Linda Watson and John Treleaven
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
When speaking on the record was the only option for Linda Watson and John Treleaven, why are they being scrutinized?
By Carol Jean Delmar
I was happy to read in the LA Times that two of the leading singers in LA Opera’s “Ring” production have spoken out against designer-director Achim Freyer’s staging, costumes and set design (“A ‘Ring’ divided” and “Lead singers voice strong dissent over LA Opera’s ‘Ring’ cycle,” May 13). I like to think that I spurred them on since I wrote in my review of “Götterdämmerung”: “If I had been cast as Brünnhilde, I simply wouldn’t have submitted myself to such degradation.” (For a full rundown, please see “’Ring’ Reviews” at the top of this site.)
My father was an opera singer in Vienna and Prague in the late 1930s. I grew up believing that opera was about voice. We listened to and talked about the great singers of the past, and although I attended some opera productions, I studied voice and did more listening than watching. In my youth, if people who lived in Los Angeles really wanted to hear international singers, they tended to take a trip to the San Francisco Opera. Los Angeles has come a long way with LA Opera, but this costly “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” will set it back years. The company’s reputation has been tarnished at home and abroad. The escalating costs of this “Ring” have ruined future seasons in terms of quantity and quality. The underhanded PR tactics to save face and secure a loan from governmental sources at a time when city, county and state funds are dwindling have put a bitter taste in the mouths of those in LA who are suffering. The attempts to excuse and cover up Wagner’s moral indiscretions in order to facilitate a massive county arts festival have been distasteful. And the Eurotrash production is disrespectful of Wagner and the singers and musicians who are performing in it.
If anything, opera is a singers’ medium. Singers deserve to be revered. I do not know that the general public understands the complexities involved in becoming an opera singer. The voice is a God-given gift, but it takes years of hard work to develop the craft. If a singer is not obsessed and driven, that singer will not make the grade. The voice is very intricate and many factors are joined to perfect vocal technique: support, breathing, muscular awareness and relaxation, and vocal placement, to name a few. If you think that patting your head and rubbing your stomach is difficult, just try singing. Add to this the ability to memorize music and text; sing with musicianship and expression; speak and sing in different languages; act, move and dance – and then you may comprehend what it takes to be an opera singer. Then comes years of sacrificing family ties and social activities to enable traveling and to remain in shape and ready to sing. Of course, there are glorious rewards for the fortunate few who succeed. And one of those rewards should be the commitment of directors and designers to create visions that are singer-friendly and void of directorial egotism.
Per the LA Times, Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) called the “Ring” set “the most dangerous stage I’ve been on in my entire career. . . . Your whole neck is tipped wrong,” she said. “It’s very painful to do it for hours.”
She explained that 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.’” Then: “It takes years to be able to sing a ‘Ring,’” she said. “To have that not be important to him is very insulting.”
John Treleaven echoed that the “entire production has been a trying and difficult time” for him, then cited the two injuries he sustained on the steeply raked stage and the complete deterioration of his relationship with Freyer, who “expunged” almost all of the character development from his role as Siegfried.
David Ng, the author of the LA Times story, wrote that Gordon Hawkins (Alberich) left the cast because his mask “interfered with his hearing.”
That really says it all. How can a director-designer be so self-centered and inconsiderate of singers that he makes it impossible for them to hear? Granted, some inconsiderate conductors drown out singers with their orchestras. Singers often cannot hear their own voices onstage and must rely on their sense of feel to get through the rough passages. But here a designer has been so self-centered that his vision is more important to him than the singers he is directing. There should be NO place for such a director in opera.
The fact that Plácido Domingo was unavailable for comment and issued a wishy-washy statement siding with Freyer doesn’t say much for him as the company’s general director. And I love the comment by LA Opera’s vice president of artistic planning, Christopher Koelsch: “It’s hard for singers to understand the context of scale of what he’s [Freyer’s] doing. It seems like [Freyer] has not done the best job in selling that [to the cast],” he said.
LA Opera is clearly defending Freyer. After all, he drummed up the $32 million price tag that is dragging LA Opera downward into the caverns of the Nibelung dwarves who can neither see nor hear. Freyer should have designed the set and costumes with the singers in mind. Instead, LA Opera’s management is paving the way for opera directors to continue with their egotistical shenanigans at the expense of the singers and musicians who have labored long and hard to attain their stature as artists.
And what’s behind the story of the “three sources close to the production” who stated to the Times 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”?
And what about the LA Opera source “who spoke [to the Times] on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the company,” but said that “its management structure doesn’t give singers someone they can turn to with their concerns”?
The employees are under such a tight rein that they can’t talk to the media without prior authorization. Likewise, the structure of LA Opera is such that it is implied that every reporter seek authorization from the communications director before speaking to anyone on staff or any artist currently performing. I once innocently made an appointment with a staff member who gave me a telephone interview. Nothing controversial was said. Well, you’d have thought that I’d committed carnage. The PR director threw a tirade. As he was scolding me, I thought to myself: “Hey, man – I don’t work for you. You’re supposed to be doing PR for the company to garner positive press. I don’t think that you’re doing your job.”
Unfortunately, when members of LA Opera’s staff “are” authorized to speak to the media, you get statements like: “Koelsch denied that the cast is generally unhappy with the director’s interpretation.” I mean, who is LA Opera trying to fool?
THE LA TIMES REBUTTAL:
A couple of days after the Times divulged the singers’ dismay, the paper published another piece that seemed to counteract or deflate the singers’ assertions (“Opera personalities voice their displeasure,” May 16). After all, the LA Times is a sponsor of the “Ring” festival.
Parterre Box’s James Jorden was quoted as having said that before a production opens, opera companies want to show that “people are working hard and everyone is cooperating.” He explained that otherwise a singer could be perceived as a poor colleague. “I would say that in general, the attitude now is to speak off the record or to wait until the production is over,” he said.
Then the Times cited opera greats Maria Callas, Kathleen Battle and Angela Gheorghiu as if to link LA Opera’s exasperated artists with the diva syndrome when what is happening at LA Opera has nothing to do with divas but is just another effort to cover up the truth.
The severely raked stage has even jeopardized the “Recovered Voices” project, which exposes the works of composers who were persecuted by the Nazis. The last two productions had to be created on a raked stage to accommodate the $32 million “Ring.” An article by Seth Hoff on LA Opera’s website last year began: “Opera choreographer Peggy Hickey was on a mission. She had a 12-minute ballet to choreograph on a 30-degree raked stage for LA Opera’s spring 2009 production of Walter Braunfels’ ‘The Birds’ . . . and she was driving around LA looking for a hill to help in ‘mastering a [dance] vocabulary on a rake.’ She had already looked at and walked the rake that was also being used for LA Opera’s ‘Ring’ cycle and she realized that using the usual lifts and leaps to indicate flight wouldn’t work. After finding what she thought would be a suitable hill, she brought four dancers there to start to ‘play with new dimensions on an angle.’”
Sounds dangerous to me as I’m sure the singers in this year’s “The Stigmatized” also discovered. I know that I certainly didn’t enjoy watching them on that raked stage, although the projections enabled a vision of sets and scenery that should have been accomplished the traditional way.
And finally, even Tim Mangan of the Orange County Register had to get into the act. He wrote:
“In the Los Angeles Times today, singers Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) and John Treleaven (Siegfried) sound like a couple of cry babies complaining about Achim Freyer’s ‘Ring’ cycle at LA Opera. Even if they were right, which I feel they are not, it shows a certain lack of class to go public with their complaints at this time, just before the cycle is about to open. It’s worth noting, too, since they complain about the difficulty of negotiating Freyer’s raked stage, that neither singer is a paragon of athletic fitness.”
Well, Mr. Mangan, I don’t think it was in your best interests to butt in. Your mode of attack surely revealed your lack of class which will only serve to erode your credibility as a critic.
I have heard from reliable sources that singers other than Watson and Treleaven have indeed been frustrated by Freyer’s production. Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan is one of them – but then my source wanted to remain anonymous.
I conclude by applauding Watson and Treleaven for speaking out. Singers should be treated with the respect due them, and their voices should be heard.
Los Angeles Opera lacks integrity, sound management and leadership. A complete reorganization is in order if the company is to survive.