VNPAC: Any Room For Composers?

“All lanes on the 134 E are closed due to fuel tanker crash.”
“Isn’t it strange that downtown LA doesn’t have any shopping?”
“Wagner and Brecht were brothers.”
“I’m me, my music is my music and I wish it well.”

These physical barriers and various expressions (blinking sign on freeway; conference attendee remark; Achim Freyer; Mark Swed channeling John Cage) punctuated my first foray into the 2010 Opera America Conference in Los Angeles. This year, the conference is vibrating around two centerpieces: the LA Opera production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the 40th anniversary of Opera America.


Early yesterday afternoon I attended the event “In Conversation with Achim Freyer,” the director and designer of the Ring cycle, moderated with exquisite sensitivity by Yuval Sharon, the assistant director. Achim spoke of his relationship to Brecht and that of Brecht to Wagner; of Wagner’s influence on contemporary composers; of the place that theater has in our lives. In answer to Yuval’s question, “What does Gesamtkunstwerk mean to you?”, Achim replied, “Master Brecht hated Gesamtkunstwerk, and I have learned from him to hate.” (This statement resonates differently when heard with his inflection.) “I needed a long time to feel that Wagner and Brecht are brothers…as young men they took political positions against society, against the position of art in their time.” He went on to explain how his own background as a painter informs his approach to stage direction. Remarking that contemporary composers learn from Wagner, he singled out Philip Glass (who claimed that Wagner was a master for him), saying that he hears Philip’s music in the Ring. He points out the timelessness of Wagner’s operas; how the characters mirror our lives, and how theater is a representation of the secrets and mysteries of the world.

In response to Yuval’s observation about the use of illusion in theater, and how Achim’s work includes the manipulation and creation of the illusion as part of his directorial vision, Achim dredged up Verfremdungseffekt (“alienation effect”—a Brechtian term describing the theatrical device that leads an audience to critically observe). A fascinating comparison ensued, with Achim describing the parallels between Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt and Wagner’s use of the leitmotif—explaining that Brecht’s stories come back again and again, as do Wagner’s leitmotifs, each time with a new facet, in a new context; the same idea, viewed from many different perspectives.


Freyer’s costume designs

Perfection is to be avoided, evidently—Brecht’s words to Achim, “Mistakes are beautiful—the other isn’t good.” The student learned well: Achim admitted that when his work is too good, he must “kill it.”

To see these two artists together on stage, a kind of master and apprentice situation, was touching and enlightening—the sharing of thought processes underlying the production of the Ring cycle. I’ve seen all four operas throughout the year, attending the dress rehearsal of each, and the visual intensity surpasses any opera I’ve seen. Like an earworm, it’s burned on the retina of my memory, and I hope it stays there.

On to a less heady topic but one that’s vital to survival: an open session, “Critics, Bloggers, and the Changing Media Landscape.” Lined up at the head table facing the SRO audience, four critics (Brian Holt of OutWest Arts; Timothy Mangan of The Orange County Register; Anne Midgette, The Washington Post, and Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times),and one editor (Sherry Stern, who moderated) engaged in a lively discussion, mostly with one another. In the second half, which I caught, a debate of sorts focused on the value of blogging and of the web in general, with a mixed response from these writers—some more open to using video, twitter, facebook, etc., than others. What was surprising was to hear of the pressure on journalists from “above”—a kind of institutional mandate—to use social media in order to increase the number of their readers. Another concern, “decay of journalistic boundaries,” was bandied about; taking the opposite stance, one critic emphasized the importance of not patronizing (as some of her colleagues were guilty of doing) young bloggers who are passionate about what they write.

So, to follow up on fellow VPAC blogger Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum’s recurring theme, “Is there a place for composers at this conference?” Hmmmm…I’ll have to investigate from this angle tomorrow. My day ended not far away with a serendipitous meeting, around the corner from the OA conference, with the executive director of REDCAT, Mark Murphy. We discussed the possibility of having a libretto reading of my opera, Crescent City, at this venue in September. Two of my operas have been produced there (Wet, and Sucktion—the latter as part of their ongoing New Original Works Festival, open to LA artists), and it’s a terrific space. My “team” (Douglas Kearney, librettist, and Yuval Sharon, director) had hoped to produce the reading during the OA conference, but time issues intervened. Tomorrow I’ll be returning to the conference and taking along a stack of Crescent City press kits—part of a composer’s life, the long search. Maybe I’ll get lucky…

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