L.A. Opera to perform its first full cycle of “The Ring,” the German composer’s 15-hour masterpiece.
There’s an old saying: If you want something done, ask a busy man. In the next few months, James Conlon, who is in his third season as music director of the Los Angeles Opera, will be one busy man.
He’s playing a key role on the creative team that includes director-designer Achim Freyer in mounting the first Los Angeles production of Richard Wagner’s four-part, 15-hour mythological “The Ring of the Nibelung.” The first part, “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhinegold”) opens Saturday, Feb. 21, with “Die Walkure” (“The Valkyrie”) beginning April 4, and “Siegfried” due on Sept. 26.
Conlon’s also committed to doing Walter Braunfels’ once-banned 1920 opera, “The Birds,” based on the Aristophanes play, which starts April 11. Braunfels, who was half-Jewish, was dismissed as director of the Cologne Academy of Music when the Nazis took power. “The Birds” is part of Los Angeles Opera’s continuing, and thus far critically well-received, “Recovered Voices” series, which presents operas that the Nazis tried to suppress or erase.
Before that, however, Conlon — a New York native whose parents were Roman Catholic and who is not Jewish — will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in three concerts of three major works by Mendelssohn, including his Violin Concerto, beginning Feb. 26.
The fact that Wagner once wrote a loathsome anti-Semitic treatise against Mendelssohn and that the Nazis later banned his music is not lost on Conlon.
“Wagner was one of the greatest creative geniuses of Western civilization,” Conlon said via phone late last year from Hamburg, Germany. “And I think he was a perfectly horrendous human being.”
Conlon said that there’s no way to “clean up or justify the repulsive character of his anti-Semitism,” but that it must be understood “in terms of his megalomania, paranoia and opportunism.”
But, as conductor Daniel Barenboim once pointed out, “It’s not Wagner’s music itself that’s a problem for people of Jewish belief, but rather the association that the Nazis created.”
Conlon referred to the “total abuse” of Wagner by the Nazis. “They kidnapped and hijacked his music for their own purposes,” he said. “You can’t blame him for the fact that Hitler, who was born five years after he died, developed a passion for his music. You can and must blame Hitler and the Nazis.”
Yet to this day, Wagner’s music has always been unofficially banned from Israel’s opera houses and concert halls, and a huge storm of criticism occurred in 2001 when conductor Barenboim performed a work at the Jerusalem festival.
Ironically, Conlon noted, most of the great Jewish composers of the 20th century had little or no problem with Wagner’s music. “Most of those who suffered either posthumously or during their lives from the suppression of their music by the Nazis adored Wagner,” he said. “Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Berg, Ullmann, Schreker — you can go down the list.”
He also observed that the great Wagner conductors, then and now, were Jewish: Mahler, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter; Leonard Bernstein, James Levine and Barenboim. Hermann Levi conducted the 1882 premiere of “Parsifal” in Bayreuth, a Bavarian town where Wagner built his home and where his operas have been staged since 1876.
For Conlon, it’s always about the art. “The mystery of genius is such that we do not understand how the artist surpasses the flawed human being,” he said. “It’s a quaint and simplistic idea that a great artist has to be a wonderful person. Or that a wonderful person will make a great artist. The fact is that throughout history, there is no causal relationship between a human being’s behavior and attitudes and the art that he or she may be producing.”
During the 19th century and later, few musicians remained neutral about Wagner. “Either people emulated him — took his lead and tried to go further with it — or they revolted against him,” said Conlon. “Yet even in the rebellion, you see his influence. Debussy, who claimed to hate Wagner, never escaped it.”
Conlon called it “a Wagnerian revolution that affected every form of art — symphonic music, theater, opera, poetry, harmony — everything.”
So why has Los Angeles Opera waited so long to mount a complete “Ring” cycle?
“Because every one of them is so enormous, you have to bring them in piece by piece,” Conlon said. “You’re talking about almost 20 hours of music, and it takes about four to six weeks to prepare each production. Even when they make a new production at Bayreuth, they rehearse it for three or four months.”
After the last in the cycle, “Gotterdammerung” (“The Twilight of the Gods”), arrives on April 23, 2010, there will be three performances of the complete four-part “Ring” cycle — in order — between May 29 and June 26, 2010.
Conlon noted that, at just over 20 years old, the Los Angeles Opera company is ready to “come of age” with these complete Wagner productions. “They will stretch every part of our company to its maximum, in all the right ways,” he said.
The “Ring” will be Conlon’s first collaboration with director-designer Freyer, whose 2003 production of Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust” was a big success.
But Conlon warns that the music must come first. “You can find many different types of theatrical forms, but no theatrical form will justify a mediocre musical performance.”
Indeed, Wagner’s orchestral music alone shines in concert settings. It doesn’t need a theatrical dimension to bring it to life.
Asked whom he would compare today to the Wagner of the 1850s, Conlon answered simply: Richard Wagner. “He’s as alive today as he was then.”
Conlon wasn’t ready to announce plans for next season’s “Recovered Voices,” but for now, he’s very excited about Braunfels’ “The Birds,” calling it “a very beautiful work.” It’s a late-romantic opera reminiscent of Wagner’s music, which underscores Conlon’s point that many musical roads lead back to that morally repugnant giant.
With the director, Darko Tresnjak, who also staged last year’s well-received double bill of Alexander Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf” and Viktor Ullmann’s “The Broken Jug,” Conlon hopes to reclaim Braunfels work, banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” for future generations.
Conlon’s desire to right social and artistic wrongs, as far as that is possible, seems to be one driving force behind his upcoming Mendelssohn and “Recovered Voices” programs. But in an opera season full of Wagner, there’s also something shrewdly confrontational about it.
After noting that “The Birds” premiere in 1920 was conducted by Walter, Conlon suddenly said: “You know what? We have back-to-back performances of ‘The Birds’ with ‘Die Walkure.’ So there’s a perfect example. You can have Wagner right next to somebody who was banned by the Nazis.”
For more information on Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming productions, visit www.losangelesopera.com.
Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.