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.

The 1997 production of Mozart’s The Barber of Seville proved to be another interesting acquisition for Hemmings. Originally staged by Michael Hampe for Cologne, the production had been purchased by a music school in Tokyo. When the Japanese performances were over, the school was willing to re-sell it at a rock bottom price. Technical Director Jeff Kleeman flew to Tokyo to see if it might work for Los Angeles and, 48 hours later, the production belonged to LA Opera. Barber proved a successful star vehicle for young baritone Rod Gilfry, who had begun his career as one of LA Opera’s Resident Artists, along with Jennifer Larmore and Bruce Ford.

Another jewel of the season was the company premiere of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, one of the earliest masterpieces of the operatic repertoire, featuring two superstars in unforgettable performances. Thomas Allen was the legendary Greek king, returning home ten years after the end of the Trojan War, and Frederica von Stade portrayed his faithful wife, Penelope. The spare staging by Pierre Audi put the focus on the standout performances of the soloists. The Return of Ulysses remains a production that many longtime LA Opera followers (including Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s current president and CEO, who at the time had just joined the company’s production staff) consider to be one of the company’s greatest artistic achievements.

 

The 1997/98 season opened with a production of Umberto Giordano’s rarely staged Fedora, starring Plácido Domingo and the stunning Maria Ewing in her seventh and final appearance with LA Opera. Ewing’s journey in Los Angeles began with her historic role debut as Salome in 1986. In a recent interview with LA Opera, she recalls her time here fondly: “Los Angeles really holds a very special place in my heart, not only because of what that role did, what singing Salome for the first time did, but because of everyone involved in the production. It was almost a feeling of family. A singer needs that. You need that feeling of support, of feeling that you are of the same mind with the directors, the conductors, the designers, the impresario, the house. It wipes away any unnecessary conflicts that get in the way of things artistic. I remember that very strongly.”

The season also featured an extraordinary revival of La Bohème, with Plácido Domingo conducting a fresh young cast. Domingo had discovered both of the leading ladies through his Operalia competition: Ana María Martínez made her company debut as Mimi, while Inva Mula returned as Musetta, the third of her five leading appearances in Los Angeles. The male cast members formed a virtual “who’s who” of artists who began their careers with LA Opera: Greg Fedderly as Rodolfo, Rod Gilfry as Marcello, Malcolm MacKenzie as Schaunard, Richard Bernstein as Colline, Jamie Offenbach as Benoit/Alcindoro, and even Charles Castronovo (now a major star) in the tiny role of Parpignol.

La Bohème was followed by a ravishing new opera, Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas; LA Opera was one of three opera companies that had commissioned this work. The season concluded with a wildly successful new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore, with Carol Vaness as Leonora and featuring the LA Opera debut of Eric Owens (now a major star) in the supporting role of Ferrando.

Highlights from Hemmings’ programming in the 1998/99 season included the company premiere of Jules Massenet’s Werther, with Ramón Vargas in the title role, and the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the company’s second world premiere (following Kullervo in 1992). The season also included four operas—Carmen, Madame Butterfly, La Traviata and Don Giovanni—that sold out their entire runs, as well as successful productions of Falstaff and Lucia di Lammermoor.

The season also included announcements of great changes to come for the still-young company. Peter Hemmings decided that he would retire in June 2000, after his 14th season in Los Angeles. Plácido Domingo (who had held the dual roles of principal guest conductor and artistic advisor since 1995) would subsequently take on the role of artistic director, leading the company into the next century and solidifying his longtime close association with the company. The long-delayed construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall, future home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was back on track, meaning that the LA Opera would soon be the primary tenant in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

For his final season, Hemmings wanted to create something truly special, a season that would propel LA Opera into the 21st century.

He got it.

The 1999/2000 season opened with a grandly scaled Samson and Dalila, starring Plácido Domingo and Denyce Graves. Ramón Vargas, Rod Gilfry and Thomas Allen returned in The Elixir of Love, with Ruth Ann Swenson making her company debut as Adina. Susanne Mentzer and Laura Claycomb headlined a new production of The Capulets and Montagues, Bellini’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Hansel and Gretel returned to brighten the holiday season. Marcello Giordani and Samuel Ramey made their company debuts in Faust. Director Bruce Beresford created a striking new production of Rigoletto set in contemporary Los Angeles. Marta Domingo created a ravishing new production of Puccini’s little known La Rondine starring Carol Vaness.

It was the company premiere of Benjamin Britten’s 1951 masterpiece Billy Budd, however, that would be the season’s greatest highlight. It epitomized all of the elements that Hemmings had emphasized throughout his tenure in Los Angeles. Hemmings had regularly programmed the important works of the 20th century; Billy Budd was the fourth Britten opera to be presented here. Francesca Zambello’s powerful production emphasized the striking theatrical values that were so important to Hemmings. Rod Gilfry, LA Opera’s homegrown star, returned as Billy, his greatest role, with masterful British tenor Robert Tear making his company debut as Captain Vere along with a supporting cast of LA Opera favorites. Billy Budd was something of a family affair too, with Hemmings’ son Rupert serving as an assistant stage manager. (The Hemmings family’s involvement with LA Opera continues to this day, as Rupert is now the company’s Senior Director of Production.) At the end of the final performance of Billy Budd, it was Rupert Hemmings who cued his father to take a solo bow and acknowledge the audience’s outpouring of affection and gratitude.

In a program note, writer Michael Crabb summed up what Hemmings had achieved. “Not everyone takes off in a blaze of glory, not does everyone have the world’s greatest lyric tenor and other opera luminaries to serenade them before they attend a glittering gala. For that matter, they rarely have such judicious timing as to plot their retirement to coincide with a symbolic change of millennium. But then…Peter Hemmings…is exceptional. With a canny understanding of local tastes and expectations, [he] has not only grown the company but in the process educated audiences to enjoy a range of operatic experiences they probably never imagined.”

The impact of Hemmings’ leadership continues to be felt at LA Opera, through the company’s artistic values, adventurous programming, familial spirit and nurturing of young talent. In just 14 seasons, Hemmings had given Los Angeles the opportunity to fall in love with opera, a legacy for which the community remains grateful to this day.

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