A new fall arts season is our perennial reversal of nature. We enter into it anticipating spring’s rebirth and renewal, not autumn’s death and destruction. The planting, of course, starts early, typically years early. This fall, though, is an occasion to look unusually far back.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Olympic Arts Festival, an unprecedented undertaking for Los Angeles and the Olympics that involved 1,500 artists in 400 events. The milestone has been all but ignored, but no matter. Unravel the new season’s DNA and you will find numerous Olympic Arts Festival strands. The arts, and especially the performance arts, in Los Angeles could be split into the time before the summer of 1984 and what has come after.
There are other dividing lines. This season sees the 50th anniversaries of the Music Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. You will hear plenty from those institutions as they appropriately celebrate how they changed the local landscape by providing a foundation for the city’s artistic life and playing a crucial role in giving us a brand.
But it was the Olympic Arts Festival that in one fell swoop made L.A. an international arts destination and a national leader. It also demonstrated, painfully at times, our limitations, some of which we have yet to overcome.
Organized by Robert F. Fitzpatrick, then president of CalArts, the festival took advantage of local resources — orchestras, dance and theater companies, museums and galleries — but most of that paled next to the extraordinary imports, especially from Europe and Asia.
One high point was bringing the Royal Opera from London to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with three productions, including a new one of Puccini’s “Turandot” starring tenor Plácido Domingo. After decades of failed attempts to create an opera company in Los Angeles, this was just what was needed to stimulate the fundraising necessary to create a new resident at the Music Center.
Two years later, Music Center Opera, now Los Angeles Opera, raised its first curtain with Verdi’s “Otello,” starring, once more, Domingo. This weekend, L.A. Opera has opened with Verdi’s “La Traviata,” starring now-baritone and company General Director Domingo.
Beyond opera, the real benefit of the festival has been to simply expand our sense of the range of possibilities in all the arts. Pina Bausch’s revolutionary dance theater from Wuppertal, Germany, made its U.S. debut with, among other things, an opera/dance hybrid of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” It just so happens that this fall’s most anticipated opera is provocative director Barrie Kosky’s new production of “Bluebeard” at L.A. Opera next month.
The international component in the summer of 1984 was especially important, with dance and theater from Japan powerfully reminding of our Pacific Rim connections. Plus, there were the further examples of how European dance, theater and music were already applying Asian influences, such as in the Parisian Shakespeare of Le Théâtre du Soleil or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Sternklang,” stargazing music played at night in a park by a visionary German composer whose music was radically influenced by trips to Japan. These make the regular offerings at REDCAT and CAP UCLA feel like offspring of the Olympic Arts Festival.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic got involved nontraditionally as well, performing avant-garde new music, jazz and John Williams (Michael Tilson Thomas premiered his “Olympic Fanfare” at the Hollywood Bowl) — all of which has become business as usual for the orchestra. Can you guess what fanfare Gustavo Dudamel will conduct to open the L.A. Phil’s John Williams gala later this month?
Most important of all, perhaps, was the way the festival gave L.A. confidence. Would we have had Walt Disney Concert Hall without the festival? Shortly after the Olympics, Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra’s executive director, used the renown the festival brought L.A. as part of his pitch to Lillian Disney. Her $50-million gift is what made the hall possible.
There was also a real Olympic Arts Festival offspring: the Los Angeles Festival. Fitzpatrick headed the first in 1986, which opened in a tent downtown introducing a new kind of circus from Quebec founded that year and called Le Cirque du Soleil. That festival also included Peter Brook’s epic 12-hour production of “The Mahabharata.”
Two considerably less traditional festivals followed in 1990 and 1993 under the direction of Peter Sellars that significantly stretched the international reach and also the local reach. Mayor Tom Bradley called it “the largest showcase of international performing and creative artistry ever.”
That may have been a politician’s hyperbole, but that’s some festival that can inspire an L.A. mayor to commit such hyperbole for the arts. Sellars offered a Pacific Rim feast, but he also in 1993 took note of the cultures in our own South Los Angeles as a way to draw attention to our cultural resources in the wake of the L.A. riots the previous year.
In the end, the economic downturn that followed the riots and Northridge earthquake destroyed the city’s will to support such a festival. Once a festival leader, L.A. looked as if it would no longer be a festival city at all. The festival legacy, though, was renewed by L.A. Opera when it organized a citywide, grass-roots festival around its 2010 production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. This then inspired the Pacific Standard Time festivals as well as a Benjamin Britten festival. But these can hardly compare with the ambition of regularly presenting the largest showcase of international performing and creative artistry ever.
Nothing, however, could top what was to have been the Olympic Arts Festival centerpiece, namely the largest international grand (if highly experimental) opera ever: Robert Wilson’s “the CIVIL warS.” Several segments were funded by and produced in various countries. Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars and David Byrne were among the composers. David Bowie and opera stars Jessye Norman and Hildegard Behrens were to be part of the eight-hour shebang when it was put together at the Shrine Auditorium.
But Fitzpatrick could not raise the funds for the Shrine performance, and there was never a complete “CIVIL warS.” The music, at least, has lived on in recent L.A. Phil and Jacaranda performances.
Meanwhile, talk — more like murmurings in the early fantasy stage — of finally mounting a full “CIVIL warS” continues. So too does Wilson’s presence: He is a current CAP UCLA artist fellow, and the fall highlight at UCLA is his production of Daniil Kharms’ “The Old Woman,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe.