Tag Archives: History

Will the Real Akhenaten Please Stand Up?

Akhenaten

Akhenaten

There is nothing left of this glorious city of temples and palaces. The mud brick buildings have long since crumbled and little remains of the immense stone temples but the outline of their floor plans.
—from Akhnaten, the opera by Philip Glass 

Like the lost kingdom of Egypt, little more than outlines remain of the glorious ancient pharaohs that ruled there.  A treasure trove of precious metals and jewels, the once carefully preserved tombs—intended to last for eternity—have been looted and disturbed since antiquity. Today, we have stories that are pieced together from 7,000-year-old mummified bodies and the confusing array of artifacts and artistic renderings remaining to us. Modern technology has allowed for advancements never before imagined. CT imaging of mummies allows us to see more and destroy less and DNA testing has advanced the traces of a family tree. But there is still much we don’t know about this profoundly important African dynasty.

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Staged Over Three Decades

Plácido Domingo as Dick Johnson and Catherine Malfitano as Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West (2002); Photo: Robert Millard

Plácido Domingo as Dick Johnson and Catherine Malfitano as Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West (2002); Photo: Robert Millard

The curtain first rose at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for an LA Opera production in 1986, but our roots trace back four decades earlier. Steeped in tradition and celebrating the spirit of the city we call home, LA Opera’s history is worth exploring.

Check out the articles below to learn about the staging of our opera company.

The Staging of An Opera Company

Minutes before the curtain rose on LA Opera’s 1986 production of Otello, Plácido Domingo stood in the wings, ready to make his entrance in one of his signature roles. He had triumphantly sung Verdi’s tragic hero for audiences around the world, and was widely renowned as the preeminent Otello of his generation. Yet this performance carried a special significance for the tenor. It would be the very first performance in LA Opera’s inaugural season. Full of anticipation, Domingo was eager to showcase to the Los Angeles community, and the greater opera world, what this city could create.

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Norma: Behind the Masterpiece

Norma; Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Norma; Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The Nearly Perfect Partner

Librettist Felice Romani (1788-1865) was one of the central figures in early 19th-century opera, working with the most important composers of his time, including Bellini’s greatest contemporaries, Rossini and Donizetti. (Verdi even recycled an existing libretto by Romani for his early comedy King for a Day.) Romani wrote the texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas. After their success with Norma, however, their relationship soured when an overcommitted Romani missed deadlines for their subsequent collaboration, Beatrice di Tenda. Bellini used a different librettist for his next opera, I Puritani, but the two men began to repair their relationship through letters and intermediaries. Bellini’s tragic death at the age of 33, however, made I Puritani his final opera.

The First Two Divas

Considered two of the greatest singers of all time, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi created the leading roles of Norma and Adalgisa in the 1831 premiere of Bellini’s masterwork in Milan. Pasta was Bellini’s favorite singer, treasured for her unusual vocal colors and passionate emotional range. Pasta encouraged her younger colleague to move up to the role of Norma. When she did so, in 1835, Grisi was considered by many critics of her day to be superior to her illustrious predecessor.

 Ponselle and Callas

Two American-born sopranos, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, are considered by many to be the greatest Normas of the 20th century. Ponselle sang her first perfor­mances of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927, when she was an established star; Callas’s debut as Norma came two decades later, in Florence, when she was only 25 years old. Revered Italian maestro Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was the conductor on both notable occasions. Ponselle confessed that “I had a lot of sleepless nights, wor­rying about how I was going to do in Norma.” Callas, who once described Ponselle as “her idol,” told a friend “I think we all know that Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all.”

Callas Feels Confident

On the eve of her 1948 role debut as Norma, a giddy Maria Callas wrote to her voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. “I pray that it will go well, that I’ll be in good health, because after those performances, if they go as well as we hope and dream, I’ll be the queen of opera in Italy, indeed every­where, for the simple reason that I have reached perfection in singing, and there will not be another Norma in the whole world!” It was indeed a triumph, and Callas would perform Norma nearly 90 times, more than any other role. Still, as she told Maestro Serafin during rehearsals, “It will never be as good as it is now in my mind, unsung.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDax8rSE8I8

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The Staging of an Opera Company: The Hemmings Era Begins

When the LA Opera first presented Rigoletto in 1993, David Young was the second chair bass player in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble that played for most performances during the company’s early years. The opera features a prominent solo for the double bass—at the fateful moment when the troubled jester first encounters the assassin Sparafucile—which went to LACO’s longtime principal bassist, Susan Ranney. But by 2000, when the company next offered Rigoletto, Young had become the principal bassist for the LA Opera Orchestra, and it was finally his moment to shine after years of waiting for that rare opportunity. He asked Peter Hemmings, who would soon retire as LA Opera’s general director, if a promotional poster had been made for the production, explaining how much it meant to him. “Of course,” replied Hemmings. “I’ll get you one.”

Peter Hemmings; Photo: Ken Howard

Peter Hemmings; Photo: Ken Howard

Hemmings delivered the poster a few days later. Not only was it signed “Best wishes, Peter Hemmings,” it also boasted the signatures of the major stars in the cast. That framed treasure hangs on the wall of Young’s studio today. Hemmings passed away two years later, making his thoughtfulness especially poignant to Young. “Peter Hemmings really cared about everybody,” he says. “He loved this company and he gave his all to our founding years.”

Young’s story is indicative of the atmosphere that Hemmings fostered, with artists, administrators, staff and volunteers all working in close collaboration toward a common goal. Fondly remembered for his warmth, British wit and jovial nature, Hemmings was also greatly respected for his high expectations, imagination and loyalty. With a background that included bringing the Scottish Opera to prominence, he was more than up to the challenge of building a massive opera company—virtually overnight.

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The Return of Ulysses: Iconic Productions Day 10

The Return of Ulysses, 1996-1997

Frederica von Stade as Penelope in The Return of Ulysses (1997); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

“[There’s] an underlying anger [to Penelope]…her frustration, and at the bottom of everything is fear – what these people could do to her. They’ve had enough of her saying, ‘Just wait a little longer, he’s going to come back.’” – Frederica von Stade’s explorations of her character Penelope in The Return of Ulysses (1997)

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The Flying Dutchman: Iconic Productions Day 9

“I can listen to the music in my home and imagine the most amazing imagery. But quite often when I go to the opera and then I see it, I’d rather close my eyes, because you can’t match the music.” – Julie Taymor (Frida, Across The Universe) on what made her desire to push theatrical boundaries in opera for The Flying Dutchman (1995)

The cast of The Flying Dutchman (1995); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

The cast of The Flying Dutchman (1995); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

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Pelleas et Melisande: Iconic Productions Day 8

“I have gone out of my way to demonstrate that Debussy was writing very specific music for very specific situations. When you actually put it all out there, when you take the trouble to make a believable existence, note by note, bar by bar for these characters, you realize this opera is so filled with life, and with detail, that it becomes anything but the boring opera of the season. On the contrary, it’s a sizzler.” – Peter Sellars, on his staging of Pelléas et Mélisande (1995)

The cast of Pelleas et Melisande (1995); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

The cast of Pelléas et Mélisande (1995); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

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Iconic Productions: Nixon in China

Nixon in China imagines what history cannot tell us and what none of the participants in the trip was able to articulate. The opera is not about what I meant for Nixon to go to China, it is an opera about what it felt like to be Nixon in China. It is not an opera about what Nixon did for China, but what China did for Nixon.” – Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times.

LA Opera presented John Adams’ acclaimed Nixon in China in 1990, a production directed by Peter Sellars.

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The Staging of an Opera Company

Minutes before the curtain rose on LA Opera’s 1986 production of Otello, Plácido Domingo stood in the wings, ready to make his entrance in one of his signature roles. He had triumphantly sung Verdi’s tragic hero for audiences around the world, and was widely renowned as the preeminent Otello of his generation. Yet this performance carried a special significance for the tenor. It would be the very first performance in LA Opera’s inaugural season. Full of anticipation, Domingo was eager to showcase to the Los Angeles community, and the greater opera world, what this city could create.

Otello

Plácido Domingo as the title character in Otello (1986)

As conductor Lawrence Foster ushered in the sound of the orchestra to begin the opera, the curtain flew up swiftly. To the surprise of everyone present, the curtain rose halfway and no further. The show went on, and within minutes, the curtain arrived in its designated place, functioning properly for the rest of the stunning premiere.

The curtain’s antics prodded Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer to ask, “Los Angeles Opera starts, and the curtain goes halfway up and gets stuck, is that what is going to happen to our opera company?”

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#LAO30 Images Iconic Productions Day 1: Salome

“All the characters in the opera are obsessed, often to the brink of madness. Obsessions make men blind, unable to understand other points of view or to admit the balancing power of reason. And such obsessions finally lead to violence [in Salome]. Salome’s passions lead directly to her death. She is crushed like an infectious insect. We can only approve of her end, while perhaps reflecting that all of us have the possibility of aberrant sexual behavior inside us. It is the obverse of true passion.”

– Sir Peter Hall, director of 1986’s Salome

Salome, 1986, Photo By Frederic Ohringer

Maria Ewing and Michael Devlin in Salome (1986); Photo Credit: Frederic Ohringer

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#tbt: Porgy and Bess

Mic Bell as Porgy in the 1987 production of Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was the closing production of LA Opera’s inaugural season.  It was seen as a highly influential production, created for Houston Grand Opera in 1976, that made the case for the work as a true opera, rather than a Broadway musical, and restored Gershwin’s complete original score. Director Jack O’Brien described the experience of working on the opera as “opening a treasure never seen,” because of the artistic community that formed to create the show. It was a triumphant season finale, conducted by John DeMain, with a magnificent cast that included Donnie Ray Albert and Carmen Balthrop, alternating in the title roles with Mic Bell and Henrietta Davis.

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