La Bohème is one of the world’s most beloved operas; it also returns this season in one of LA Opera’s iconic productions. In 1993, director Herbert Ross envisioned a production set in the romantic era of Belle Époque Paris, fashioned brilliantly by costume designer Peter J. Hall. Since Hall’s passing in 2010, the costume shop has made some updates to his design, while keeping his original vision for La Bohème alive.
“He was a real artist,” says Jeannique Prospere reverently. Prospere is a Senior Costume Production Supervisor at LA Opera. Since joining the company in 2007, she has overseen many shows, including La Bohème (which has 160 total costumes). “As a supervisor, what I usually do is try and get into the designer’s head and see what they want to be on stage and keep that vision alive,” she says. This entails reviewing the costumes each time a production is revived, making sure that they retain the same feel and that the original idea is kept. Costumes might also need to be tweaked for a singer, not only in size and shape, but also in aesthetic, in order to reflect a singer’s individual essence.
LA Opera’s last decade has been marked by multi-season initiatives—celebrating influential composers, exploring special repertoire, or presenting works in innovative ways—and it all started with a ring.
By 2006, LA Opera had established itself as a force of nature in the opera world. The company staged highly regarded productions each season, remaining true to the original tenets of its founders: pushing the boundaries of the medium, nurturing young talent, building a relationship with Hollywood, and producing opera infused with the pioneering spirit of Los Angeles. It was time for the company’s next bold move: a staging of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It would be a game changing project, to be sure, but nobody could have predicted how enormously this monumental project would affect the entire course of the company’s future.
Summer Walters wears a special outfit each time she attends an LA Opera production and shares pictures on Facebook. “My friends see the excitement that envelops me in each photo, so I have introduced quite a few friends to the world [of opera] that I hold so dear,” explains Ms. Walters. “Each time I attend with someone who has never experienced opera, it’s like watching the performance through the wide-eyed wonder of a child. It makes my heart so happy.”
LA Opera uses some of the most intriguing vehicles in its productions. From trucks and cars to modes of transportation only imaginable in the arts world, prop vehicles help tell grand opera stories. They are even sometimes rare and built entirely from scratch or refurbished by our technical crew to serve the needs of a production. Take a look at the vehicles we “drive” in our operas in the roundup below.
REPRODUCING A ONE OF A KIND PEUGEOT FOR LA BOHÈME
When the technical department was tasked with sourcing an 1890 Peugeot Type 2 (one of the earliest French motorized vehicles) for La Bohème, they realized how difficult this would be. There were none of these Peugeots anywhere in America, not even in museums. Working from only an 11”x17” photocopied image, a team at Studio Sereno built a fully battery-powered replica of the original model. This vehicle will be seen live when La Bohème opens May 14.
A 1929 ROLLS ROYCE ROARS ONTO STAGE
Our Roaring Twenties-set production of Verdi’s La Traviata features a 1929 Rolls Royce sourced from a private owner. Director Marta Domingo saw a photograph of the elegant car in 2006 and loved it so much, she made it a starring prop in her production. (What better way for glamorous party girl Violetta to arrive than in this stylish vehicle?)
In May 2012, Peter Kazaras sat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, surrounded by his UCLA students, observing a dress rehearsal of Puccini’s La Bohème at LA Opera. During a break, Kazaras asked his students, “When is this production set?” The students hesitated. He continued, “Where is the production set?” They responded, “Paris!” Yet, they still couldn’t determine the time period. Kazaras smiled, pointing out the half-formed Eiffel Tower structure in the background of Act I. He watched the lightbulbs go off, as his students suddenly realized that it must be set in the 1880s, when the Eiffel Tower was under construction. It was in this moment that all Kazaras’s teachings about the importance of design came full circle for his students. Kazaras beamed with pride.
Four years later, Kazaras once again comes face to face with this production – this time in the director’s chair.
Kazaras, who has recently directed La Bohème at both Washington National Opera and Dallas Opera, knows the piece well. However, LA Opera’s production, originally conceived by film director Herbert Ross in 1993, presents its own set of challenges. “It’s like being given a legal brief that you have to study thoroughly so that you can really understand the facts,” says Kazaras, alluding to his earlier profession as a lawyer. This is because Kazaras has inherited some key elements of the production (ie. set, props and costumes) Ross. Kazaras’s challenge is working with Ross’s gigantic and impressive set, while still adding his own directorial stamp on the show.
Every season, LA Opera presents multiple mainstage operas. The operas vary season to season, as does the cast. One thing that remains constant is the chorus. Under Resident Conductor Grant Gershon’s direction, the LA Opera Chorus has evolved into one of the nation’s most renowned choirs.
Gershon – a California native – started working as a pianist at LA Opera in its third season (1988). He remained with the company for six seasons, before moving to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He returned to work with LA Opera in 2007, making his company debut conducting multiple performances of Verdi’s La Traviata in 2009. Additionally, he has worked with the LA Opera Chorus ever since.
When asked what makes the LA Opera chorus unique, Gershon says, “I think that the talent pool in Los Angeles for singers is extraordinary and there’s a long-standing tradition of great solo singing and great ensemble singing in the city. From the beginning, LA Opera has always been able to draw on a really deep pool of talent and on singers who are very well trained and very enthusiastic about singing as an ensemble.” Some choristers have been with the company for over 100 productions; others are just starting their careers as vocalists.
When I was five, my parents bought me a classical kids CD about Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I listened to it all the time and I started to be interested in opera. Then, I saw the full opera on DVD and I have loved opera ever since. I even saw my first live production at LA Opera when I was only seven years old: Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
Watching all this opera at home and at LA Opera was great, but I really wanted to learn more.
Everyone loves a good story. That’s true whether you’re an adult reading the latest world news online or a child listening to a picture book being read. The latter is the core of the newest educational initiative in LA Opera’s already robust roster of inspiring programs.
Since January, LA Opera staff members and artists have read to kids in various grade levels at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. A rewarding experience, Read Aloud offers staff members the opportunity to give back to the Los Angeles community – a core tenant of the company’s mission. It also provides children the opportunity to ask staff members about opera and the arts.
“I think that kids are just innately curious. They want to know how things work. They are with you all the way when you read to them, and so anxious to be part of this exchange,” says Gerrie Maloof, Senior Director, Labor Relations and Human Resources, of her experience. Production and Human Resources Administrator Nadine Bedrossian adds: “I think the most surprising thing when I went was that kids started cheering when I said that I’m from LA Opera. I asked, ‘Does it make me cool that I work at LA Opera?’ and the kids yelled, ‘Yeah!’ It’s so cute how excited they were about LA Opera specifically.”
Behind every member of LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program is an entire team of coaches and staff helping each individual become the best performer they can be. Nino Sanikidze is the program’s head coach. In her role she wears many hats from coach and mentor to accompanist and administrator. It’s also a role where Sanikidze can bring to life her passion for music collaboration, working with singers, and nurturing the next generation of great artists.
Sanikidze grew up in the Republic of Georgia, where she says “it is very cultural for everyone to study music.” “You turn five years old and you learn to play piano, guitar, violin, or whatever. Of course, not everyone becomes a musician, but you start to appreciate music. My friends from music school, who are now doctors, lawyers, and scientists, still appreciate and are very educated in music.”
After originally thinking that she would become a physician, Sanikidze eventually pursued multiple degrees in music both in Georgia and then here in the United States, including a Doctor of Musical Arts in Collaborative Piano from the University of Maryland, College Park. It was during the latter that she auditioned for and received a place in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera, where she worked closely with that company’s general director at the time, Plácido Domingo.
It was Domingo, who asked Sanikidze to move to Los Angeles to help with the company’s new young artist program. For Sanikidze, it was a no brainer. She had freelanced at LA Opera in the years before and really enjoyed the collegial spirit at the company.
Since film director Herbert Ross (Steel Magnolias, The Turning Point) first envisioned LA Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme in 1993, it’s been staged frequently, wowing Los Angeles audiences time and time again. Before the return of La Boheme in May, here are five things you may not know about LA Opera’s iconic production.
Herbert Ross added a subtle cinematic take to La Boheme.
Ross looked at the opera through the lens of an experienced filmmaker. For example, Acts I and IV take place in a garret, the loft space inhabited by the four bohemian men. Most productions only show the interior of the garret. Ross recognized that it would be much more dynamic to have the garret be but one piece of an entire rooftop setting. In our production, audience members not only focus on the singers, but also what’s going behind them, around them, within the environment of the set. This cinematic staging brought the beauty of Paris to life.
The Bohemians’ garret is inspired by an actual building in Paris.
The Bohemian’s garret is inspired by the Bateau-Lavoir, a run-down building in Paris where Picasso (and other painters in the period) lived and worked during the early years of their careers.
Have you ever wished you could bring your pet to the opera? Now you can! LA Opera, as part of its mission to expand its audience and to address the population of pet owners in the Downtown Los Angeles area, is offering a one-day only Poochini Package for a special matinee of Puccini’s operatic classic, La Bohème on Sunday, May 22 at 2:00pm.
Madame Butterfly takes flight one last time on April 3, wowing audiences with amazing voices and interesting staging. In case you’ve missed the Madame Butterfly love these past few weeks, we’ve collected a bunch of articles and a video for you to check out and see why Madame Butterfly is a Puccini masterpiece.
Get To Know Madame Butterfly
“The Humming Chorus” is a rare moment of peace in the tragic love story that is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In the scene, Butterfly does not sing or move for three minutes. She holds a silent vigil, waiting for Pinkerton (her American husband) to return, while an off-stage chorus sings wordlessly. “The Humming Chorus” carries an enormous amount of emotional weight, highlighted in LA Opera’s current production by director Lee Blakeley’s novel take on which character the scene belongs to.
Murray Aronson has been donating to LA Opera since the 1990s. In fact, one of his favorite LA Opera memories is seeing Plácido Domingo in Stiffelio in 1996. His life-long love for opera began long before that, in his New Jersey high school’s auditorium at an educational production of Così fan tutte. Although the singers were only accompanied by a pianist, Mr. Aronson was mesmerized. “I remember the colored lights on the stage with Mozart’s eternally beautiful music,” he recalled. “This gave me a vision of a world that can be wonderful. I was 14 years old, and that did it for me.”
Mr. Aronson has now seen close to 400 opera performances over the course of his lifetime. However, there are still a few operas he hasn’t seen performed live, like Phillip Glass’ Akhnaten, which will be performed in LA Opera’s 2016/17 season. “When the LA Opera puts on a new work, or one that is relatively rare like Norma, that gets me hook, line and sinker.”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sing Carmen? LA Opera is presenting a free concert called Great Opera Concerts on April 10, where you can do just that.
Presented at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, the concert (which will feature the acclaimed LA Opera Chorus) will begin with Resident Conductor Grant Gershon rehearsing the audience for their sing-along debuts. Music will be provided in the program to the three sing-along sections: “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, and the “Anvil Chorus” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
This fall, James Conlon will mark ten years as LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director. Throughout the past decade, he has led the orchestra through almost fifty operas, from the great masterpieces of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner to contemporary works like The Ghosts of Versailles and Moby-Dick. To celebrate his birthday on March 18, we sat down with Mr. Conlon to chat about his life in classical music and what he loves most about opera in Los Angeles.
(Scroll down for information on Office Hours with Maestro Conlon)
What inspired you to become a conductor?
It wasn’t a single person but, instead, a series of events that inspired me to become a classical musician. I went to the opera for the first time in 1961. I was 11 and the experience transformed my life within months. I wanted to hear classical music day and night. Soon I was studying piano and violin. I also began singing in the children’s choir of a small New York City opera company. A few years later, I decided I wanted to be a conductor, at which point every career decision I made focused on that goal. At 22, I graduated from The Julliard School and my professional life as a conductor was on its way.
What are the greatest challenges you faced in the field and how did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge I faced when I was starting out was proving myself as a young conductor in both symphonic and operatic institutions. Unlike today’s world, which now welcomes young conductors, it was just the opposite when I started out. I also faced the challenges of both proving myself in Europe as a qualified American conductor (and a young American conductor to boot), and additionally proving myself in the United States, which has historically preferred foreign (mostly European) conductors.
How did I master these challenges? I simply devoted myself to my work: Seriously. Relentlessly. Passionately. At a certain point, conducting ceased to be a career and became a way of life—something that still holds true today.
Rosanne Karlebach has always loved opera and has donated to LA Opera for many years. She grew up in a very operatic household, as generations of her family members had experienced the joys of the art form. Ms. Karlebach even jokes that her mother used to take her to the opera instead of hiring a babysitter.
Ms. Karlebach described her mother as an enthusiastic fan of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who would often travel across the country to attend productions. Now, as an adult, Ms. Karlebach often brings friends to the opera, sometimes introducing them to classics like Carmen, or at most, three hours of the Ring Cycle. “I took a friend to one night of the LA Opera Ring Cycle, and she was fascinated, it was absolutely gorgeous.”
“The Humming Chorus” is a rare moment of peace in the tragic love story that is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In the scene, Butterfly does not sing or move for three minutes. She holds a silent vigil, waiting for Pinkerton (her American husband) to return, while an off-stage chorus sings. “The Humming Chorus” is a scene that carries an enormous amount of emotional weight, highlighted in LA Opera’s current production by director Lee Blakeley’s novel take on which character the scene belongs to.
For Blakeley, whether he is directing theater or opera, it is all about storytelling. When he signed on to direct this production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, he went back to basics. His primary job in the early stages of directing was to answer the question, “What do you strip away to find the essential truth of the piece?” He knew the first thing he had to do was rid himself of any preconceived notions of what the opera could be, which can be difficult with such a familiar work as Butterfly. With a blank sheet of paper and the libretto, he listened to Puccini’s music, while working through the text.
Blakeley came to understand that the essential truth – or theme – of Madame Butterfly is “loyalty in the face of adversity.” That singular theme informed all of Blakeley’s directorial choices for this production, whether it was the decisions he preplanned (for example, updating the setting to 1904, the year the opera premiered) or choices he “discovered along the way,” while working with singers.
In the fall of 1900, Giacomo Puccini sat in a London theater, mesmerized by a play entitled Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. In the play, “Butterfly,” a Japanese geisha, abandoned by her American naval officer husband, Pinkerton, awaits his return. Puccini immediately grasped the operatic potential in the play’s doomed love story and clash of cultures. Yet one scene in particular—created by the play’s writer, producer and director, David Belasco—inspired him most of all.
Butterfly sits in the center of the stage, holding an overnight vigil, awaiting Pinkerton’s long-overdue return. For several long minutes, she does not speak. Time passes. The sun sets, the stars come out, fade, and then the sun rises again. In the audience, Puccini and those around him truly empathized with Butterfly. The powerful staging eliminated all the distractions, allowing them to focus solely on her emotional plight. It was at that moment that Puccini not only resolved to make Butterfly his next opera, but he also decided to make Butterfly’s vigil an arresting musical moment. Such a long stretch of silence had never been explored in opera and he was determined to see it come to life on the operatic stage.
To celebrate Plácido Domingo’s upcoming concert with Renée Fleming on March 18, we are throwing it back to 2002, when Domingo sang in “A Night of Zarzuela & Operetta with Plácido Domingo & Friends.” The concert also included singers Julia Migenes, Charles Castronovo, and Virginia Tola, and featured highlights from the Zarzuela and operetta repertory. Zarzuela, in particular, is very dear to Domingo’s heart as his parents were both Zarzuela singers. (Learn more about LA Opera’s Zarzuela Project here.)
Can’t get enough Plácido Domingo? Check out a few articles below before seeing him in concert.
To celebrate Maestro Domingo’s birthday, we dedicated this edition of our #LAO30Images series to him. Check out our #LAO30Images: Domingo at LA Opera Pinterest Board to see all 30 images of Domingo on the LA Opera stage.
SUPERNUMERARY (20 Scrabble points) – Latin – A supernumerary is opera’s version of an extra. Supernumeraries have no dialogue and are directed to create a believable scene, when the environment calls for large groups of people. But they’re actors or artists in their own right. What would Gianni Schicchi have been like without the lively corpse played by Momo Casablanca? What would the Pagliacci circus be like without dozens of attentive audience members? Can you imagine the cinematic beauty of Paris in La Boheme without several spirited supernumeraries showcasing the quintessential Parisian “joie de vivre?”