City leaders to launch grand-scale arts festival

Johnson is a Times staff writer.

In what could be the region’s most ambitious, broadest-based artistic endeavor since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, Los Angeles Opera will join forces with more than 50 Southern California arts and educational institutions to stage a 10-week festival in spring 2010 inspired by the opera company’s upcoming production of Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle.

The launch of Ring Festival L.A., which will include a variety of performances, symposiums, concerts, special exhibitions and film screenings, will be formally announced this morning by L.A. Opera General Director Placido Domingo. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, county Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky and philanthropist Eli Broad, whose $6-million foundation gift is underwriting the “Ring,” as well as a number of local arts representatives, are expected to attend.

“I think we are about to build something very exciting,” Domingo said. “It will be something quite unique.”


The idea for the festival, Domingo said, first took shape in March during a round-table discussion of local arts leaders attended by Domingo, Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan, Getty Trust Chief Executive James Wood, Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group.

Those institutions will participate, along with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Colburn School, the Griffith Observatory, the Latino Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, UCLA and USC, and many others.

Several top local arts administrators expressed enthusiasm for the project, which they compared to the Olympic Arts Festival, an extension of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The $11-million Olympic festival was held at venues ranging from 99-seat theaters to the Rose Bowl and included public art projects such as the commissioning of murals by Frank Romero and Willie Herron. It has been credited with helping promote L.A. as a cultural destination, bringing internationally renowned artists, such as Pina Bausch, to the city and fostering creative collaborations, some of which endure to this day.

It subsequently engendered an offshoot, the Los Angeles Festival, versions of which ran in 1987 (at which Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil made its U.S. debut), 1990 and 1993, the last two under the guidance of theater director Peter Sellars.

“With Placido involved, it will draw attention,” Ritchie said of Ring Festival L.A. Although the festival will be smaller in scope, he said, “I think it’ll be what the Olympics were like. The city embraced that idea.”

The festival will be held April 15 through June 30, 2010. Many details, including budget, activities, venues and cost, remain to be resolved. A calendar of events will be announced in January of that year.

Domingo said that in coming months each of the roughly 50 participating institutions will develop activities that will touch on some aspect of Wagner’s artistry or a dimension of the vast conceptual, philosophical and aesthetic universe in which the masterwork orbits.

These might include exhibitions of paintings inspired by Wagner’s work, screenings of films that incorporate his music (such as “Apocalypse Now” and “8 1/2 "), displays of his original scores or German cooking demonstrations. Domingo said he hoped Gustavo Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic’s music director designate, would participate in some capacity.

Festival venues could include some as far south as Orange County, Domingo said, “because we need everybody to be involved.”

An initial show of support in the arts community came at the round-table discussion of the state of the arts, organized by the Los Angeles Times, which brought together for the first time the five arts leaders.

Domingo expects to receive financial backing from city and county funding sources. “We are talking,” he said. “We cannot go without a little support from them.”

Another question mark, he acknowledged, is what effect the emerging global economic downturn will have: “Because there are so many institutions and so many different groups, we hope it will be affordable to everybody.”

In a sense, nothing could be more Wagnerian than a large-scale festival inspired by the composer who crafted the notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-encompassing, cross-disciplinary artwork that would draw on and incorporate elements of theater, music and the visual arts and render them into a unified whole.

Ring Festival L.A. also follows Wagner’s lead in conceiving his monumental four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” as both a cultural and civic happening. He envisioned his opera as a festival-scale event hosted by the German city of Bayreuth. Bayreuth’s annual summer festival dedicated to the composer’s legacy has been held since 1876 and continues to draw visitors worldwide.

Staging Wagner’s four-part work is itself a daunting challenge. Composed over a 26-year period from 1848 to 1874, the “Ring” cycle -- “Das Rheingold” (The Rhinegold), “Die Walkure” (The Valkyrie), “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” (Twilight of the Gods) -- is loosely based on Norse mythology and encompasses titanic struggles on Earth and in the heavens over three generations. Performed with a huge orchestra, including a massive brass section, it is generally staged over four nights, with a running time of about 15 hours.

The L.A. festival will seek to imitate Bayreuth’s example by mounting an international publicity campaign to attract cultural tourism. Although Domingo said that projected attendance is “something we have not calculated yet,” he and Broad have discussed how to encourage the millions who annually visit Southern California’s major attractions to add a few days to their itinerary to take in festival activities.

As for true Wagner fanatics, for whom “Ring” cycle productions are “like a drug,” Domingo said, they’re likely to embrace the festival and may travel hundreds or thousands of miles to attend.

“It could be very good for the city if you could get the touring people to stay for a week or more,” Domingo said, adding that he thought L.A. eventually might be able to be host to an arts festival as often as “every two or three years,” if not annually.

In a phone interview, LACMA’s Govan said the festival’s creation indicated a burgeoning spirit of cooperation among many of the region’s cultural institutions. He said that mutual support also was signaled by the Getty Foundation’s announcement last week of a $2.8-million grant-giving initiative, “Pacific Standard Time.” The initiative will underwrite a series of concurrent exhibitions at Southern California museums showcasing the post-World War II Los Angeles art scene.

“There is a kind of coming of age in Los Angeles in terms of the cultural institutions,” Govan said. “I think there is a general feeling that we’re now speaking in a more international way, at a different level.”