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.

Rigoletto (2000); Photo: Ken Howard

Rigoletto (2000); Photo: Ken Howard

Audiences at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had had their first taste of opera on a world-class level in 1984, during the Olympic Arts Festival, with three touring productions from London’s Royal Opera: Turandot starring Gwyneth Jones and Plácido Domingo, Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers and The Magic Flute with Thomas Allen as Papageno. Following the incredible success of those performances, Peter Hemmings was hired to create a first-rate opera company in Los Angeles from the ground up. With Domingo lending considerable star power, expertise and invaluable personal connections as the company’s artistic advisor, Hemmings set to work in October of 1984. He began by importing an Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of The Beggar’s Opera to downtown’s Embassy Theater in 1985. Later that year, he brought the Deutsche Oper Berlin to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with The Marriage of Figaro featuring Justino Díaz and Pilar Lorengar in the cast, Tosca with Domingo as Cavaradossi and Korngold’s Die tote Stadt starring James King.

All of this led up to the remarkable inaugural season—opening in October of 1986, a mere two years after Hemmings’ arrival—for what was then known as the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. Hemmings was ambitious in his programming. Highlights of the 1986/87 season included Plácido Domingo’s peerless interpretation of Otello and Maria Ewing’s now legendary portrayal of Salome, along with productions of Madama Butterfly, Porgy and Bess and Handel’s rarely performed Alcina. Hemmings had grasped that the new opera company should reflect the city’s vibrant, risk-taking culture, but the sheer grandeur and range of that inaugural season still managed to astonish everyone.

Audiences dazzled by the star power of those Royal Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin performances weren’t disappointed by what Peter Hemmings and Plácido Domingo brought to the stage in the ensuing years. Domingo himself starred in ten different operas during the next seven seasons, including signature roles in The Tales of Hoffmann, Tosca and a reprise of Otello. (He also conducted four different operas during that period.) Justino Díaz returned as Rigoletto, Iago and Macbeth, the latter with Grace Bumbry as Lady Macbeth. Marilyn Horne headlined as Rossini’s Tancredi and Gluck’s Orfeo; Leonie Rysanek appeared in Katya Kabanova and Elektra. Gwyneth Jones and Carol Neblett starred as Minnie opposite Domingo in The Girl of the Golden West. June Anderson made her company debut in Lucia di Lammermoor. Leading tenors included Neil Shicoff, Richard Leech and Siegfried Jerusalem.

Maria Ewing returned frequently. Frederica von Stade began to make regular appearances with the company, including her signature roles of Cherubino and Octavian, as did Thomas Allen and Carol Vaness. Emerging superstars such as Denyce Graves and Verónica Villarroel began a long series of memorable engagements in Los Angeles. Hemmings even recruited comedians such as Dom DeLuise for Orpheus in the Underworld, Dudley Moore for The Mikado and Jean Stapleton for Oklahoma!

One production that advanced the company’s prestige considerably was the 1987 company premiere of Tristan und Isolde, during the company’s second season. It was a surprisingly Angeleno-centric affair, with bold and colorful sets designed by David Hockney in his Hollywood Hills studio, the stunning Isolde of Pasadena-born soprano Jeannine Altmeyer, and conductor Zubin Mehta in the orchestra pit leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hockney would return with an eye-catching production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1993. Both Hockney productions are remembered as artistic landmarks for LA Opera; the designer even joked that his dachshunds were brought up listening to German music thanks to his collaborations with Hemmings.

Hemmings was always eager to explore operas outside the standard repertoire. In the 1991/92 season, for example, classics such as Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville, Carmen and Hansel and Gretel were balanced by Britten’s intimate Albert Herring and two truly epic offerings. The first of these was The Trojans, a gargantuan, rarely performed masterpiece by Hector Berlioz. Hemmings came up against considerable opposition when he first proposed this work (not least because of its length, over five hours), but when he championed a project, he was persistent in seeing it come to fruition. Hemmings also organized a partnership with Finnish National Opera to host the 1992 world premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Kullervo, inspired by a dark and violent tale from The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Originally commissioned for the opening of that company’s new opera house, construction delays in Helsinki scuttled those plans. Hemmings campaigned for the work’s premiere to take place in Los Angeles, during the 75th anniversary celebration of Finland’s independence. The all-Finnish cast included several major stars, including baritone Jorma Hynninen in the title role, along with bass Matti Salminen and tenor Jorma Silvasti.

While audience reaction to Kullervo and The Trojans was wildly mixed, LA Opera scored points for ambition and audacity. The company’s adventurous programming during those early seasons also included The Fiery Angel, Wozzeck, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (marking the company debut of future music director Kent Nagano), Where the Wild Things Are, The Makropulos Case and El Gato Montés, as well as a number of operas by Benjamin Britten.

With a focus on strong theatrical standards, Hemmings regularly brought esteemed directors including Peter Hall, Andrei Serban, Götz Friedrich and Jonathan Miller. He was sought out pioneering artists like the brilliant Peter Sellars, who staged John Adams’ Nixon in China in 1990 and returned with an edgy interpretation of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1995. He also began an important association with Hollywood with a celebrated new production of La Bohème in 1993, created by filmmaker Herbert Ross, whose distinguished legacy includes Steel Magnolias, Footloose and The Turning Point. That Bohème has become LA Opera’s most enduring production, returning at the end of the current season for its seventh appearance on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.

By the end of the 1994/95 season, LA Opera had grown from nothing into an internationally celebrated company. Still only midway through his tenure, Peter Hemmings was intently focused on what the future would hold in the new millennium.

The Staging of an Opera Company is a program series discussing the origins and evolution of LA Opera over three decades.

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