Viral outbreak of Wagner fever

Among the eclectic offerings on tap for Los Angeles Opera’s Ring Festival LA will be a Teutonic beer garden, lectures on Richard Wagner’s masterful artistry and racist ideology, a screening of the Bugs Bunny classic “What’s Opera, Doc?” and a convergence of Norse mythology and astrophysics at the Griffith Observatory dubbed “Light of the Valkyries.”

Among the festival ideas that didn’t make the final cut: a “dancing blimp” over downtown L.A. and an all-German dog show at the Convention Center. (“The American Kennel Club in New York refused to play,” said Barry Sanders, an attorney and longtime L.A. Opera board member who’s one of the festival’s prime movers.)

Despite the absence of dachshunds, Dobermans and dirigibles, Ring Festival LA is being billed by Plácido Domingo, the superstar Spanish tenor and L.A. Opera’s general director, as “the largest, most significant cultural festival in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.”

That imposing claim fits the opera company’s broad ambitions this spring in mounting “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” Wagner’s four-work, 17-hour magnum opus about tainted gold, Nordic gods and human superheroes. The production has already drawn international attention for its $32-million price tag and love-it-or-hate-it staging by controversial avant-garde German director Achim Freyer. The full cycle will be performed three times, beginning May 29.

But there are major differences between the Olympic Arts Festival and Ring Festival LA, which officially begins April 14 with a wine and hors d’oeuvres soiree at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Although the actual opera production’s cost is steep, Ring Festival LA is very much an early 21st century affair.

It’s a virtually zero-budget, decentralized, homegrown, do-it-yourself effort that, rather than relying on corporate largesse or private philanthropy, depends on the cooperative goodwill, creativity and enlightened self-interest of local arts organizations.

“Frankly, it was a product of circumstances,” said Marc Stern, L.A. Opera’s board chairman. “We didn’t have an infrastructure, we didn’t have the financing, so all we could do is say, ‘This is exciting, you should be part of it.’ ”

The more than 115 cultural groups from across Southern California that agreed either to develop new “Ring"-related programming for the festival or to target existing programming toward some aspect of Wagner’s artistry, life and times will receive a modicum of free publicity plus a share of the cachet attached to the monumental project.

Festival participants range from the large and prominent to the small and esoteric. The J. Paul Getty Museum is hosting a seminar on the classical roots of Wagnerian mythology. Let’s Be Frank, Culver City-based purveyors of grass-fed beef hot dogs, will be selling its wares, including a “special German hot dog,” at selected festival events.

The artist known as Double G, a.k.a. Geoff Gallegos, co-founder and conductor-composer of daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, is creating an urban soundtrack marrying the “Ring’s” darker textures to some distinctively L.A. sonic influences. The Musical Theatre Guild will present “Das Barbecü,” a country-western parody of the “Ring,” on June 14 at Glendale’s Alex Theatre. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host a presentation on music and film animation, including the aforementioned Warner Bros.’ parody starring Bugs Bunny opposite Elmer Fudd in a Viking helmet.

On a more sober side of the pop-culture spectrum, several organizations are scrutinizing Wagner’s infamous anti-Semitism and the way that his music was appropriated for Nazi propaganda after his death.

The circumstances in 1984 were markedly different. Back then, several of the organizations participating in the Ring Festival, including L.A. Opera, didn’t even exist, and more of the talent was imported from outside.

With the potent Olympic brand name behind them, organizers of L.A.'s 1984 festival, which preceded the start of the Games, were able to attract major corporate backing and assemble a $12-million budget. Those resources let them book several top-flight international acts, including a production of “Turandot” by the Royal Opera of London, starring Domingo, and an appearance by German experimental choreographer Pina Bausch’s dance company.

According to Sanders, who was part of the core group that organized and ran the Olympic Arts Festival, $5 million of its total budget came from a single donor, the Times Mirror Foundation, the charitable arm of Times Mirror Co., then-owner of the Los Angeles Times.

“It was a typical top-down operation,” Sanders said. “We ordered stuff up, we paid the bills, they came, they performed and so on. It was truly high art coming to town to be sampled by this public, who otherwise didn’t have a lot of exposure to it.”

By comparison, Sanders said, Ring Festival LA has developed “virally,” gradually gaining in size and diversity as more arts groups signed on.

“Our promise to our partners is that we will cross-promote, we’ll drive traffic toward them,” Sanders said. “Nothing wrong with the ’84 approach, but the state of mind now is one more of co-equality and cooperation. . . . These concepts would be alien in ’84. That was a mainframe world.”

John Rockwell, a former New York Times arts critic and editor who was also the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival in Manhattan, serving from 1994 and 1998, said festivals annexed to large cultural happenings have become fairly common. “Everybody does it, but I think this one [the Ring Festival] seems to be more ambitious than most,” he said.

Apart from whatever the artistic merits of its production are, he suggested, L.A.'s festival may help the company stand out from the pack.

“I think these ancillary events are fun, and it’s a good marketing tool,” Rockwell said.

They’re also useful in contextualizing the artistry of composers, especially ones whose works are as dauntingly complex as Wagner’s, he added.

Sanders said the festival’s primary goal isn’t to sell tickets to opera performances, but to expose Southern Californians to one of the most titanic and controversial of proto-modern artists, and to give out-of-town visitors something to do on days when the opera house is dark.

James Conlon, L.A. Opera’s musical director, said that although his professional focus in coming weeks necessarily will be on the music he’ll be performing, “There’s so much extra-musical material that’s of the essence.”

Conlon will take part in several festival events, including an April 19 lecture on “Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring’: Eros, Mythos, Ethos” at downtown’s Central Library.

Through such events, he believes, festival attendees will be able to see “what a vast, inexhaustible subject the ‘Ring’ is, Wagner is. The depth is so deep that you can’t get to the bottom of it,” he said.

So what might Wagner make of a festival devoted to his artistic genius, ugly prejudices and vast intellectual and aesthetic cosmos? Rockwell said the composer in some ways anticipated such grand-scale events when he spoke of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a sort of über-artwork that would synthesize music, theater and the visual arts.

Wagner always was in favor of any “great event centered on him,” Rockwell added. “I think, in theory, he’d be all for it.”