The ‘Ring’ Failure: Where Does LA Opera Go From Here?
By Carol Jean Delmar
Ring Festival LA was a party for insiders — for the sponsors, participants, artists, donors and politicians – but not for the people who live in LA, and not for the tourists or out-of-town critics, because they just didn’t come. They didn’t come for a variety of reasons. The most widely mentioned excuse has been the recession, but then, that was just an excuse. They didn’t come because the Achim Freyer “Ring” was more Freyer than Wagner. The costumes were cheap; the characters didn’t relate; and the set wasn’t much of a set. As for the music, I simply cannot remember. All I know is that the LA press raved about it, but the national and international press avoided it after sampling hors d’oeuvres.
I believed that the LA politicians didn’t know that Wagner was a racist and jumped on the bandwagon when LA Opera suggested a “Ring” festival. But it turns out that they just wanted a party, and the “Ring” festival was the perfect excuse. The leaders of the opera company didn’t care about Wagner’s racism and simply couldn’t help themselves because they’re “’Ring’ nuts”. They would have done anything to perform the “Ring,” so they conned people into becoming their converts. But they didn’t have the money, and they couldn’t con the public.
On Dec. 9, 2009, the day after LA Opera approached the LA County Board of Supervisors for a $14 million loan, Opera News Online reported: “LA Opera chief operating officer Stephen D. Rountree . . . told the county’s board of supervisors that the loan ‘is needed now’ . . . and that twenty-three LA Opera trustees had pledged $30 million over the next two-and-a-half years to stablize the company’s finances after what was characterized as years of overspending.”
Rountree told the LA Times that the company was “$20 million in debt, partially because of the undertaking of its ‘Ring’ festival” (Dec. 9 article on the Internet by Kelsey Ramos).
The supervisors granted LA Opera the $14 million loan by issuing bonds which were purchased by Banc of America Leasing & Capital LLC. If LA Opera doesn’t pay the loan back in three years with interest going to the bank, county taxpayers will foot the bill.
The debt didn’t accumulate overnight. LA Opera board members made interest-free loans of $10.9 million during the 2006-07 season and $19.6 million during the 2007-08 season along with an $11 million line of credit from the Bank of the West at 5 percent interest, reported the LA Times and Opera News. During the 2007-08 season, ticket sales totaled $18.2 million when the budget was $55.6 million, but donations of $40.7 filled the gap. In the 2006-07 season when Plácido Domingo stated that the company had the financial means to move forward with the “Ring,” in spite of Eli Broad’s $6 million donation, the Times reported that the deficit was nearly $6 million (Dec. 8, 2009). The company therefore had financial problems well before the recession and did not have the means to move forward with the “Ring.”
To understand my perspective, I must outline some of my history. I started off with simply one objection: Richard Wagner was a genocidal racist, and I didn’t believe that a countywide Wagner festival would be ethical in a multicultural city like LA. I believed that the opera leaders didn’t know city politics, and that the political leaders didn’t know about Wagner. In no way did I want to put a halt to LA Opera’s performances of the “Ring.” I just didn’t want to see more than 100 programs, many of them lectures, centered around Wagner. I had no idea what kind of production the “Ring” would be, that LA Opera would need a $14 million loan to produce it or that the company would end up with a $5.96-million deficit ($4 million from the “lean box office” and the rest from “shortfalls in expected donations” — LA Times, July 2).
When I first read the “Ring” cycle order form, I thought the ticket prices were astronomical. Tickets in the front orchestra were $2,200 per cycle with $1,100 of the total being a donation. Tickets for the next section of the orchestra were $1,600 with an $800 donation, and tickets in the back portion of the orchestra were $800 with a $400 donation. Most of the tickets in the loge were $1,300 with a $600 donation.
The result was that ticket sales were $1.5 million below budget in April and May. LA Opera then eliminated the donation portion, thus resulting in $2.5 million in lost donations that were linked to ticket sales. Large donors were lumped together as “Friends of the Ring,” and LA Opera overestimated those donations by $900,000, according to a company spokesperson. Toward the end of the run, LA Opera discounted tickets to fill the house. The lack of ticket revenue and projected donations accounted for the remainder of the deficit.
LA Opera knew that the production would cost $31-32 million, but the budget was just a wish list. The repercussions of the company’s miscalculations will impact many seasons to come. A few years ago LA Opera was producing 10 productions with 75 performances. Now the numbers have been reduced to six productions with 46 performances, and that includes three recitals, an added event and a gala.
I tried to help LA Opera a year ago. I even went to the president of a well-established political public relations firm because I had worked for the firm and trusted the judgment of its staff. I believed that a general arts festival in LA would be more inviting, lucrative and moral than a Wagner festival. I envisioned banners all over the city. Far more arts organizations would have participated because Wagner would not have been the focal point of the festival even though the “Ring” performances would have remained at its core. A Wagner festival seemed utterly wrong to me, and apparently, I was right.
“LA is not a Wagner town,” a laid off LA Opera employee told me. She was right. People would much rather see the “The Barber of Seville” or “The Magic Flute” than a Eurotrash “Ring.”
At any rate, LA Opera forged ties with another public relations firm and clearly wanted a Wagner festival — not one that would entertain the LA public, and not one that would draw in tourists. That became evident when Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s motion to broaden the festival was defeated in favor of a substitute motion that endorsed the all-Wagner festival. So I continued to make people and organizations aware of Richard Wagner’s racism and where it appears in his operas. And I continued to make them aware of his family’s ties to Hitler and to the Nazis.
Although I was opposed to a Wagner festival, I was looking forward to seeing a somewhat visionary “Ring” with modern technology and color. I tried to keep an open mind, but the Freyer “Ring” was enough to drive me to drink. I wrote my reviews accordingly instead.
While attending some of the lectures, I was disturbed when erroneous information was being communicated without more accurate points of view provided for balance. The LA press seemed to have been bought off. The reporters and critics were publicists, not journalists. They were insulting the public’s intelligence.
The elected officials wanted to make money, but they didn’t realize they had an inferior product. And the opera company had no leadership. The lust for Wagner blinded everyone’s objectivity. Music Director James Conlon was cited in the LA Times as having said that he wants to revive the Freyer “Ring” in five years (July 2). In light of the fact that it will take the company years to recover financially and regain its credibility, Conlon’s statement shows just how out of touch the company really is.
If LA Opera is to survive, it needs fresh leadership. Domingo is the greatest living tenor, but he is not an on-site manager. He has done what the board expected of him because the board was aware of his artistic commitments when he was named general director. But during his tenure, he has proved that LA Opera needs more than he can offer. Yet he has been an asset to the Los Angeles landscape, is an excellent fundraiser, has enticed international singers to perform in LA, and is a wonderful mentor to some extremely gifted young artists. He should remain as artistic director or artistic consultant, but someone is needed to run the company: someone with business, management and accounting skills who knows how to balance the books; someone who is familiar with opera, productions, casting and fundraising; someone who may have been an artist, but who has graduated into management. If Domingo decides to renew his contract and remain in his current capacity — although I doubt that he will — someone still would be needed to run the day-to-day operations of the company like Edgar Baitzel did until his death. Rountree is not the appropriate person. He oversees the Music Center.
An article appeared in the LA Times on July 6 which addressed LA Opera’s desire to recruit a vice president of marketing and communications when the company already has a director of communications and a director of marketing, plus staff. Although the company’s press relations could be improved upon, either a vice president should be hired without the other two positions, or the two positions should remain without a vice president. An additional position is a waste of money in light of the company’s finances. The problems are not due to poor public relations, press or marketing: they are the result of poor decision-making from the top, which is where the changes should occur. The Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program should be competitive with the programs in other major companies. That is one area for growth.
The Los Angeles Opera Board of Directors must wake up and act, not follow. The people who live in LA deserve better.