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?”

The story of LA Opera does not begin in 1986; nor does it begin with the 1986/87 season of shows that included Otello, Salome, Madame Butterfly, Alcina and Porgy and Bess. The company’s roots can be traced four decades earlier, to a time when Los Angeles was largely associated with Hollywood’s “Golden Age of Cinema” as well as the stars that graced the silver screen. Amidst this cinematic renaissance, there existed the desire to expose the wider community to other art forms such as opera (a mission the company maintains to this day). While the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera toured productions to Los Angeles, it remained a city without its own opera company, a situation that spurred Hollywood furniture-maker Francesco Pace into action.

In 1948, Pace founded the Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera Association in a church hall in Beverly Hills. The opera company had limited resources, often performing with only a piano. What mattered to Pace was the ability to produce shows in Los Angeles and to foster an appreciation of opera in the wider community. It was often remarked that Pace continued crafting furniture for film sets and the Hollywood elite merely to support his “opera habit.” Throughout the 1950s, Pace’s opera company grew and he eventually staged productions at the Wilshire Ebell Theater.

During one fateful 1960 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a young Bernard Greenberg sat in the audience with his wife Lenore. They had recently returned from their honeymoon in Europe, where they saw The Marriage of Figaro performed at Vienna State Opera. While the Greenbergs enjoyed their first taste of opera in Vienna, Bernie actually preferred his experience at the Wilshire Ebell.

The smaller space of the theater provided a more intimate environment to experience the antics of Figaro, Susanna and the Count. He felt like a participant in the comedic story and he was hooked on Pace’s vision of opera in Los Angeles.

Greenberg’s enchanting experience with The Marriage of Figaro led him to readily agree when a classmate suggested he join the opera board as treasurer. As he recounts now, Greenberg often never saw the second act. He would vanish into the box office at intermission and tally up the ticket sales, to see how much he’d be able to pay the performers.

The Los Angeles Grand Opera continued through the early years of the 1960s. However, the arrival of the new Music Center was about to change the way Angelenos would experience the musical arts. The Music Center was a project championed by Dorothy Buffum Chandler since 1955, in the hopes of providing the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a permanent location in which to perform. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was completed in 1964 and the Los Angeles Grand Opera became the resident company for a time.

Madame Butterfly Small

Madame Butterfly (1987)

Francesco Pace had stepped down as head of the company by then, and board members hired other artists keen on making their mark in the growing Los Angeles opera community. Among these was artistic director Peter Ebert, whose father Carl had been the director in the 1930s of what is now the Deutsche Oper Berlin, relocating to Switzerland when the Nazis came to power, and then to Los Angeles in 1948 to create the opera department at the University of Southern California. The conductor Henry Lewis became the company’s new musical director, convincing members of the Music Center Association that the company should have the opportunity to perform there.

Bernie Greenberg would later remark how young all the members of the opera company were during this initial residency at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. During a time in history when the world was experiencing the rise of youth culture and monumental change, the evolution of opera in Los Angeles began. They did not have a significant amount of financial resources and they did not think much about the future, but the members of Los Angeles Grand Opera were audacious. They were hungry to express themselves, both artistically and culturally, through opera.

And they did.

During the 1965/66 season, the Los Angeles Grand Opera staged three productions: Madame Butterfly, Don Giovanni and Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (starring Marilyn Horne). Despite the moderate success of these original productions and the creative enthusiasm behind them, the Music Center board members (including head Bill Severance) decided to focus their energy on creating a larger symphony. Dorothy Chandler appointed new key creatives to the opera board, including Ed Carter and John MacCone. With these decisions, the era of the Music Center Opera Association began.

An important development in the “staging” of Los Angeles Opera, the Music Center Opera Association spent the next two decades presenting touring companies, rather than creating its own productions. Partnerships with San Francisco Opera and ultimately the New York City Opera allowed the organization to showcase talent from around the world. Between 1967 and 1979, New York City Opera’s biggest star, Beverly Sills, performed regularly on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with that company, starring in 17 different operas. The company’s eclectic offerings even included the 1966 west coast premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo, starring a then-unknown Spanish tenor named Plácido Domingo. It was his first performance in Los Angeles, and he never forgot it.

With the retirement of Beverly Sills from the stage in the early 1980s, however, the association with New York City Opera entered into a limbo. Whispers began about the renewed possibility of forming a resident opera company. Such would be an Olympian feat indeed, but, with the actual Olympics about to arrive in Los Angeles, the timing seemed right.

The cast of Otello (1986)

The cast of Otello (1986)

Los Angeles began a cultural renaissance in the early 1980s as the city prepared to host the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. Organizers strove to prepare for the artistic invasion to come. The fate of the city’s opera company hung in the balance of a handful of people: Bernie Greenberg, Music Center president Michael Newton and—most remarkably—Plácido Domingo, who had become a superstar in the years since Don Rodrigo. Greenberg had received a call from fellow board member Carl Princi. Plácido Domingo wanted to talk to them about their plans. As Greenberg recalls, “I said ‘Plácido Domingo called you? Are you sure it wasn’t his agent or his lawyer or somebody like that?’ And he said, no, it was Maestro Domingo himself and he wanted to meet with us.” The gentlemen had dinner, during which Domingo announced, “Los Angeles is the last great city in the world without an opera company, and I would like to get involved in your opera company.” He also affirmed that he wanted to participate with their company in a serious way. With these words, the die was cast. During the Los Angeles Olympics, the Opera Association co-produced three operas with London’s Royal Opera (Turandot, starring Domingo as Calaf, as well as Peter Grimes and The Magic Flute), which not only helped establish the city as an international arts destination, but also helped raise funds for the soon-to-rise opera company.

With renewed vitality, the board hired famed artistic administrator Peter Hemmings to be the founding general director of what was then known as the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. Domingo took on the role of artistic consultant and also committed to appearing regularly with the company. Hemmings brought years of successful experience working with both established and nascent opera companies and his direction proved to be vital in getting the company off the ground. While opera companies had historically played it fairly safe in their inaugural seasons, Los Angeles Opera immediately strived to go beyond the traditional, and into truly grand territory. Hemmings recognized that this was very much the way the city of Los Angeles functioned.

In an effort to create opera that was in tune with the community, Hemmings formulated an inaugural season that included large-scale successes, such as that inaugural production of Otello. It was followed by a lavishly traditional production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly starring Leona Mitchell. But the next three offerings weren’t exactly mainstream.

Maria Ewing and Michael Devlin in Salome

Maria Ewing and Michael Devlin in Salome

The next production, Salome, didn’t just push boundaries—it created an international sensation. Director Sir Peter Hall sought to emphasize the darker aspects of composer Richard Strauss’s source material, Oscar Wilde’s infamous play. John Bury’s set and costume designs evoked the symbolist esthetic of Gustav Klimt as well as the Art Nouveau of Aubrey Beardsley. Casting his wife, the celebrated soprano Maria Ewing, as the title character, Hall worked with her to create a Salome that was centered on the character’s obsessions and her burgeoning sexuality. This included Ewing’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which garnered the production much press for its unforgettable, remarkably erotic staging. Michael Devlin was superb as Salome’s antagonist Jochanaan and Henry Lewis conducted the 92 members of the orchestra with sweep and urgency. “This is what opera should be all about,” raved the notoriously hard to please critic Martin Bernheimer.

The cast of Alcina (1986)

The cast of Alcina (1987)

The company’s fourth production was something entirely different: Handel’s little known Alcina, a gloriously Baroque fantasy, stylishly staged at the Wiltern Theatre. Richard Hickox conducted a chamber ensemble comprised of period instruments, and the cast was led by the dazzling Arleen Auger. “In the virtually impossible title role, Arleen Auger looked appealingly devilish on Tuesday and sang like an angel,” wrote Bernheimer. “We knew she would toss off the fioriture with nonchalant accuracy. We thought she would sing with sweetness and purity, with endless breath and expressive point, even with reasonable heft in the climactic outbursts. But we didn’t know that she could be such a compelling, subtle, sensuous actress.”

The cast of Porgy and Bess (1987)

The cast of Porgy and Bess (1987)

The season concluded with one of the greatest works in American music, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, also staged at the Wiltern. It was seen in 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 alternating pair of leads: Donnie Ray Albert with Carmen Balthrop, and Mic Bell with Henrietta Davis.

Plácido Domingo in Otello (1986)

Plácido Domingo in Otello (1986)

But the crown jewel of the inaugural season was that first production of Otello, staged by the great German director Götz Friedrich. It was a pivotal moment for the new company to showcase the quality and tone audiences would expect for the remainder of the season. Along with Plácido Domingo in the title role, the star-studded cast also featured Sherrill Milnes as Iago and Gabriela Beňačková—a triumphant last-minute replacement—as Desdemona. Also featured in the cast were three singers who would become some of the company’s most frequently appearing artists in the seasons to come: Jonathan Mack as Cassio, Michael Gallup as Montano and future star Rod Gilfry as the Herald.

When the curtain fell—successfully!—to signal the conclusion of Otello, audiences rose to their feet, cheering with shouts of “bravo!” One by one, cast members lined up in anticipation of the full company bow. When Plácido Domingo took to the stage, he was greeted by a roar of praise. He knew, as did Bernie Greenberg, Peter Hemmings and so many others, that they had finally created a company with a bright future in Los Angeles.

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

The Staging of an Opera Company is a three part series discussing the origins and evolution of LA Opera over three decades. Check back later this week for parts 2 and 3.

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4 Responses to The Staging of an Opera Company

  1. Gene in L.A. says:

    I hope you will at least mention the Opera Guild, which put on an opera each year at the Shrine Auditorium, to which L.A. Unified School District students were bussed. We kids saw Marilyn Horne’s first assumption of the title role in La Cenerentola in the mid 50’s. The Guild was our introduction to live opera, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who became a lifelong opera devotee as a result.

  2. Robert Harper says:

    As the Marketing Associate for the new LA Opera (originally Los Angeles Music Center Opera), I fondly remember those heady times. I recall that the Desdemona on opening night at the Chandler was not the original Desdemona who sang for the preseason performances at the Shrine. Our staff was small in the beginning, and the excitement of those early days was palpable. I remember that morning a few days before opening night. Placido came in early that day and went directly to Peter (Hemmings). They met in Peter’s office for a while, then emerged with the news that we had to find a new Desdemona. I recall that there were three sopranos stateside who could step into the role on such short notice: Freni (in Chicago, I think), Ricciarelli (in Houston), and Benackova (in San Francisco). Freni and Ricciarelli had conflicts, but Benackova was available. At the dress rehearsal, she sang the first act in the clothes she had on, the second act with wig, and the third with costume but no wig. The anticipatory energy of opening night was remarkable. We wanted a perfect start to this incredible undertaking. When the opening curtain snagged, we could hear the gasp from many in the audience; then we heard the sighs of relief as the curtain continued to the flyspace. And what a performance! I will always cherish those wonderful memories.

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