Faces of the Opera
This season, James Conlon celebrates ten years as LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director. Throughout the past decade, he has led the orchestra through more than fifty operas, from the great masterpieces of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner to contemporary works like The Ghosts of Versailles and Moby-Dick, and will continue do so for several years to come. On the heels of a contract renewal that will have him at the podium through the 2020/2021 season, we sat down with Maestro Conlon to discuss his life in classical music and what he loves most about opera in Los Angeles.
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.
On January 28, Morris Robinson returns to LA Opera as Osmin in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. The talented bass has sung in the world’s greatest opera houses in the last decade, but he did not always dream about a career in opera.
In this edition of our collaboration with Living with A Genius, hear Robinson discuss Osmin and what led him to become an opera singer.
Today is Plácido Domingo’s birthday. To celebrate, here are some articles and images that showcase his work at LA Opera over the years.
Get to know Maestro Domingo by reading the articles below and check out images of Maestro Domingo on our Domingo at LA Opera Pinterest Board.
The story of how David Washburn found the trumpet has become a family legend.
David’s father, an engineering professor, played cornet. He eventually gave that cornet to a friend. One evening, while the Washburns were visiting this friend, someone brought out the cornet. Little David gave it a go. After one lesson, his father’s friend exclaimed: “You’d better get him a trumpet!”
Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s President and Chief Executive Officer, is either astonishingly modest or tremendously reverential to those who have gone before him… or both.
Mr. Koelsch is this year’s recipient of the Opera League’s Peter Hemmings Award – given to individuals “who have made significant contributions to the development of opera in the greater Los Angeles area.” He speaks of the achievements of LA Opera in his four years at the helm as little more than the naturalension of ideas and programs put forth by his predecessors – and by “the incredible team we have here.”
L.A. Opera patrons who rely on supertitles to understand the text of what’s being sung can thank the woman wearing a headset and sitting in a space above the wall chandeliers on the right side of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion auditorium.
Linda Zoolalian has prepared and cued the supertitles—librettos projected in English on a screen above the proscenium and elsewhere—since 2003. Three years ago, she began cueing supertitles for the Los Angeles Master Chorale as well.
Alma Guzman has three great passions in life: volunteering, photography and travel.
Her Opera League volunteerism dates back to the League’s very inception almost thirty years ago. Since her retirement, she has been able to volunteer a whopping 450 plus hours a year. This coming season, she will serve on the Opera League board of directors for the third time. The League, and by extension LA Opera, benefit greatly from Alma’s huge contribution of time, as have over 40 citywide organizations where she has volunteered since 1973.
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.
Stuart and Rebecca Bowne have subscribed to LA Opera since 1995. “While we both absolutely love opera, our experience and relationships with this particular company have enriched our lives in ways we could not have imagined,” said Mrs. Bowne.
“We travel around the world to see opera – but it is here, in our home town, that we experience the most meaningful moments and heartfelt connections.”
During a dinner break between rehearsals of L.A. Opera’s Romeo and Juliet in 2005—in a rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion because the cast was in wigs and makeup and not allowed to venture outside—star soprano Anna Netrebko asked Opera Chorus tenor George Sterne to join her. “When she invited me to sit next to her, that thrilled me,” Sterne says with a grin. “I think she’d kind of gotten to like me, from talking to me.”
This month, Grant Gershon is doing something no other person has ever done. He is conducting performances at three of the city’s most celebrated music organizations – LA Opera (Wonderful Town), LA Philharmonic (John Adams’ El Niño), and the LA Master Chorale (Festival of Carols and Handel’s Messiah) – all in one month. This is an exciting time for the renowned conductor and Artistic Director of the Master Chorale, who has a lifelong relationship with the Music Center (including LA Opera).
Gershon is a Californian through and through, hailing from the city of Alhambra, and educated at Chapman University and at the University of Southern California. He first pursued a career as a pianist and was suspicious of conductors with the anti-authoritarian spirit of a teenager growing up in the 1970s. Twenty years later, Gershon found himself at the Music Center, working as an assistant conductor and principal pianist at LA Opera. It was here that Gershon discovered a passion for conducting.
This fall has been very busy for Matthew Aucoin – LA Opera’s new artist-in-residence. Not only did he compose, conduct, curate and perform in October’s wildly popular Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (held at The Theater at Ace Hotel), he also made his LA Opera mainstage debut conducting Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. In the below excerpt of a podcast hosted by Living with A Genius’s Omar Crook, Aucoin talks about how he tackled the challenging Glass opera.
Imagine being invited by a world-renowned opera legend to move to a country where you don’t speak the language.
Would you hesitate? Or embrace the opportunity?
This is how the powerful and sonorous baritone Kihun Yoon, a native of Seoul, South Korea, answers the question.
Beloved Broadway diva Faith Prince won a Tony Award for her indelible portrayal of Miss Adelaide in a blockbuster 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, her third show on the Great White Way. She now makes her LA Opera debut as Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town, another classic mid-century musical comedy.
How does a girl from Lynchburg, Virginia, end up on Broadway?
My parents weren’t performers, but I sang in the chorus and was in musicals in my school, which had a terrific drama program. My wonderful chorus director Carl Harris helped me get into the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and that changed my life. I started to see that I was making headway, that maybe I could do theater for a living. I went to Washington DC for a job that got me an Equity card, and then moved to New York in January of 1981. Not too long after that, I got into an Off Broadway show in Boston, got an agent, and I was off and running. And now I’ve just finished my 14th Broadway show!
You’ve worked with two of your Wonderful Town cast mates before on Broadway—Marc Kudisch in Bells Are Ringing in 2001 and Roger Bart in Disaster! earlier this year.
I love Roger like my own child. And I adore Marc, too. He’s a pussycat and I’m excited that he’s doing a sweet role for a change! My list of leading men is insanely wonderful, everybody from Jason Alexander to Nathan Lane, Richard Kind, Kevin Chamberlin, Oliver Platt, Martin Short… And I also worked with our director, David Lee, in Two by Two here in Los Angeles for Reprise.
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.”
Director Phelim McDermott’s staging of Akhnaten is anything but ordinary. By instructing the singers and cast members to move slowly through the world of Akhnaten, McDermott creates an atmosphere that is hypnotic. It’s difficult to look away from such intensity, which is not unlike the intense intimacy you get from a film close-up. He further captures the pharaoh’s world through abstract use of juggling and a set greatly influenced by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics discovered by Egyptologists in the 1920s.
While McDermott is now comfortable in staging Philip Glass (Akhnaten is his third Glass production), directing Glass was not always on his to-do list.
In the below excerpt of a podcast hosted by Living with A Genius’s Omar Crook, McDermott discusses how he came to direct Akhnaten and his vision for the show.
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.
Continuing their family tradition of encouraging support for LA Opera during the holidays, Paul and Marybelle Musco have announced a matching gift challenge. Any donation received by December 31 will be matched $2 for every $1 donated up to $500,000.
For Paul and Marybelle Musco, supporting opera is an integral part of their lives. As a boy growing up in Rhode Island, Paul’s Italian immigrant parents were opera lovers and insisted that their children gather around the radio for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. “I guess it was osmosis, because I came to love opera and it has stayed with me personally ever since,” he recalls.
LA Opera chorister Omar Crook has appreciated opera since he was a child, spending summers roaming the creaky corridors of his grandparents’ house.
“My grandfather had a really nice tape player. One day, I came across the iconic Decca recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing Canio in Pagliacci,” says Crook. “I had just finished playing Billy Idol’s ‘Eyes Without a Face,’ and I was jazzed up. Then, I played all of Pagliacci and the music grabbed me just as much.”
Crook did not immediately pursue opera. In fact, he spent several years narrowing down the careers he wanted, taking a variety of classes from literature to marine biology. He ultimately decided on writing and was accepted into UCLA’s creative writing program. To transfer to UCLA from Santa Monica college, he needed to fulfill one more requirement. That’s how Crook found himself in a beginning voice class.
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.