Monday, October 11, 2010

Too Many Rings?

(I write this with that caveat that I haven't thought about it very much or very deeply.)

Is there such a thing as too many productions of the Ring? Look, I'm actually kind of a big Wagner fan. I'll be going to NYC to see at least one of the LePage productions, and watching the rest at my local cineplex. I own multiple video and audio recordings. I talk a little bit about the 1952 Furtwängler recording of Tristan in my book project. Heck, I took a graduate seminar just on the Ring! And so when I saw that Houston was planning to do a Ring cycle, my instinct was to begin musing about my whereabouts in 2014 and whether a trip through Texas could be involved.

But you know...these productions are expensive. Like, really expensive. The Melbourne end of things for the HGO version is estimated at $15 million, which seems low. The NY Met version has had estimates from $17 to $40 million, and I have to believe that if it involved refabricating the stage to support the enormous circus stage machinery, the money's got to come in on the high end of that. The money is all supposedly coming from a $30 million donation from the Ziff family, but think about how much great opera could be produced with $30 million! It reminds me a little of those people who donate $100 million to the arts Yale or Princeton—that's philanthropy to glory yourself, not to actually help the arts.

It's not that I don't think there should be new productions of the Ring; every generation should have its own Ring to argue about. And I'm okay with Wagner costing more to produce than your average opera. And new Ring productions should come from new and interesting places and not just NYC and Seattle.

But within about five years we've had what, the Met, San Francisco, LA, Houston...I dunno, it seems like a lot of the American operatic stage and the money behind it is going to be occupied with Wagner for the foreseeable future. And as much as I like him, there's a lot else out there I'd also like to see!


sociosound said...

I think I agree with you here. It's kind of the juncture for all artistic ventures (or even research ventures) where we have to justify spending a lot of money when we could be using it for other things that might satisfy our philanthropist selves a bit more.

I'm not from NY, so I'm not sure how often the cycle comes up for performance. I think in New Orleans it's done about every 10-15 years (and certainly not with the same financial backing, or much of any considering our city is more or less culturally bankrupt unless it involves traditional music).

I agree though, that every generation should have the option to see it - even if I'm not a personal fan.

(I'm tired.. sorry for the rant!)

Ralph Locke said...

You write: "It reminds me a little of those people who donate $100 million to the arts [to] Yale or Princeton—that's philanthropy to glory yourself, not to actually help the arts."

Sorry, Phil, I don't see how philanthropy supporting the arts is inherently (100%??) for one's own glory and "not to actually help" whatever is being funded.

This seems an extreme formulation. The whole nature of tax-deductible contributions in the US is based on the principle of encouraging people to do things that are good but not profitable, and to give them some reward for it. Getting one's name emblazoned on an arts center or hospital wing works the same way.

It may not be an ideal system. (I'm all for more federal support for the arts, for building hospitals, etc.) But it's the one we have.

And it seems to me quite unfair to assume that the motivation of the donor is entirely tied up with personal glory. I know donors to our local symphony orchestra who are intense and avid music lovers, sophisticated about repertoire and performance, interested in new music, etc.

Besides, we can apply the critique of the Intentional Fallacy here: we don't need to care what the mixed motives might be of donor X or Y, so long as the result is something wonderful that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

So much money is wasted in America on so many truly nasty enterprises. (I won't get into a political discussion now about prisons, wars, etc.). I think we should be careful to avoid hyperbole and extreme either/or formulations when we talk about the effort to bring to audiences live performances--or High Definition transmissions!--of some of the most accomplished, historically influential, and--and in the case of the Ring--searingly insightful art works of the past.

PMG said...

Ralph, I don't think I'm being quite as extreme as that. (Which, fair enough, I sometimes can be!)

I'm not at all opposed to donations to the arts. I think the tax code regarding charitable donations could be improved--the current one-size-fits-all approach makes an equivalency between donating to a homeless shelter, the NY Phil, and the ACLU Foundation, and while all are valuable I don't think they are the same thing--but I agree with the principle that charitable giving should be encouraged.

My problem is with the bad philanthropic practice of giving such huge donations to already-wealthy institutions. It's not always always about self-aggrandizement; the couple who gave $100 million to the Yale School of Music did so (mostly) anonymously. But you're right, the intentions don't really matter. The problem is the results, a further concentration of power in places that already have a lot of it. Can you imagine what $100 million would have done if it had gone to provide music instruction in the New Haven public school system? Now that would have been a transformative investment, not just for the kids but for the musical world at large a few generations down the line.

And I do love new productions of the Ring! I just worry about what other productions are being crowded out of the schedule when there are so many of them.