into its home stretch.
FOR THE RECORD:
'Ring' cycle: An article in the March 21 Arts & Books section about the cost of Los Angeles Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle said chorus members earn the same amount for performances and rehearsals. They are paid less for rehearsals. —
Asked what it's like to have that $32-million figure attached so prominently to his creation, the 75-year-old director play-acts the public's response, cupping his face in his hands while registering a look of astonishment and concern. Long esteemed in Europe, Freyer has spent the last several years marshaling a force of more than 350 singers, dancers, designers, technicians, costume-makers and backstage help to tell Wagner's cosmic tale. " 'All that [money], what is it meant for?' " he gently cries.
He elaborates in German. "It puts him in a panic to know the audience has that sum in mind, and it puts a lot of pressure on him," says his translator. Freyer quickly adds that he's not about to let the pressure get in his way.
The number "has been hung around our neck like a yoke," says Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera's vice president of artistic planning. "We don't get a review of the Ring that doesn't talk about the cost." When The Times inquired about what goes into a $32-million production, Koelsch welcomed the chance to have the budget "demystified." He says mistaken assumptions have been flying in operatic circles.
Says Plácido Domingo, who as general director of Los Angeles Opera is overseeing Freyer's work -- and takes direction from him while singing the role of the doomed hero, Siegmund, in "The Valkyrie" -- "It is my hope that [audiences] will be looking at the art, not at the money that they think has been spent."
Ringed by expenses
If L.A. Opera had programmed four other new productions instead of the Ring, it could have expected to spend $16 million to $20 million, Koelsch says. Doing the Ring means hiring 82 musicians for the orchestra when about 60 is typical, and 53 stagehands instead of about 40. Huge overtime expenses are a given: Under union contracts, time-and-a-half pay rates kick in for singers and musicians when a show extends beyond 3 1/2 hours -- and each Ring opera except the first, "Das Rheingold," comes in at nearly five hours.
The lowliest chorus member earns a minimum of $283 plus $94 an hour in overtime for each performance or rehearsal, according to L.A. Opera's contract with the American Guild of Musical Artists. The company won't disclose what it pays musicians and leading singers. But stars' earnings will be in line with what's been paid in the past, the company says -- and the peak rate typically has ranged from $70,000 to $140,000 per opera. With the Ring, seven singers will be in three of the four operas, and an eighth is in all four.
To illustrate some of the special features contributing to the cost of the undertaking, let's follow Freyer's wildly unkempt white mane through the company's downtown costume shop, where he's leading us into a forest of hanging Ring outfits that will never be used in front of an audience. They were made just for rehearsals -- because in Freyer's production, performers don't merely learn how to play their roles, but must master the challenge of functioning in unorthodox garb that he and his daughter, Amanda, have designed to symbolize the characters' dramatic meaning. The less lavish practice outfits spare wear and tear on the real ones that the father and daughter have hand-painted into wearable artworks.
Many of the costumes -- sculptures, really -- are manned more than worn, and the 17 singers, 18 nonsinging performers and 70 chorus members who make up the onstage cast must rehearse in them just to adapt. Freyer's special stage is more than twice as steep as the grade up which some opera-goers will trudge to the hilltop Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and it rotates. Consequently, all performers receive training sessions -- sometimes with costumes -- just to learn how to move on it safely. It all costs money.
Ambition and reality
The economy was flush when the Ring and its price tag were announced in 2006, along with the stewardship of Freyer, whose soft-voiced bearing makes him seem more like a kindly professor than an exacting eminence who began as a protégé of Bertolt Brecht. Now we're in a different era, and the production -- rolled out in four stand-alone parts last year and next month, to be followed May 29 to June 26 by three climactic runs through the entire cycle -- is unfolding amid deep indebtedness for L.A. Opera. That includes a $14-million bailout loan from the county Board of Supervisors, collateralized by $30 million in pledges the company says it has secured from board members.
Stephen Rountree, chief operating officer, says the debt didn't pile up just because of the Ring, but is the result of the ambitious agenda of Domingo's decade-long tenure. Launched 24 years ago, L.A. Opera made a name as a company willing to try new things.
But new and different isn't always popular, and there's no guarantee that the production will generate the $13 million in ticket income and $19 million in donations needed to balance its budget. To break even, Rountree says, nearly 80% of the 3,045 seats in the pavilion need to be filled. With prices ranging from $350 to $2,200 for the full cycle of four operas (except for a few $100 seats with obstructed views), sales are "edging up toward 50%," he says, but are "a little slow for what we might have hoped."