L.A. Opera’s ‘Ring’ cycle may be in the red


With its climactic stagings of Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle about to begin Saturday night, Los Angeles Opera leaders concede that ticket income will fall $1 million to $1.5 million short of targets set during what now seems like a different epoch: the days before the Great Recession.

Stephen Rountree, L.A. Opera’s chief operating officer, holds out hope that the company can use ramped-up fundraising to fill the resulting budget hole for the four-part, 17-hour-plus opus. He said fundraising will continue for several months after the “Ring” is done, and is expected to yield $18 million to $20 million.

The project could come in with a balanced budget if the most optimistic scenarios pan out for ticket sales and donations. On the downside, according to figures quoted by Rountree, a deficit of $2.5 million could loom. That would compound the financial challenges facing a company that already has cut staff in response to the economic downturn, and has announced a scaled-back season for 2010-11.

As it turns out the $32-million “Ring” announced in 2006 is now the $31-million “Ring.” Opera officials said Friday that they should have revised the publicized total early in 2009 when the project was scaled down from 40 performances to 36. That was done after determining that lesser demand for “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung,” the longest and least popular segments of the “Ring,” meant they could be performed five times instead of seven during their stand-alone runs before the full “Ring” cycle.

The company’s plans for the full cycle are unchanged: three runs of the four operas over the course of 29 days, geared for the ardent opera fans who crave the full-immersion experience Wagner himself stipulated.

In drawing up the Ring’s budget, opera leaders aimed to fill about 80% of the seats and reap about $12 million in ticket income from the 36 performances, with $19 million in donations covering the rest. The stand-alone productions earned $7.5 million, “just slightly below” their earnings targets, according to Rountree.

The problem is that the gap will be bigger for the concluding cycles geared toward “Ring nuts” – the obsessive devotees known for traveling to see as many mountings of the masterwork as they can.

Earnings from ticket sales will be $3 million to $3.5 million for the three cycles, Rountree predicted, but $4.5 million is needed to hit the budgeted target.

Guided by other opera companies’ experience, L.A. Opera had expected that 35% to 40% of the audience for the final cycles would come from outside Southern California. Instead, Rountree said, the tourist contingent will be more like 25%.

Although the draw has been hurt by unforeseeable circumstances such as global economic woes and an Icelandic volcano that has made air travel from Europe a somewhat dicey proposition, Rountree acknowledged that the shortage of out-of-town “Ring” lovers is partly due to a choice that boomeranged: the decision to spread the three “Ring” cycles over nine days, rather than the customary six.

“Ring” cycles typically call for two days of rest, as in Seattle Opera’s 2009 “Ring” and the one San Francisco Opera will mount next year. In L.A., each cycle includes five days off. The extra days have become a daunting expense for tourists, adding 50% to their tab for rooms, meals and time spent away from homes and jobs.

The nine days “is too long for everybody,” said Kiyomi Lueck, treasurer of the Wagner Society of Hawaii, echoing officers from several other Wagner Societies around the country. And most of those Wagnerians say that Achim Freyer’s abstract, symbolic, decidedly nontraditional approach to the “Ring” appeals to some but infuriates many, and may weigh into decisions not to set aside so much time and money.

“A lot of our members find the production a little too wacky,” said Della Geffen, president of the Boston Wagner Society, where none of the 130 members signed up for a group offer for the L.A. “Ring.” “People kind of scoff at it.”

Rountree discounts the notion that the challenging approach has hurt L.A. Opera’s draw, noting there’s a proven audience for unorthodox versions of the “Ring,” especially among the Europeans who were expected to boost attendance but have failed to turn up in projected numbers.

But why nine days for a Ring cycle instead of six?

“The reasons were purely artistic,” Rountree said. The key decision-makers were Plácido Domingo, the company’s general director, and Edgar Baitzel, his right hand man until his death from cancer in 2007. Rountree said they wanted to “keep the energy moving” by minimizing gaps between each cycle, while still giving the singers enough rest over the course of the festival.

In response to lagging sales, L.A. Opera has offered deep discounts and far more flexibility. Until late March, buyers of non-obstructed seats had to purchase a full cycle for $350 to $2,200, which comes to $87.50 to $550 per show. Now, seats can be had for $50 to $275 per show, and you can choose a single performance instead of four.

Rountree said the Ring’s underachieving at the box office will not be a death-knell, as some opera fans have feared given the project’s cost, and the news last December that the company temporarily had run out of cash and needed the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to engineer a $14-million emergency bond sale on its behalf so it could stay in business.

At the time, opera board members already had pledged $30 million to pay off the bonds and other debts. But that money is expected to come in gradually. The company’s bills were due immediately, hence the need for a big loan.

Rountree said that tackling the “Ring” has brought at least one potential long-term dividend: Some new board members who love German opera were drawn by the company’s commitment. Also, he said, the company is in talks with a South Korean opera company that’s interested in importing the production within a few years. Exporting its Ring could earn L.A. Opera fees for lending the costumes, set-pieces, video elements and custom-built stage.