Tag Archives: Peter Hemmings

Hispanics for LA Opera Celebrates 25 Years

PD Domingo Award Photo

Hispanics for LA Opera was launched in February 1992 at the request of Peter Hemmings, then general director of LA Opera, with the enthusiastic support of Plácido Domingo. They were interested in engaging this vibrant, growing segment of the Los Angeles community education and welcoming them to the opera. Hemmings reached out to LA Opera subscribers and patrons Alicia and Ed Clark, who stepped forward to lead this effort by founding HLAO. Their leadership initiated an effort that has been an integral source of support for building the understanding and awareness of the operatic art form in Hispanic communities throughout Los Angeles.

Members of HLAO

Members of HLAO

Over the past 25 years, HLAO volunteers have enthusiastically promoted opera throughout the Hispanic community, encouraging attendance at performances and coordinating social activities that offer opportunities to learn more about the art form while getting to know other opera enthusiasts. They have enjoyed a large measure of success. In 1992, Hispanic attendees at LA Opera performances made up just 1% of the overall audience; today that figure is more than 14%. This is more than a tenfold increase!

In addition to promoting opera throughout the Hispanic community, HLAO hosts the annual Plácido Domingo Awards. This special event honors great Hispanic opera artists and civic leaders for their community service and support of the mission of HLAO. Over the years, a number of legendary artists have been the recipients of the award including Ramón Vargas, Ana María Martínez, Erwin Schrott, Juan Diego Flórez, Rolando Villazón, Suzanna Guzmán and Ailyn Pérez.

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Beyond Boundaries: An Interview with Christopher Koelsch

Christopher Koelsch; Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Christopher Koelsch; Photo: Craig T. Mathew

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.”

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Feed This Girl

Amelia Hemmings as a Scottish Refugee in Macbeth (2016); Photo: Karen Almond

Amelia Hemmings as a Scottish Refugee in Macbeth (2016); Photo: Karen Almond

Thirty years after its founding, the opera legacy first established by Peter Hemmings lives on – literally.

Amelia Hemmings

Amelia Hemmings

That sweet, albeit heartbreaking and starved face you’ll see at the center of the Scottish Refugee’s chorus in Act IV is Amelia Hemmings, granddaughter of the late Hemmings.

By day, Amelia is your regular 7th grader. Besides singing, dancing and performing, she loves baking mini cupcakes (plain vanilla especially) and crafts (she even has her own glue gun). But then again, she might not be so regular after all. In LA Opera’s last two seasons, she’s been in several productions, carrying on the family’s opera tradition. (Her older brother Rory made his LA Opera solo debut as the Cabin Boy in Billy Budd in 2014 and has also appeared in several other productions.)

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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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The Staging of an Opera Company: Plácido Domingo’s New Millennium

LA Opera ushered in the new millennium with astounding vitality. Now led by Plácido Domingo as artistic director, the young company was poised to build upon the remarkable growth that had marked its first 14 years under the direction of Peter Hemmings. While the 2000/01 season had largely been planned in advance by the now-retired Hemmings, Domingo’s impact was big, bold and immediate.

Placido Domingo as Dick Johnson and Catherine Malfitano as Minnie in <em>The Girl of the Golden West</em> (2002); Photo: Robert Millard

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

To open the 2000/01 season, Plácido Domingo conducted the company premiere of Aida, Verdi’s grandest opera, featuring a high-powered cast: soprano Deborah Voigt as Aida, tenor Johan Botha as Radames and bass-baritone Simon Estes as Amonasro, all making their LA Opera debuts. Just days later, Domingo held a press confer­ence to announce his ambitious future plans, which represented nothing less than a radical rethinking of what LA Opera could be. He envi­sioned fashioning LA Opera into an opera company that would push the artistic boundaries of the medium, bringing it squarely into the popular culture of Los Angeles in the new millennium. His plans included a multi-season collaboration with the dynamic leader of the Kirov Opera, conductor Valery Gergiev; an enormous expansion of the company’s repertoire to emphasize new operas and works not previously presented in Los Angeles; and even a new production of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, the first ever created in Los Angeles. Domingo’s star power would not only attract the most prominent singers, directors and designers of the time, it would also inspire a new wave of funding, through initiatives such as the Domingo’s Angels, essential to realize his plans. At Domingo’s side was a man who shared his artistic ambition: Kent Nagano, newly announced as LA Opera’s first-ever principal conductor, a position he would take up the following summer.

LA Opera’s partnership with Valery Gergiev had begun on the evening before that remarkable press conference. To expand upon the repertoire planned by Hemmings, Domingo had added a remarkable series of Wagner concerts, showcasing the Kirov Orchestra and its celebrated conductor in their first performances in Los Angeles. It was also the first time for L.A. audiences to experience Domingo singing Wagner, as the concert featured Act One of Die Walküre and Act Three of Parsifal. The soloists included Linda Watson, who would become the company’s Wagnerian soprano of choice for the next decade, and a young soprano on the verge of superstardom, Anna Netrebko.

The cast of <em>The Queen of Spades</em> (2001); Photo: Ken Howard

The cast of The Queen of Spades (2001); Photo: Ken Howard

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The Staging of an Opera Company: Hemmings’ Victory Lap

In his first ten years (1984 to 1994) as general director of LA Opera, Peter Hemmings had built LA Opera from the ground up into a world-class opera company, known for pioneering productions and adventurous repertoire that brought the best of opera to Los Angeles audiences. In the years leading up to the millennium, Hemmings reaped the benefits of his heroic earlier efforts while pushing the boundaries of the medium. He also continued to nurture relationships with artists at every stage of their careers, prompting many titans of opera (including Maria Ewing, Carol Vaness, Frederica von Stade and Thomas Allen, to mention just a few) to return to Los Angeles numerous times, while simultaneously cultivating future stars such as Rod Gilfry. The conclusion of Hemmings’ tenure at LA Opera (1995 to 2000) was to prove nothing less than a victory lap.

LA Opera’s 1995/96 season opened with a production of Verdi’s Stiffelio, starring Plácido Domingo, Elena Prokina and Vladimir Chernov. Stiffelio was a true novelty, an 1850 work that had disappeared from the world’s opera houses for more than a century. The composer withdrew it from circulation shortly after its premiere, when censors had demanded major last-minute changes to the work’s religious subject matter. Verdi and his librettist subsequently gutted their opera and added new material to transform it into Aroldo. (Premiered in 1857, Aroldo remains one of Verdi’s least performed operas.) Stiffelio was thought lost in its original form until the late 1960s, when a usable copy of the complete score resurfaced in a Naples library.

Hemmings saw potential in a production by Elijah Moshinsky (for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) that evoked the 19th-century American Midwest. Plácido Domingo headlined the show, singing the title role to great critical acclaim. Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer wrote that Domingo “brought extraordinary intensity to the plaints of the tortured hero, and extraordinary poignancy to his insecurities.”

Stiffelio set the tone for the rest of the season, which included two new tent pole productions: Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.

The Flying Dutchman was a new production directed by avant-garde theater director Julie Taymor, whose vision proved massive. The entire action of the show was staged around a deconstructed ship made up of skeletal pieces that rocked like giant seesaws, creating a dreamlike and timeless quality.

Another new production, The Elixir of Love exemplified Hemmings’ knack for taking a fresh look at classic works. Directed by Stephen Lawless, the handsome staging discarded the sugary romance of Donizetti’s comedy for a Chekhovian naturalness. Thomas Allen made a brilliant role debut as the charlatan Dulcamara, and Ramón Vargas, a rising superstar, made his LA Opera debut in the leading role of Nemorino. Elixir became one of LA Opera’s signature productions, revived several times in Los Angeles and travelling to a number of major opera houses around the world.

To open the 1996/97 season, a grandly-scaled Franco Zeffirelli production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, updated to the present day, had caught Hemmings’ eye in Rome. Getting the production to the City of Angels proved difficult, however. The set hadn’t been stored properly and was falling apart. In the end, LA Opera’s technical staff had to recreate an all-new version of Zeffirelli’s enormous set from scratch, basing the entire design from an 11”x17” Xeroxed copy of a single production photo. Starring Plácido Domingo as the tormented Canio, one of his greatest roles, along with soprano Verónica Villarroel and an enormous cast of singers, acrobats and supernumeraries—and even a dog and a donkey—Pagliacci became one of LA Opera’s iconic productions, revived in both 2005 and in 2015.

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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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