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

The triumphant partnership of Domingo and Gergiev continued the following season. This time, Gergiev conducted LA Opera’s first production of an opera sung in Russian, a new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Domingo starred as the tortured protagonist, Gherman, joined by a remarkable cast of Russian stars: Galina Gorchakova, Sergei Leiferkus and Vladimir Chernov, with the great Elena Obraztsova unforgettable as the Countess.

In Domingo’s third year as artistic director, Gergiev conducted the company premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in a special appearance by the Kirov Opera. Not only was it an adventurous repertoire choice, it provided, behind the scenes, the greatest drama of the season. The original plan had been to present Prokofiev’s monumental War and Peace, which would require importing nearly 300 members of the Kirov. When essential funding for the project fell through just two months shy of opening night, War and Peace was replaced by Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk in a cost-saving move. Five 40-foot containers holding the sets and costumes for Lady Macbeth were shipped from St. Petersburg. But the freighter arrived off the coast of Long Beach one day after a labor dispute shut down all west coast ports. Unable to unload, the ship was rerouted to Tokyo. The sets were too big to be transported by air; instead, new sets were constructed in record time at the company’s scene shop in Santa Clarita. The Kirov’s technical director, Igor Suvorov, flew to L.A. with 30 pounds of blueprints, and his LA Opera counterpart, Jeff Kleeman, got to work replicating the Kirov set. Thanks to an expanded stage crew working 10-hour days, the new Lady Macbeth sets began arriving by truck at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on October 17. The costumes, wigs and makeup were off-loaded in Tokyo and repacked for ship­ment by air, arriving on October 18. The opera opened triumphantly on October 23.

Domingo’s first season as artistic director, which had begun with Aida and the Kirov’s Wagner concerts, continued with a healthy mix of classics and lesser known works. The company premiere of La Cenerentola brought Rod Gilfry and Jennifer Larmore together in a colorful new production. Thomas Allen, Catherine Malfitano and Richard Leech added star quality to revivals of Don Pasquale and Tosca. Elizabeth Futral and David Daniels made their company debuts in Handel’s Julius Caesar. Filmmaker John Schlesinger directed a harrowing production of Peter Grimes, starring Philip Langridge.

Domingo’s vision to revamp and revitalize the company’s repertoire took full effect with the 2001/02 season, the first fully planned by him. Over the course of the next five seasons, LA Opera would present no less than 20 company premieres, including two world premieres. And the star power on the stage was upped considerably, beginning with the new principal conductor, Kent Nagano.

Before Nagano’s tenure, the company had relied on a series of guest conductors—including Nagano himself, who had conducted two earlier productions—but had never had an official post of that importance for a conductor. A native Californian, Nagano had held a number of prestigious posts in Europe but his Los Angeles appointment was his first major position in the United States.

Lohengrin (2001); Photo: Ken Howard

Nagano conducted four productions in his first season, beginning with the company premiere of Lohengrin. This featured an all-star cast that included Gösta Winbergh, Adrianne Pieczonka and Eva Marton, in a new production by Maximilian Schell. The season had opened with The Queen of Spades, which was midway through its run when the tragedies of September 11 took place. The opening night of Lohengrin, originally scheduled for September 12, had to be postponed. Nonetheless, the 2001/02 season marked a bold new direction for LA Opera. The season was LA Opera’s largest to date, featuring eight company pre­mieres; five operas were staged in new productions. Academy Award-winner William Friedkin directed new productions of Bluebeard’s Castle and Gianni Schicchi. The company premiere of Turandot, another new production, featured a new finale composed by Luciano Berio. The season also fea­tured revivals of two of the company’s most loved productions: Marta Domingo’s sumptuous La Traviata, starring Ana María Martínez and Rolando Villazón, and Sir Peter Hall’s charming Magic Flute, with Rod Gilfry reprising his celebrated Papageno.

A fully-staged presentation of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, directed and designed by the avant-gardist Achim Freyer, made the greatest waves during the season. The production marked the U.S. debut for Freyer and his ensemble, a relationship that would continue for the next decade. The abstract staging divided audiences, though most were riveted by the experience.

Domingo opened the 2002/03 season in one of his signature roles, Dick Johnson in The Girl of the Golden West, opposite Catherine Malfitano as Minnie. The season also featured Marta Domingo’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann and the company debut of Erwin Schrott in Don Giovanni conducted by Kent Nagano.

LA Opera’s leadership team had more than proven themselves capable of taking the company in exciting directions. In May of 2003, Marc Stern, LA Opera’s chairman and CEO, announced that Plácido Domingo would be elevated to the post of general director and Kent Nagano would become music director. Edgar Baitzel, who had come to LA Opera in Domingo’s first season as director of artistic operations, was promoted to the key role of artistic director. “This is a team that works,” said Stern.

Other big changes were afoot. With the 2003 completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall—the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—LA Opera became the principal resident of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For the first time in its history, the company could rehearse and program as much as it wanted, year-round.

The 2003/04 season opened with an explosively successful new staging of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, directed by Achim Freyer. Starring Paul Groves, Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves, it was a magically bizarre spectacle, very different from Freyer’s ear­lier Mass in B minor, and indeed unlike anything before seen in Los Angeles. This was followed by the world premiere of Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra, starring Domingo as Rasputin. Other highlights included a striking Robert Wilson produc­tion of Madame Butterfly, Sondra Radvanovsky’s company debut in Il Trovatore, Anna Netrebko’s role debut in Lucia di Lammermoor, and new productions of Orfeo ed Eurydice and The Marriage of Figaro, the latter starring Erwin Schrott.

LA Opera’s 2004/05 season began with back-to-back major announcements. Kent Nagano would be stepping down as music director at the end of his contract in June 2006, so that he could take up major new posts in Munich and Montreal. A little over a week later, LA Opera announced that Nagano would be succeeded by James Conlon, one of the music world’s preeminent conductors.

The season was, by far, the largest in the company’s history. Domingo opened the season in the title role of Idomeneo, conducted by Nagano. William Friedkin directed a new produc­tion of Ariadne auf Naxos with striking scenery designed by architect Edwin Chan, a design partner of Frank Gehry, who had designed Disney Concert Hall.

Two other major new productions also graced the Dorothy Chandler stage that season: Roméo et Juliette starred two of opera’s greatest rising stars, Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko. Maximillian Schell directed a quirky new Der Rosenkavalier, designed by L.A.-based artist Gottfried Helnwein and starring Adrianne Pieczonka as the Marschallin.

Other highlights in the season include two important company debuts: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role of Barber’s Vanessa and Bryn Terfel in Falstaff. A summer production of the musical A Little Night Music starred Victor Garber, Zoe Caldwell and Kristen Bell.

The 2005/06 season opened with a lavish company premiere of Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess, directed by Hollywood comedy legend Garry Marshall and starring Frederica von Stade. The season contin­ued with a revival of the company’s iconic 1996 Pagliacci, this time starring Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, and two Robert Wilson productions: Parsifal, starring Plácido Domingo, and a revival of Madame Butterfly with Patricia Racette. Other highlights include Marta Domingo’s Art Deco style production of La Traviata, a revival of Tosca starring Violeta Urmana, Salvatore Licitra and Samuel Ramey, and a revival of The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Kent Nagano in his farewell to the company.

The most ambitious production of the season was the world premiere of film composer Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf legend from the point of view of the monster. Julie Taymor, who directed, also co-wrote the libretto with J.D. McClatchy. The production was not without its troubles, however. A major computer malfunction caused a break­down in the central set piece, necessitating the postponement of the opening night. Bass-baritone Eric Owens made a vivid impression in the title role.

After his ambitious first six seasons of leading LA Opera, Plácido Domingo had vastly increased the company’s prominence, not just in Los Angeles but around the world. But what would take the company to the next level? LA Opera still had no Ring cycle, the hallmark of any great opera house; the original plans for staging Wagner’s epic had been set aside, due to spiraling projected costs. As the 2005/06 season ended, Domingo was looking ahead to the end of the decade, and the Ring was going to be central to his vision.

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