Wagner star and director clash in US costume drama

British actor says production is 'artistically flawed' by cumbersome masks and 'dangerous' design

Guy Adams
Sunday 16 May 2010 00:00

Gods, giants, and mythical dwarves aren't the only flamboyant creatures declaring war on each other in American opera's latest rendering of the Ring cycle. With Wagnerian derring-do, a leading British tenor has just launched a blistering public attack on a high-profile new production of the famous work – despite the fact that he is supposed to be its star.

John Treleaven, who plays the hero Siegfried in the $32m (£22m) centrepiece of Los Angeles Opera's summer season, this week took the extraordinary step of telling journalists that the forthcoming show will be artistically flawed, adding that he's barely on speaking terms with its German director, Achim Freyer.

The clash of egos between the two men apparently revolves around Freyer's avant-garde design for the production, which requires the cast to wear large masks, elaborate costumes and heavy make-up. Many of them must also carry light sabres reminiscent of Star Wars.

Treleaven complains that these unwieldy outfits interfere with singing and movement. They also make the production physically dangerous for performers, he claims, since they increase the chances of falling over. During previews and rehearsals, he has already sustained two minor injuries.

"I'm not going to pull any punches here, and I want to tell it like it is. This entire production has been a trying and difficult time," Treleaven announced to the Los Angeles Times this week. "The character development that I'm trying to bring to the part is almost expunged by this clown-like make-up."

The Cornish singer added, during an interview, that during the months of rehearsals, drama behind the scenes has mirrored that on stage. At one point his relationship with Freyer deteriorated to the extent that and the director had to send him a lengthy handwritten letter to settle their differences. Although disputes are relatively common behind the scenes in opera, it is rare for stars to take a pop at each other in public, and almost unheard of for them to do so before a show has even opened.

The falling-out is also remarkable given the magnitude of the production. Los Angeles Opera has been planning its first complete staging of the Ring cycle for more than a decade. When the curtain falls in a fortnight's time, it will headline a summer-long arts festival that will bring 100 participating artistic companies, museums and universities to the city.

Adding another layer of volatility to the dispute is the fact that the artistic director of LA Opera is Placido Domingo. On Friday, he issued a statement hinting that Treleaven should shut up. "I happen to admire Freyer's interpretation," it read. "But there have been plenty of other times in my long career when I didn't agree with a director's concept of a piece."

Freyer, for his part, has not commented. Yet his leading man is not alone in voicing misgivings. Also using the LA Times to criticise the director is co-star Linda Watson, who plays Brünnhilde. The American soprano endorsed Treleaven's criticisms of Freyer, adding that the set is "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."

Watson said that at one point during rehearsals, she became so frustrated with her character's lack of physical presence in the show that she angrily told Freyer to "buy one of my CDs and put it on instead of me". "It takes years to be able to sing a Ring, and to just toss this all away... is very insulting."

The four operas in the Ring cycle have been staged separately by LA Opera over the past year, during which time nearly every major performer expressed misgivings about Freyer's staging, the newspaper claimed. One of Treleaven's colleagues, Gordon Hawkins, decided to quit since the enormous mask he was required to wear interfered with his hearing.

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