If an organization is to stay relevant in this wireless, hyperlinked, hashtagged world, social media is key. Thankfully, LA Opera nipped the relevancy problem in the bud last summer when it “Liked” Karen Bacellar and Amisha Patankar.
“I manage LA Opera’s content,” Karen says. “That includes the blog. I would say I write and edit the vast majority of the articles for the blog, and that nine times out of ten, they are determined by upcoming operas. After articles are published, I work with Amisha to promote the content through social media.”
I have been teaching fine arts at Narbonne High School for three years. I specialize in vocal music and theater and have had the pleasure of teaching students the “art” of loving the arts. This year, I tried something different by attending LA Opera’s Opera for Educators sessions. I’ve gained so much from these sessions that have fueled my passion for opera – a passion that I share with my students.
LA Opera Young Artists Summer Hassan and Frederick Ballentine are following amazingly similar paths as they pursue their operatic careers. They both studied at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music where they first met in 2012. A few years later both were admitted to the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at LA Opera. This season they appeared in The Magic Flute with Summer singing the role of the Second Lady and Frederick performing as the Armed Guard. Both are 26 and from the South with Summer hailing from North Carolina and Frederick a native Virginian.
Duane Schuler is one of the world’s most renowned theatrical lighting designers and a founding partner in the theater planning and architectural lighting design firm Schuler Shook. Over the past forty years, he’s brought grand stories to life through intricate, yet subtle lighting designs for productions at multiple opera houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, Lyric Opera Chicago, and LA Opera. Through Schuler Shook, he’s also worked on numerous renovations and major architectural projects from Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater in New York to an upcoming renovation of the Sydney Opera House.
Currently, Schuler is back in Los Angeles lighting LA Opera’s iconic production of Puccini’s La Bohème. His stellar lighting design reinforces both the gritty realism of the bohemian’s poverty stricken existence, while also showcasing the simultaneous “joi de vivre” of Paris in 1887. We sat down with Schuler during rehearsals earlier this month to discuss his career, work with LA Opera, and his current design for La Bohème.
By the time bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee finishes his second season in LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, he will have appeared in six different productions with the company. His is the robust voice audiences have heard from off stage in Moby-Dick and The Magic Flute and on stage in Madame Butterfly. He’s also the singer they will see in such diverse roles as Colline in the current production of La Bohème and as Cesare Angelotti in next season’s Tosca. While the 2015 Met Council Winner may sound and look at home on stage now, he did not always want to pursue a career in opera.
“I was always into performing, whether it was on the football field – I’m a super sports guy – or in choir,” says Brownlee, who originally wanted to be a choral conductor. That all changed when he had his first opera experience.
Close your eyes and imagine the most spectacular fireworks display you’ve ever seen. It’s probably filled with starbursts and various different colors that light up the sky, and brings back fond memories and leaves you in awe.
How you feel about that amazing fireworks display you’re picturing right now is how I have always felt about opera.
I have attended opera for more than 40 years in some of the greatest cities for the art form in the country, including New York and Los Angeles. Before becoming a Community Educator, I went to hear the singer’s beautiful voices and did not worry so much about the background on the opera or the composers. I sat and enjoyed the experience.
This all changed when I learned that as the member of the Opera League of Los Angeles, I could be trained by LA Opera’s Education and Community Engagement department to be a Community Educator. It sounded like a great way to give back to the community, while also having fun, and teaching people about opera. So, I decided to join the program.
Our production of Puccini’s La Bohème boasts one of the quickest, major set changes ever seen on our stage. From Act I to Act II, La Bohème’s setting changes from a rooftop and garret (loft) to a Parisian street.
The main set piece – the garret – is rotated to reveal its opposite side – a two-story building with a ground level cafe. This may not seem like a big deal. It’s just rotating a set piece. How difficult can that be? Difficult – very difficult. It isn’t just a light-weight structure or a façade that can be easily maneuvered. This garret is a giant 1500-square-foot, 30,000-pound structure – the equivalent of a three-story house. Moving it requires planning, precision and a great deal of practice. That’s because the structure needs to be moved manually (yes, manually, by a team of 20 production crew members) and hit very specific, pre-determined marks on the stage.
For more than 20 years, members of the prestigious Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC) have starred in productions at LA Opera. From playing precocious characters in the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (1998) to singing alongside the pros in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, LACC children have shared their enthusiasm and vocal gifts with artists, staff and audiences. The latest collaboration between LA Opera and LACC is Puccini’s La Bohème.
In this opera, 14 singers make up the children’s chorus. Some of these children have been in other productions and others are new to the world of opera. What they all share is an excitement about singing and opera that is infectious and wonderful to see.
Today, the kids are gathered in the lobby, chatting excitedly, because they will soon be on stage rehearsing with the pros. When asked what their favorite parts of rehearsals and being in the opera are, several hands shoot up. “I love hearing the power of their voices and knowing that all these people are watching us,” says Soren Ryssdal (12). His fellow choir members nod their heads in agreement. Of staging, Sydney Brakeley (10) says, “I like being able to know where I am going just by hearing the music.” With a big grin on her face, Anika Erickson (13) age adds, “We also have fake siblings.” All the kids laugh.
Speranza Scappucci is one of opera’s rising conducting stars. Since making her debut in 2012 conducting Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Yale Opera, Scappucci has conducted around the world, including at Finnish National Opera, Washington National Opera and Scottish Opera. She did not always know that her destiny was to conduct.
This month, Scappucci makes her LA Opera debut conducting six performances of Puccini’s La Bohème. It’s a piece that Scappucci knows really well (she coached the piece for 20 years), but that does not stop her from finding new things in Puccini’s masterpiece. Scappucci discovers these new things by extensively revisiting the score, as if it’s the first time she’s approaching it.
Born and raised in Rome, Scappucci moved to New York at age 20 to study piano at The Juilliard School. She received a master’s at Juilliard in collaborative piano and went on to brilliant career as a coach and assistant conductor. For 15 years, Scappucci was a familiar face in the world’s top opera houses, coaching both rising stars and famous opera singers, and also working as an assistant conductor for some of the world’s most renowned conductors – Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Daniele Gatti, and James Levine.
By day, Jill Michnick leads the team at LA Opera that produces its signature events. From glamorous galas to vision-setting board meetings, town halls to salon gatherings, Jill spends her time overseeing the details of award winning festivities.
While Jill is used to directing a team of producers and vendors and dealing with all the surprises that she encounters in her role, little did she know that after ten years at one of the country’s most prestigious opera companies, she too would catch the acting bug. Jill’s not one to shy away from a challenge, so when the idea of being in one of LA Opera’s iconic production arose, she didn’t hesitate to explore it.
LA Opera has many programs to make sure that everyone has access to opera for little or no cost. Opera Tales is one of these programs. In partnership with the County of Los Angeles Public Library and with generous support provided by Los Angeles County Supervisors Don Knabe and Hilda Solis, LA Opera brings professional opera singers (or “opera pals”) to libraries around Los Angeles to perform musical moments from the most celebrated operas for families. Next month’s Figaro Opera Tales has the singers recounting tales from the entire Figaro Trilogy (Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles), as told by Pierre Beaumarchais.
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.