No event in Los Angeles is too grand to be above a snotty skewering from a New York critic. Last month's historic production of "Don Giovanni" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was no exception. There's a moment near the end where Mozart offers a sly reference to his earlier work. It apparently slipped by the crowd. "It was," the New York Times critic wrote, "an opera in-joke in search of an opera audience."
I was there that night, and I plead guilty. I missed it. But really, the appraisal of a culture comes down to a missed laugh line in the final minutes of a four-hour production?
The contrast between the evening I experienced and the snide review got me to thinking about the culture of this city. Are we just a bunch of rubes? A night at Dodger Stadium can sometimes make you think so, but in the last few weeks, I've attended events at two of Los Angeles' best-known buildings, Disney Hall and the Playboy Mansion. That's a trip somewhat akin to one from the sacred to the profane, the sublime to the ridiculous, and it's reminded me of what makes this place so much richer than its critics often grasp.
Frank Gehry's hall is Los Angeles' greatest building, a sacred space by any definition, a piece of democratic architecture and a place of intimacy and community as well as awe-inspiring beauty. Gehry has described Disney Hall as a living room for Los Angeles, the warm center of a diffuse city, and it was Gehry himself who designed the set for the staging of Mozart's provocative opera. The combination of those geniuses — Mozart's for music, Gehry's for space — created a visionary experience.
It's easy to be preoccupied with the vexing state of local government or schools, to be distracted by the shallow jangle of the weekend box office or to thrill to the postseason efforts of the Lakers, Clippers and Kings. But "Don Giovanni" reinforced Los Angeles' deeper instincts as surely as Disney Hall anchors its architecture.
After Disney Hall, the Playboy Mansion at first seems fairly tawdry. The peacocks and flamingos strutting around the pool don't immediately suggest deep values, nor does the driveway sign that reads "Playmates at Play." But let's face it, it's a ubiquitous part of American culture, an emblem of hedonism and, yes, freedom.
As Christie Hefner, the host of the event last week, told me, "There are two houses in this country that everyone wants to see: the White House and the Playboy Mansion." Then, pausing for effect, as she no doubt had a million times, Hefner added: "And not necessarily in that order."
The guests last week included more than a few pretty women, but the event was no romp in the grotto. It was a celebration of speech and the courage it sometimes takes to utter it. The occasion was the presentation of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards, which Christie Hefner created in 1979 to honor people who defend freedom of speech, religion and the press. This year's winners included Zachary Kopplin, a college freshman from Louisiana who has waged a spirited campaign to roll back that state's sneaky attempts to insinuate creationism into the high school science curriculum, and Los Angeles' own Stanley Sheinbaum, whose accomplishments range from the national — he helped found People for the American Way — to the local: He helped show Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates the door after the riots tore through the city in 1992.
Presenting the award to Sheinbaum was yet another icon of this city and country, Norman Lear. Hefner aptly described one of Lear's achievements, "All in the Family," as a "cultural earthquake" without peer in modern America. And Lear himself is as gentle as he is profound. He paid tribute to Sheinbaum, his friend of 40 years, by describing him as the personification of the 1st Amendment: someone who speaks his mind, petitions his government over grievances, rejects an established religion and is worshiped by his admirers. (Incidentally, Lear, Gehry and I also share something: We greatly admire Dwight Eisenhower, whose monument Gehry is designing in Washington and whose accomplishments profoundly impress Lear.)
Those figures of Los Angeles culture — Lear, Gehry, Hefner, Sheinbaum — endow us with different legacies, but they advance a common mission: They place this city at the forefront of free expression. In Gehry's case, it's delivered through architecture and art, a global presence that radiates from his Venice studio. Sheinbaum pursues it through politics; Hefner through philanthropy and awards; Lear through his titanic influence on popular culture. Together, they give this city a weighty place in modern life, one expressed from Disney Hall to the Playboy Mansion.
That's something to celebrate, and something that could only happen here.