It's been a momentous week. Monday morning at the Music Center, Los Angeles Opera announced a monumental citywide "Ring" festival. As many as 50 organizations around town have expressed willingness to help the company promote its first attempt at Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" cycle in 2010.
Monday afternoon, the Orchestras of Pasadena revealed the ominous cancellation of two more concerts this season, bringing the total to four, along with staff firings (including that of executive director Tim O'Connor).
Late Tuesday afternoon came worse news. Opera Pacific, a resident of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, canceled its remaining two productions this season. The company hung a "for sale" sign on its office building. It dumped Music Director John DeMain and President and Chief Executive Robert C. Jones, as well as all but two of its 20-member staff. As for future plans, there are none.
And late Tuesday, Barack Obama was declared president-elect of the United States.
Clearly the economy greatly influenced these events. In Pasadena, Board President Diane C. Rankin said, "Investments on which we depended have eroded." In Orange County, Jones said, "Many of our large donors were less able to support us at the levels they have over the past few years."
At the Music Center news conference, philanthropist Eli Broad, who has contributed $6 million to the "Ring" production, joked that he leaves the opera loving to his wife, Edythe, but that he sees tremendous value in a "Ring" cycle as a spur to L.A. cultural tourism. The four "Ring" operas are usually staged over a period of six days. Well-heeled arts patrons are expected to come to town for a week or more, so let's give them as much culture as they can consume.
L.A. Opera also has to sell this city's first "Ring" cycle to the city. There will be various kinds of education programs, designed for schoolkids as well as adults. Wagner's anti-Semitism will be discussed, although no word yet on whether his vegetarianism will affect Patina's German food festival. At the Griffith Observatory, you will be able to ride around the galaxy to "The Ride of the Valkyries."
Sold a 'Ring'?
Proposing such a festival at a time when other musical outfits are in danger of -- and actually may be -- going under makes it sound as though L.A. Opera is rolling in dough. But mutterings under administrators' breaths hardly suggest that's the case. The "Ring" will cost a fortune, and tourism is likely going down, not up. Viewed cynically, the festival is simply a brazen hard sell for a production by the controversial German visual and theater artist Achim Freyer that promises to be the most far-out vision of Wagner that America has ever witnessed. L.A. Opera may very well be motivated by desperation.
But it is also L.A. Opera's leap of artistic imagination with this production that has provided it with the stimulus to think big. Taking bold artistic chances always opens new avenues. So fat cats in the audience besotted by Brünnhilde and her war whelps are no longer enough. Hip art galleries are enticed to get in on the act. Choppers will whirl over the Music Center in Stockhausen's "Helicopter" Quartet. Want him or not, Wagner will permeate the environment. Now that it has taken the plunge, L.A. Opera has no choice but to operate in an atmosphere of hope, to try to tap into what will quite possibly be the country's new mood.
The Pasadena Symphony and Pacific Opera, on the contrary, represent failures of imagination. Ironically, both institutions have music directors who cut their teeth at institutions in conservative cities -- institutions that bucked conservative trends and became inspiring success stories. The Pasadena Symphony's Jorge Mester was music director of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky from 1967 to 1979, during which it commissioned, programmed and recorded vastly more American music than any other orchestra in the country. His legacy in Louisville (where he has lately returned but not to do new work) is historic. Opera Pacific's John DeMain spent 18 years at Houston Grand Opera premiering one memorable new opera after another.
But both conductors have become marginal figures in Southern California. DeMain has fought for new work and vibrant productions at Opera Pacific -- including bringing John Adams' "Nixon in China," which he premiered in Houston, to Nixon country -- but mostly to no avail under a provincial administration.
Things were maybe starting to look up, given that the next opera in Costa Mesa was to have been Ricky Ian Gordon's worthwhile "The Grapes of Wrath." Moreover, DeMain has deepened as an interpreter. But the 22-year-old company has labored too long as a plaything for local socialites, doing little to build eager grass-roots support or forge an artistic identity.
Music versus money
In Pasadena, Mester, who is an outstanding musician, seems to have lost his taste for advocacy. He focuses on standard repertory, and his orchestra performs in the dowdy, acoustically dry Civic Auditorium. Concerts lack a sense of occasion. The Pasadena Symphony now operates under an umbrella organization that includes the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, led by Rachael Worby. But that is hardly enough to freshen up the outfit in a way that would enable it to compete with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in nearby Walt Disney Concert Hall.
I know from personal experience the potential power of the Pasadena Symphony. I grew up in Pasadena and began lessons with its principal clarinetist when I was 7. The orchestra's music director was Richard Lert, who had played for Brahms as a boy and was a friend of Schoenberg, a champion of Stravinsky and a significant figure in the Handel revival. I fell in love with music in the Civic Auditorium.
The Orchestras of Pasadena are passionately involved in music education. But the organization lacks charismatic leadership, and now the orchestras operate on the principle that they have no choice but to focus all their attention on their investment portfolios. That is a road to doom.
Artists are our leaders. Organizations exist to serve them. The wisest public servants learn from them. If we hope to enter a new era of hope, we will need to keep these priorities in order.