Tag Archives: The Staging of an Opera Company

Happy Birthday Plácido Domingo!

Plácido Domingo

Plácido Domingo

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.

Domingo at LA Opera

Domingo at LA Opera

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The Staging of an Opera Company: The Ring and Beyond

Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Placido Domingo) in Die Walkure (2009); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Placido Domingo) in Die Walkure (2009); Photo: Monika Rittershaus

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.

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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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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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