FAMILY AFFAIRS

FUTURE SHAPES: Imagine the scene,  in a rehearsal room in a building many miles oceanward from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The stage is a sloping expanse, perhaps 40 feet across, painted white with geometrical patterns. At the front sits Hagen, leader of the Gibichungs; he is masked and costumed to resemble, perhaps, a very large dog, and he is for the most part immobile. Dancers move about the stage, sixteen or so, mostly in black head-to-toe. They carry long rods; they might be fluorescent lights, but I think they stand in for spears. Fronting the stage there is a long table with control equipment: microphones, laptops, cameras, many people calling out staging instructions, one elderly, bearded, smiling man whose manner informs you that he knows more than anyone else about what is going on, because it is his conception.
That is Achim Freyer. In three months the Los Angeles Opera will begin performances of his production of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelung, the first time he has undertaken this monumental chunk of Teutonic chutzpah without which no opera company seems able these days to lay claim to fulfillment. Everything I’ve seen of Freyer’s art — the daring productions of Bach and Berlioz he has done here, an endearing Der Freischütz as folk art available on DVD, a trilogy of Philip Glass operas better that those works deserved —  suggest that he was sent to this planet to create The Ring. How have we deserved the great good fortune that he is doing his first-ever Ring here,, for us? That great good fortune resides in the person of the late Edgar Baitzel, the guiding spirit of the L.A. Opera who stood behind virtually any outstanding project that this company has achieved in recent years that establishes its uniqueness, its bravery. It was Christine Baitzel, by the way, who invited me to witness this rehearsal yesterday, a small episode in the formation of the vast project that – not yet even brick by brick but small clod by clod gradually becoming brick – is now taking shape.
I mentioned the character named Hagen, so you know that this wasn’t even a rehearsal of the first two dramas of The Ring – which are up for performance this coming March and April – but of Die Götterdämmerung, the final work in the cycle, which isn’t due on the boards here until April, 2010. Sure enough, the music resounding through the loudspeakers is from a beloved old recording: Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Joseph Greindl’s thrilling, hard-edged villainy as Hagen. Freyer came over to greet me; my remembered three words of German from the  Vienna Konservatorium came in handy. He’s anxious for me to realize that none of what I’m seeing – the dancers with their light-sabers, the canine Hagen – has anything to with the final look of the stage at the Dorothy Chandler. They are all to establish proportion. From here the actions will be videotaped, and that video can serve like an artist’s sketchpad.
That is why, even with stand-in performers, Freyer and his staff of interpreters work meticulously to shape the actions. I watched with fascination as a young dancer in the role of the deceived Brünnhilde, dragged onto the stage by Hagen’s men after her forced marriage, must take an agonized fall, and how important it was that this one small action must needs – in Freyer’s over-all plan – be meticulously shaped,  exactly matched to a grander plan. Two hours of this, and the slow-turning wheels of opera-making become a truly impressive force.
I cornered Freyer for a minute or two; I had just acquired the box of  DVDs that Naxos has brought out, seven operatic productions filmed in the 1950s by the great and controversial Walter Felsenstein, which I’ll get around to writing about one of these weeks. I suspected that Freyer and Felsenstein might represent opposite attitudes toward operatic production, and I think I was right. “We are at opposite ends,” he tells me. “With Felsenstein it is all spectacle, wonderful spectacle to be sure. That ‘Schlaue Fuchslein’ of his – ‘Cunning Little Vixen’ – there is nothing like it. But my opera is all about character, personality. Under my book by Wagner there is always a book by Brecht, and this is my guiding force.”
GRANDMA BESSIE’S BOY: There’s contrast for you, life among the Gibichung family on Wednesday, the Thomaschefskys on Saturday. Every musician’s pen is guided by ancestral genes, Irving Berlin and Gershwin, George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle, Cab Calloway. MTT has turned his ancestral Thomaschefskys, who implanted the seeds of theatrical Yiddishkeit into Broadway soil and nurtured the growth of American musical theate, into a wonderful evening’s entertainment – maybe the purest and worthiest of his attainments ever. Four singer-actors carried the entertainment forward, and did so with a purity of manner and freedom from shtik as to make all other period-style imitators – eat yer heart out, Bernadette Peters — cheap and cornball. The show at Disney was long, and sagged now and then, but the pride and affection was genuine. It left me – and the 2,200 others in Disney that night, I’m willing to bet – with vivid memories of my own grandparents, not showbiz folk but with records up in the attic that I suddenly realize I can remember most vividly. Don’t get me started.