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Critic's Notebook: L.A. gets an in-depth look at complex and contradictory Wagner

GermanyArts and CultureMusical TheaterArtBookRichard WagnerMusic Industry

By now you've probably gathered that Richard Wagner was opera's great maker of epics, with the singular ability to rouse emotions, amass followers and incite enmity. He was mythmaker, and he was mythologized. His operas are massive pageants of humanity, good and rotten.

He was voodoo artist — molder of melody, rhythm and harmony into hypnotic weaponry that bent listeners' ears to his will. He had an anti-Semitic streak a mile long, yet he inspired not only Hitler but also Theodor Herzl, Zionism's pioneer. He could make the glorification of adultery and incest seem like the moral high road. And talk about voodoo — he became patron of Modernism and Modernism's discontents alike. His "music of the future" came to be.

Were it not for Wagner, opera might have perished under the weight of boring recitative. Our idea of the festival is greatly indebted to Wagner's early example building Bayreuth, his home for the "Ring." Where would Proust, Tolkien, James Joyce, George Lucas or Marvel Comics have been without Wagner? In "A Defeat," an early Jean-Paul Sartre short story, the screwy friendship and then falling-out between Wagner and Nietzsche was a way for an Existentialist-to-be to try out ideas about being and nothingness.

A new book, respectably academic and published by Cambridge University Press, has the title "Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand." In it, Nicholas Vazsonyi isolates five areas of Wagnerian activity: "creation of a persona, public relations, development of a niche and brand, marketing embedded in the theatrical works themselves, and establishment of a hub and global network." Paris Hilton suddenly feels passé.

Work through another new book, "Wagner & Cinema," edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman, and you might begin to count the ways Wagner made not just art film but also popular entertainment possible. A composer's influence on music is the obvious part, since German émigrés the likes of Max Steiner and Franz Waxman invented modern film scoring using Wagnerian principles. But the Wagner ethos of total theater has also been the impetus behind much film, early and current. "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Gladiator" and Bugs Bunny were not without their Wagnerisms.

I could go on, but why bother? The Wagner industry has landed in L.A. for a while, and until the end of June, there will Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, Wagner — and more Wagner.

These topics and others are being explored in the expansive and anarchic Ring Festival LA. With Wagner, anything goes. A couple of weeks ago, a German performance artist and a few scraggly followers schlepped from Union Station to the sea wearing tin watering cans on their heads in the name of Siegfried, Wagner's superman. "Ring" tourism will, we hope, boost our economy; Joachim Splichal and his Patina minions promise wursts and cash registers at the ready.

But I'll be looking for more high-powered insights into Wagner's bizarre brain when the famed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio converses with director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola on Sunday at REDCAT. Two days later, the French philosopher Alain Badiou and the Slovenian cultural gadfly Slavoj Zizek will participate in UCLA's Wagner in L.A. conference at the Hammer Museum.

By undertaking the huge effort and not inconsiderable expense of mounting the "Ring" cycle for the first time, Los Angeles Opera asserts that it has come of age. And by initiating the citywide Ring Festival — while invoking the Olympic Arts Festival and its follow-up Los Angeles Festival — the company implies a new urban maturity.

This falls into the category of the public's right to know. Without contact with one of the greatest, most extravagant and most influential works of art of all time, and one that has a direct bearing on us as Angelenos and the direction of present society, can we fully understand ourselves?

Still, being a major city without a "Ring" doesn't really mean much. Versions of the cycle have been produced in Costa Mesa, Long Beach and San Diego. San Francisco and Seattle are "Ring" meccas from time to time. New "Ring" recordings and videos are released so frequently that only fanatics can keep up. We've already got two "Ring" cycles on Blu-ray and one on SACD. So it isn't as if the "Ring" is out of reach.

Nor are the three "Ring" cycles presented by L.A. Opera exactly designed for the masses. Given the capacity of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, only about 10,000 people will have access to a full cycle. Given both the expense of tickets and the time commitment, many in the audience clearly will have the means to attend the "Ring" elsewhere. Most will not be Wagner virgins. For the Ringhead, the cycle is a ritual.

The L.A. "Ring" isn't for novices, either. Achim Freyer's visually stunning if controversial production is a highly sophisticated approach to the work and its history, and the director does not offer easy admittance to conventional Wagnerian narrative.

The four operas have been individually mounted, and many local Ringsters have been won over by Freyer's vision, but some will be attending knowing full well that they will object and are likely organizing cliques of booers — a longtime "Ring" phenomenon, made newly easy by the Internet. We are not in a golden age of Wagner singing. The Chandler is an acoustically challenged venue for Wagner's transcendental music.

Yet Wagnerians will come. Curiosity seekers will come. And many will have transformative experiences while outsiders wonder whether there might not be something cultish about the whole enterprise.

But I think the most interesting aspect of all of this will be whether, through a combination of "Ring" cycle and Ring Festival, there will be, or even can be, a demystification of perhaps the most omnivorous ego in all of art. What makes Wagner so incredibly powerful is the completeness of his self.

A convenient way to overlook the unpleasant aspects of his character is to say that the man and the art are two different things. But Wagner's persuasiveness is that they aren't. All of his prejudices and his desires are part of his creation. His heroes are fatally flawed, and his villains are often sympathetic. His is an effort to both glorify and maybe surmount his monstrous ego.

From its early days, Los Angeles has, through film and popular cultural, flirted with Wagnerism. But without the actual operas readily available for seduction, we had nothing to stop us from using Wagner the way we wanted. Wagner didn't loom, as he did in San Francisco and points East, but came to us secondhand. Joan Crawford walked into the ocean listening to Franz Waxman-ized "Tristan und Isolde" in "Humoresque." Do you think it could possibly be a coincidence that the Los Angeles-raised John Cage became the first internationally influential composer to challenge the very concept of egocentric music?

Next month, Los Angeles will no longer be a "Ring"-free zone. After that, we can figure out what it all means.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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