Author Archives: Karen Bacellar
Salome is one of the most challenging operas to play. Musicians are tasked with a score that pushes the limits of what’s considered playable for an orchestra. LA Opera Orchestra Principal Bassoonist William May had a further challenge. In less than a year, May learned a rare instrument to play in Salome – the heckelphone.
She fell in love with music at the age of seven. Now, Zanaida Robles is an established singer, conductor, composer, and music instructor. As an LA Opera teaching artist, she’s bringing her experience and love for the music to work by inspiring the next generation of opera lovers.
When Anthony and Marta Richardson each bought tickets to a performance of LA Opera’s Simon Boccanegra in 2012, they had no idea they would end up finding love at the opera.
Before they ever met, Anthony and Marta were both frequent opera-goers. Marta, a teacher at the time (she’s now an elementary school principal at Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District), saw her first performance at LA Opera in 1997 and had since invited representatives of the Music Center and the LA Opera to speak to her students about opera and music. Anthony – an actor/singer turned financial consultant – had also attended shows at LA Opera since the late 1990s, even volunteering with the Opera League of Los Angeles. His assignment – shuffling artists from LAX to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
In March 2012, Anthony had tickets to see Simon Boccanegra.
“I had never seen Plácido Domingo perform before and was very excited,” says Anthony.
When his friend canceled, Anthony decided to have dinner at Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse, thinking he might meet someone to whom he could give his extra ticket.
“When I got to the steakhouse, I spotted Marta and her friend at the bar and strategically sat next to them,” recalls Anthony. Marta replies jokingly, “That’s how men operate.”
From the bonnet à la Figaro (an 18th-century fashion inspired by the hero of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), to the 1920s costumes in LA Opera’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, opera and fashion have always influenced each other. To celebrate the inextricable link between opera and fashion, LA Opera has partnered with FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles and inspired an exhibition called “Exotica: Fashion & Costume of the 1920s.”
This is the second time that LA Opera productions have inspired an exhibition at FIDM. In March 2015, FIDM Museum presented “Opulent Art: 18th-Century Dress.” This exhibition featured a rare original 18th-century Figaro costume worn during performances of The Marriage of Figaro. The exhibition also coincided with the company’s Figaro Unbound initiative (presented in connection with the company’s “Figaro Trilogy”: Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
This time, “Exotica: Fashion & Costume of the 1920s” explores how films set in exotic locales influenced the fashion of the day. This exhibition is inspired by LA Opera’s production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, which is set in the Roaring Twenties on the famous Orient Express, traveling from Istanbul to Paris.
Surrounded by a giant Orient Express structure, various “exotic” clothing is displayed as if on a platform about to board the train. Several of the pieces are not so different from what the characters in The Abduction from the Seraglio might wear on their journey around the world, also reflecting the “east meets west” nature of the opera – and of Hollywood cinema in the 1920s (see The Sheik or The Thief of Baghdad).
LA Opera first presented its provocative production of Salome during its inaugural season in 1986. That iconic production featured a backdrop of hand painted, psychedelic projections envisioned by designer John Bury. Salome returns to LA Opera this month and features new projections that build upon Bury’s original designs and showcase the title character’s mental state throughout the opera.
Bury’s original projections (see below) were abstract and textural, containing a dark color scheme (reds, blues, and purples). Some projections feature shapes that look like bubbles or blood cells, while others create patterns using horizontal lines.
Updated since their original use, the new projections are no longer hand painted. Projection Designer Alisa Lapidus digitized Bury’s projections and used them as the base for the new projections (which are both digital and animated). These new projections reflect director David Paul’s emphasis on Salome’s journey between two worlds – the one she lives in and the one in her head.
Since LA Opera’s first season in 1986, Los Angeles is not the only place in the world that you can experience one of the company’s productions. Over the years, they’ve been rented and staged by other opera companies, produced during festivals, and even shown on the big screen. LA Opera’s innovative and beloved productions travel the world, sharing the spirit of Los Angeles and a love of opera with people far and wide.
Here are three productions that have traveled the world in recent years.
Salome (1986; 1989; 1998; 2001; 2017)
LA Opera’s iconic production of Strauss’s Salome (which returns to the LA Opera stage February 18) originally premiered during our first season in 1986. Adapted from the scandalous play by Oscar Wilde, Salome is a seductively beautiful tapestry of the subconscious. The princess Salome becomes infatuated by her stepfather’s prisoner, John the Baptist, and she determines to have him…whatever the cost.
This production of Salome is well traveled and has been staged both close to home (at San Diego Opera) across the country (Washington National Opera) and around the world (on tour with the Savonlinna Festival in Finland and as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in China).
Since its founding in 1986, LA Opera has become one of Los Angeles’s most influential arts organizations. In 2011 LA Opera’s communications team conducted extensive research in order to better identify the company’s brand and connect with its ever-expanding audience in a new era.
“In order for branding to be effective, it has to be organic,” says Diane Rhodes Bergman, vice president of marketing and communications, who oversaw the research efforts five years ago and continues to spearhead the company’s communications strategy. “It has to start with the people who are most involved with the brand: the board, our staff, and the public we serve. We conducted research with these three groups to identify what LA Opera is at its core, what role the company plays in the Los Angeles community, and what part it will play in the community’s future.”
Through this research and subsequent testing of various brand concepts, LA Opera’s branding began to take form. There were several things that all the groups surveyed connected to LA Opera: the company’s influential presence in the Los Angeles community, the inextricable link to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s decades-long history, innovative productions, and a certain method of storytelling reflective of the city’s edgy (but still beautiful) spirit.
LA Opera has made a mission of bringing opera into LA County schools and students to the opera. Through several programs, the company introduces and shares a love of opera with kids and teens across the county. Students learn about opera from singers and staff, and experience productions geared toward teaching them the “big ideas” about the art form. However, presenting opera isn’t enough. LA Opera collaborates with teachers to integrate the music and theater standards of the opera with their English language arts and/or history curriculum standards. LA Opera’s production of Figaro’s American Adventure, which the company performs to thousands of students at venues across the county, is a great example of this arts-integrated learning.
Joshua Winograde, the company’s senior director of artistic planning, has been living out his dream at LA Opera. For the past decade, he has developed the company’s celebrated Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program and played an instrumental role in championing the company’s artistic vision. It has been an incredible journey for Winograde, whose long history with LA Opera began when he fell in love with opera as a teenager.
As a teenager, Winograde took summer classes at UCLA. There he met an exchange student from Japan who introduced him to Kathleen Battle’s recordings. “I had never heard anything like her. I was totally unaware that a human voice was capable of doing anything like that,” recalls Winograde. After hearing Battle’s voice, he became even more interested in singing and performing. He joined choirs and took advantage of every opportunity to see productions at LA Opera.
“Tara Colburn, one of the founders of LA Opera, was the mother of a friend of mine in high school. My friend didn’t like to go to the opera, so I was his mom’s date,” Winograde jokes.
After growing up at the LA Opera, Winograde pursued a career as a singer. He received both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Julliard School and embarked on a professional career as a bass-baritone (including time as a young artist at Houston Grand Opera). However, as Winograde’s career took off, he started dreaming of a different career path.
“I couldn’t shake this peripheral vision of a career producing opera,” says Winograde.
Winograde followed his heart and switched to a career in management, working with young artists at Wolf Trap Opera Company and Julliard. One year later, LA Opera came knocking.
Many of the opera singers that comb through the halls of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion never conceived of a career in opera. Some started their careers late in life, after having an epiphany that they loved music, while others began their careers after thinking they would play professional sports. But, for soprano Summer Hassan, it’s always been singing.
“When I was six years old, my mom took me to see The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. The music and singing thrilled me and I found myself – even at that young age – wanting to be on that stage, singing, and knowing every single thing that was going on. I wanted to part of it,” recalls Hassan. She continues, “At the time, I thought The Phantom of the Opera was an opera. It wasn’t, but there was something about the word ‘opera’ that caught my attention.”
Every year, LA Opera brings opera into schools through its Secondary In-School (SISO) program, through which students and teaching artist join forces over the course of 10 weeks to produce an opera. This innovative and influential program shares the art form with kids across Los Angeles. It’s an enriching experience for both students, teachers, and the artists involved in the program, including baritone Leroy Villanueva.
On November 5th, Akhnaten opened and audiences got a taste of the complicated set that brings ancient Egypt to life in the opera. Envisioned by set designer Tom Pye (in conjunction with director Phelim McDermott), the Akhnaten set takes 2-Dimensional hieroglyphics and brings them into 3-Dimensional staging.
The reproduced hieroglyphic image above (also the first ever recorded image of juggling) serves as the inspiration for the juggling in this opening funeral scene of Akhnaten and for the three-tiered structure that makes up the set (see second image above).
In the week leading up to the opening of Akhnaten, director Phelim McDermott watches singers rehearse a scene from Act III. In the scene, Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) and Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) dwell in an insular world of their own creation with their six daughters. The only thing that connects them is a lengthy blue fabric that they all handle throughout the scene as crowds gather restlessly outside the gates and letters arrive expressing increasing concern about Akhnaten’s self-imposed isolation. From his directorial perch, McDermott suddenly rises and holds up a white sheet of paper with a single handwritten word on it: SLOWER. In response, all the singers’ movements become hauntingly slower. The adjustment is mesmerizing and in tune with the atmosphere McDermott has created for Akhnaten
For Akhnaten, McDermott utilizes the movement qualities of renowned theater practitioner Michael Chekhov. The entire opera is staged in this way with all the cast members moving slowly, exploring the narrative moment to moment, and moving through visually stunning tableaus. The simplicity and flow is meant to entrance audience members, allowing them to get lost in this tale of a revolutionary pharaoh.
Akhnaten is McDermott’s third Philip Glass production (following Satyagraha and The Perfect American at English National Opera) and the director is a proponent of playing with rhythm and movement on stage.
“Doing things slowly is the most effective way of experiencing a Philip Glass opera, because the whole piece sits on a psychological level. Singers move to express what they feel in a single moment, not unlike what they do when they have an aria and sing about what it feels like to be in love for five minutes,” says McDermott.
The 2016/17 season is a big year for J’Nai Bridges. She recently made her San Francisco Opera debut as Bersi in Andrea Chenier (a role she will later reprise at Bavarian State Opera in Munich), Bridges will make her LA Opera debut as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten on November 5. She has become one of the most sought after mezzo-sopranos of her generation, but she didn’t always long for a career in opera.
Bridges was well on her way to becoming a college basketball star when she discovered a passion for singing that couldn’t be ignored. She joined her high school choir, started taking private voice lessons, and eventually made the decision to become a singer.
“My parents said, ‘You just started singing classically, are you sure you want to do this?’ I told them I had this feeling in my gut and in my soul telling me I need to pursue opera” recalls Bridges.
The choice to sing opera came a little later. She recorded four songs for a pre-screening tape to apply to music schools. Surrounded by her family, Bridges heard herself on tape for the first time.
Yes, it’s fall, but only in Los Angeles can you take advantage of the southern California weather, grab a blanket and a picnic and experience opera under the stars. This Thursday, you can do just that – experience the grandeur of LA Opera’s production of Macbeth as it is broadcast live to Santa Monica Pier and South Gate Park. That’s opera – live – for free – and surrounded by families and friends.
While the idea of showing opera in three locations might sound simple, it takes an enormous number of people to pull it all together and bring it to life.
Preparations for Opera at the Beach and Opera in the Park began nearly nine months ago when we secured the production team – Black & Tan – that will direct, live edit, and produce the broadcast.
In partnership with members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (who have generously supported these events for the last three years) we identified the venues. We would have had a riot had we moved from the Santa Monica Pier, so that location was set in stone, thanks to support from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. But we all agreed, more communities should experience this production. So this year, with the support from Supervisor Hilda Solis, we’ve expanded the program and we will also be broadcasting to South Gate Park – the heart of the South Gate community.
Ted Hearne’s The Source is not your typical opera. The Source is about how we deal with the massive amounts of classified information leaked by Chelsea Manning and released by WikiLeaks in 2010. The piece allows audience members to experience this information not by watching the news or sitting in front of a computer where they may become distracted, but instead, through the all-encompassing magic of opera. The Source is not staged in the way you would expect and it is not a biography of Chelsea Manning’s life – choices that director Daniel Fish championed from the beginning.
“Macbeth is a comedy if you’re a witch and a tragedy if you’re anyone else.”
The dancing witches in Macbeth are not your pointy hat, black-wearing, broom-flying witches. As the agents that drive the story, they are onstage virtually the entire time, lurking during every sinister choice that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth make in the opera. They move props. They haunt all of the characters and bring them to the darkest moments of their lives. We spoke with the nine women who play the witches about how they bring their hellish characters to life.
It all started at the audition.
While most dance auditions involve an incredible amount of specific movement and counting, the auditions for Macbeth were all about becoming witches.
Before he ever conceived of a career in opera, renowned tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz still spent most of his week singing. While studying engineering in his hometown of Hermosillo, Mexico, Chacón-Cruz sang with local trios, mariachis, and even as the lead singer serenading women for other men who were proposing. He was so passionate about singing that his mother signed him up for a voice lesson with an opera coach. At first, Chacón-Cruz protested, but the 15 minutes he spent with his first coach changed the course of his entire life.
“I told my mother, ‘Nobody likes opera. It’s so antiquated,’ but like a good son, I went to the lesson. The teacher – Jesus Li Cecilio – had me wait and I heard him working with another student. I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ Then it was my turn and after hearing me sing for a few minutes, Li Cecilio said that I have a future in opera,” says Chacón-Cruz. He continues, “Those 15 minutes turned into the rest of my life and I couldn’t be happier.” … Continue reading
Name almost any major Hollywood film in the last decade and Reid Bruton may very well have sung on its soundtrack. From Star Wars to Suicide Squad to Frozen, Bruton’s rich bass voice can be heard in the background of an emotional moment (like the epic moment in Star Wars between Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren) or as a menacing creature-like sound effect. He can do it all, and that includes opera. Bruton has been singing with the LA Opera Chorus for almost 20 years, appearing in more than 80 productions with numerous appearances in comprimario roles. We caught up with Bruton before his work as Macbeth’s servant for this season’s opening production, to chat about his varied roles in opera and film.
How long have you been part of the LA Opera chorus?
Since 1997. My first production was LAO’s first Il Trovatore.
Did you always have a love of opera?
Oh, yes! I was raised in a farming community near Memphis and I used to drive a tractor for my father, which was equiped with a small radio inside. On Saturday mornings, I would plow fields and listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio or put in a cassette tape of Leontyne Price or Maria Callas singing. I listened and loved it, but never saw an opera until I went to college where I was a double degree in voice/opera and piano.
Why have you stayed with LA Opera for so long?
There are many reasons, but one of the most important is that at LA Opera I have the unique opportunity to work closely with some of the most notable singers in the world today… singing and acting with them very closely. Being on stage with great artists who inspire me and whom I learn from – it’s better than a college degree. I teach voice privately. So by getting to work so closely with all of these great singers with different voice types I am able to share, first hand, my experience and observations with my students.
For Keith J. Rainville, what began as a two-week graphic design gig at LA Opera (which he took instead of going to San Diego Comic Con) has morphed into a 13-year career as the company’s in house designer and brand manager. Rainville oversees and creates LA Opera’s marketing materials and has been instrumental in crafting the company’s cinematic style—a look often inspired by his lifelong love of classic film, 1960s television shows, and vintage horror.
“I was a kid in 1970s New England,” says Rainville. “We had a good five month winter and since I couldn’t go outside, I spent my days watching TV. Back then, pre-cable, you were a victim of whatever was on. I was lucky to have really good channels out of Boston that syndicated a lot of old 1960s TV shows. As a kid, I never quite understood what was new and what was old. I thought a ten year old rerun of Lost in Space was just as contemporary as Star Wars,” recalls Rainville. He continues, “My earliest memories of connecting with graphic design and typography were credit sequences for shows like Wild, Wild West and Bewitched. It was a great time for those credit sequences, most of which were animated, and I used to love those more than the shows.”
Those early experiences of watching 1960s TV shows, as well as Japanese monster movies, moody black-and-white Universal and later garishly hued Hammer classic horror films, still inspire Rainville to this day, particularly in his marketing designs for LA Opera’s more outré productions. “If you ever want to look at key art and say, ‘That’s a Keith Rainville design,’ look at our Lohengrin, Hercules vs. Vampires, and Nosferatu campaigns,” says Rainville. Those campaigns (see below) are 1960s inspired, full of loud colors, and eye-catching graphics. Of this, Rainville says, “Marketing is a blunt force instrument. You have to grab people’s collars and get their attention, and nothing does that more than garish color and large graphics.”