A 'Ring' divided


In a rare public airing of artistic differences, the two leading singers in the Los Angeles Opera's costly and ambitious staging of Wagner's "Ring" cycle have harshly criticized the director, saying the production is artistically flawed and physically dangerous for performers.

In separate interviews, British tenor John Treleaven, who plays the hero Siegfried, and American soprano Linda Watson, who plays Brunnhilde, said German director Achim Freyer's avant-garde staging — which features a steeply tilted stage, bulky costumes and oversized masks — interferes with their acting and singing and poses excruciating physical burdens.

"I'm not going to pull any punches here, and I want to tell it like it is. This entire production has been a trying and difficult time," Treleaven said. "The character development that I bring to the part is almost expunged by this clown-like makeup," he said, adding that he has sustained two minor injuries on the angled stage.

Watson called the set "the most dangerous stage I've been on in my entire career.…Your whole neck is tipped wrong. It's very painful to do it for hours."

The soprano said that at one point, she became so frustrated with the production's lack of character development that she told Freyer to "buy one of my CDs and put it on instead of me."

The public criticism comes at a crucial time for L.A. Opera, which is spending $32 million and has put in 10 years of planning for its first complete staging of "Der Ring des Nibelung." It is the centerpiece for Ring Festival L.A., a countywide arts festival with more than 100 participating artistic companies, museums and universities. It's also awkward for general director Placido Domingo, who is the public face of the L.A. Opera but often is absent from the company as he continues his singing career around the world. Domingo has a supporting role in one of the "Ring" productions.

L.A. Opera declined to make Freyer, 76, available for interview because he was in rehearsals. In the past, Freyer has expressed detachment when asked about public reaction to his work. "Not my problem," he told The Times in 2009, when asked about the public's expectations.

A painter as well as a director, Freyer also has told The Times that he sees himself primarily as a visual artist. His stage productions, which are well-known in Europe, are highly abstract interpretations.

L.A. Opera defended Freyer. "The psychological dimension is outsourced to other forms of expression, like the lighting. It's hard for singers to understand the context of scale of what he's doing," said Christopher Koelsch, the head of artistic planning. But Koelsch acknowledged that "it seems like [Freyer] has not done the best job in selling that" to the cast.

Koelsch also said that the safety of the stage is a "huge priority" and that injuries are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Domingo was out of town and unavailable to answer questions. Instead, he issued a statement saying that a singer's concept of his or her character sometimes doesn't work within a director's framework. "That doesn't necessarily mean that anyone is wrong, since there is never just one way to interpret any given role," he said. "I happen to admire Freyer's interpretation of the 'Ring,' but there have been plenty of other times in my long career when I didn't agree with a director's concept of a piece."

Freyer's artistic vision for "The Ring" has been on display since last year, when L.A. Opera began performing his productions of Wagner's four linked operas as a sort of warm-up for the Festival. The company will mount three complete cycles of the Ring operas — "Das Rheingold," "Die Walkure," "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" — from May 29 to June 26. It has been gradually rolling out the cycle in installments since last season.

The bulky costumes co-designed by Freyer and his daughter make even walking awkward, and the masks required for some performers partially impede their vision and hearing. One performer, Gordon Hawkins, quit the production because the mask interfered with his hearing, according to his management.

Treleaven said his relationship with the director once deteriorated to a point where he no longer wanted to speak with Freyer, and that the director wrote him a long letter trying to bridge the gap.

"My level of trust has been severely dented," the tenor said. "I can only open myself up to a certain extent now."

Watson criticized Freyer's emphasis on the visual aspects of the production over the music and narrative.

"It takes years to be able to sing a 'Ring,' and to just toss this all away — he doesn't say it in words, but his gestures speak louder than words," she said. "To have that not be important to him is very insulting.

"I'm not against modern interpretations," she added, citing her appearance in experimental director Robert Wilson's "Ring" in Paris. "That production was difficult, but it wasn't dangerous."

Neither Treleaven nor Watson had previously worked with Freyer. They emphasized that their conflicts with him are not personal.

"We're taught to be professionals. Our job is to work with the director," said Watson. "The days when you could be a diva — those are over."

The two singers have performed the "Ring" at the world's top opera houses, though they remain better known in Europe than in the U.S. Watson currently is the reigning Brunnhilde at the Bayreuth Festival, the legendary venue in Germany created by Wagner in 1876, and also has performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera. Treleaven has sung Wagnerian roles at Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera.

In the opera world, it's rare for performers to voice criticism in the midst of a production, said Brent McMunn, the head of the opera program at the USC Thornton School of Music. He said that another key cast member had expressed unhappiness with the L.A. production, but he declined to name the singer.

"Everyone wants to keep their network of good relationships in the business," McMunn said.

Three sources close to the production stated that nearly every principal performer had expressed misgivings about the staging, though the sources would not speak for attribution because they were not authorized by the company to talk to the media. Koelsch denied that the cast is generally unhappy with the director's interpretation.

A major complaint is the raked stage, which tilts at a 14-degree angle toward the audience, among the steepest ever used at the L.A. Opera. Theater and opera professionals said raked stages are typically at angles of less than 10 degrees. The purpose of the raked stage is largely artistic, but Koelsch said that it allows audiences in different parts of the theater to see the action taking place at the back of the set.

Treleaven said he injured his knee during a scene of "Gotterdammerung" in which he was required to kneel on the raked stage. Last year, he twisted his ankle while performing in "Siegfried." One source who saw the performance said the singer limped through the rest of the opera.

The roles of Siegfried and Brunnhilde are considered to be among the most difficult in the operatic canon — not only in terms of vocal technique but for the duration that performers are required to sing. (The final three operas in the "Ring" each clock in at more than five hours, including intermissions.)

Watson said she has voiced her safety concerns to L.A. Opera and as a result the company has improved the stage's traction and introduced miniature platforms to support the performers. Treleaven said he has reported his injuries to L.A. Opera but that he has not taken further action.

An official for the American Guild of Musical Artists — the union that represents operatic, choral and dance performers — said that the burden is on the artists or union delegates to report unsafe conditions. The union doesn't have the strict guidelines regarding raked stages in opera that Actors' Equity Assn. has put in place for Broadway and other theatrical productions.

One source in L.A. Opera, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the company, said that its management structure doesn't give singers someone they can turn to with their concerns. "It's hard for singers to find someone to go to bat for them," said the source.

The company has operated without a solely dedicated chief operating officer since Edgar Baitzel, who was key in selecting Freyer to direct the "Ring," died in 2007. Currently, Stephen Rountree is pulling double duty as chief operating officer of L.A. Opera and chief executive of the Music Center.

david.ng@latimes.com

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