ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT MUSIC

Los Angeles Opera's 'Ring' ends with a deficit but potential new patrons

For better and for worse, the $31-million Los Angeles "Ring" turned out to be a "Ring" for Los Angeles rather than a "Ring" for the world.

The worst of it, for Los Angeles Opera, is a $5.96-million deficit resulting mainly from slack demand for expensive tickets to the culminating, monthlong festival staging of Richard Wagner's four-part opus, "Der Ring Des Nibelungen," that ended Saturday. The best of it, for Southern Californians, were the steep discounts that resulted when many of the anticipated "Ring"-goers from out of town failed to turn up.

Stephen Rountree, L.A. Opera's chief operating officer, said Tuesday that about $4 million of the shortfall came from the lean box office for the three full stagings, or "cycles," of the "Ring" that ran May 29-June 26.

The rest of the deficit is attributed to shortfalls in expected donations. Rountree said the company will continue seeking contributions from its donors to make up the $6 million.

L.A. Opera had banked on drawing as much as 40% of its audience from the ranks of "Ring nuts," a breed of Wagner-lovers known for traveling globally to feed their unrelenting hunger for opera's greatest epic. Tickets were priced from $350 to $2,200 for an unobstructed view of all four operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with an average price of $1,089.

Eventually, Rountree said, 27,000 festival seats were sold — 73% of capacity for the 12 concluding performances, not far off the original attendance goal of about 80%. But 12,000 of those seats went to single-ticket buyers at discounts of 50% or more off the original price. Some people may have paid as little as $25, plus online ticket discounter Gold Star's fee, to see a "Ring" performance from balcony seats that originally could be had only as part of a $350 four-part package.

In all, L.A. Opera said it tallied 87,800 admissions for the 36 "Ring" performances since February 2009 — 79.6% of capacity for a work it rolled out one opera at a time, before climaxing with the higher-priced full cycles. The company did not have figures Thursday for the number of individual opera-goers who saw all or part of the "Ring."

The deficit means that L.A. Opera's board members, who pledged $30 million last summer during an emergency fundraising drive to lift it out of debt, now must raise $6 million more to make up the "Ring" shortfall — or face the likelihood of further economy measures that would reduce future seasons. The company already has pared its offerings and in January 2009, facing what general director Placido Domingo called "a crisis situation," laid off 17 employees and cut pay 6% for the 83 who remained.

Rountree said the "Ring" deficit does not jeopardize L.A. Opera's ability to pay the principal and interest on $14 million that Los Angeles County borrowed on its behalf in December 2009, when the company faced running out of cash and couldn't get bankers to extend a deadline for paying back a large loan. He said that money from the $30-million fundraising campaign is earmarked for retiring the county's bonds in 2013; the county would be on the hook if L.A. Opera were to default.

In the paradoxical world of Wagner, the bad news for the opera company's bottom line brought a boon to its hometown public. No more than half the seats for the three final cycles had been sold at full price by late March, so L.A. Opera began discounting tickets and relaxed restrictions that had given buyers no choice but to purchase four-opera packages. Consequently, far more Southern Californians got to see at least one of the "Ring" operas than would have been possible if sales had sizzled from the start.

If the "Ring" had been a slam-dunk sellout, the three cycles would have played to just 9,189 privileged people. Instead, they became more democratic.

The result, Rountree said, was "a younger, more diverse group of people" experiencing the "Ring" and being introduced to the company. "The potential is there to develop the audience for the future," he said. "These people are in our database now," and will get offers for future shows. "I guess you could characterize it as a silver lining."

Rountree thinks "Ring" sales and donations came up short mainly because of the poor global economy. Times changed drastically from 2007, when the dates and ticket prices were set, to February 2009, when "Das Rheingold" opened as the first of four stand-alone productions. The best seats for the stand-alones were less than half as expensive as comparable ones for the cycles.

Rountree acknowledged that L.A. Opera's draw suffered because of its decision to run each cycle over nine days rather than in the usual six or seven. The extra time, intended to give performers enough rest from director Achim Freyer's physically taxing production, jacked up the cost of room and board for prospective "Ring" travelers by 50%. That kept many away, according to officers of Wagner societies around the country.

Freyer's abstract, highly symbolic take on the "Ring" polarized fans and critics. Some found it dazzlingly colorful, imaginative and refreshingly humorous. Others dismissed it as unintelligibly abstract, coldly cosmic and dramatically inert. But Rountree thinks it was the economy, rather than the production itself, that suppressed demand for L.A.'s first homegrown "Ring" and sent it deep into the red.

F. Paul Driscoll, the editor of the monthly magazine Opera News, said the truest measure of this "Ring" will be whether it created enough good buzz for an eventual revival. "The proof of the pudding is always whether the audience wants to taste this production again."

"I feel confident we will bring the 'Ring' back," Rountree said, but probably not for at least seven years. He told attendees at a post-"Ring" reception Wednesday at the Getty Center that L.A. Opera's music director, James Conlon, "has been lobbying" to stage it again within five years. Rountree said discussions continue with a company in South Korea that's interested in importing Freyer's "Ring" production.

Gold Star invites its customers to rate the shows they see; as of Thursday, the "Ring" had earned 3.3 stars out of 4, on average, from 81 respondents. Thumbs were up among several opera-goers The Times spoke with after Saturday's "Ring"-ending performance of "Gotterdammerung."

"I liked it, but I wish I could've seen the actors' faces more," said Alice Ollstein, of Los Angeles, who had just seen her first "Ring."

"There was never a dull moment, and I'd see it again," said Pat Smith, of Pasadena, another first-timer, who perceived Picasso references in the costumes and echoes of Bauhaus architecture in the sets.

"There are images that are going to stay with me for the rest of my life," said Sue Cannon, of Long Beach, who had seen Long Beach Opera's two-day mounting of an abridged "Ring" in 2006. She said she stuck with the uncut L.A. "Ring" despite misgivings after "Das Rheingold," the table-setting opener that lays out the back story. "It was difficult at first," she said, "a little bit jarring, but the production grew and developed."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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