Posted by: operatheaterink | June 25, 2012

Opinion: The LA Phil vs. LA Opera: What’s the Noise About? June 25, 2012

Los Angeles Opera is Doing Just Fine: There is No Competition.

Audience-Friendly Opera Sells!

Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, LA Opera

Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, LA Opera.
Photo: Robert Millard

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA, CA

LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA, CA

LA Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

Two issues of significance were recently pursued in the Los Angeles Times article “Drama afoot as LA Opera feels heat of rival works,” dated June 20, 2012, and written by Reed Johnson and David Ng.

One issue addresses the fact that several Los Angeles Opera board members expressed dismay upon learning that the Los Angeles Philharmonic was staging operas like Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in a cutting-edge modern fashion, thus treading on LA Opera’s territory. LA Opera, in fact, has plans to stage the same opera as part of its 2012-13 season. These board members were basically saying that there was a conflict-of-interest, and that the LA Phil should stay away from producing staged opera.

The other issue, which probably resulted from the responses regarding the primary issue, is much more significant. Los Angeles Opera’s viability as an opera company has been tested based on the company’s ability to produce compelling state-of-the-art theatrical opera, especially in a competitive environment during an unstable economy.

A few local smaller companies were cited in the article, and in reader comments, as being competitive. What needs to be emphasized is that both LA Opera and the LA Philharmonic are part of the Music Center Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County in downtown LA. The County of Los Angeles owns the Music Center and maintains the buildings and grounds, and it oversees the occupancy of the theaters. LA County provides funding for maintenance, operations and security. The venues include LA Opera’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; the LA Phil’s Walt Disney Concert Hall; Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum; and the LA Master Chorale. Although not part of the Music Center complex, the Kirk Douglas Theatre is a member of the CTG family, and the LA Phil performs at the Hollywood Bowl. Therefore, the mention of outside companies — like Long Beach Opera, The Industry, Jacaranda, etc. — only detracts from the central issue, which is that some LA Opera board members believe that LA Opera has its terrain, and that the LA Philharmonic should not cross over into LA Opera’s soundstage.

Apparently, the complaining board members learned about the conflict well after the executive board of LA Opera did. LA Opera’s head leaders understand that all of the companies and venues of the Music Center must live in harmony in a collaborative fashion. For one organization to put a halt to the programming of another organization would be a form of censureship. Still, certain venues are more successful with certain genres, and meeting periodically to discuss the most advantageous programming for both organizations is a commendable idea.

However, of more significance to me is the comments in the article from people regarding LA Opera’s permanence on the operatic scene when compared to smaller companies with more daring and innovative productions.

The Times quoted Jacaranda’s artistic director, Patrick Scott, as having said: “I understand the financial challenges that LA Opera has, especially with the debt incurred by the ‘Ring’ cycle. . . . But I think that they have had a history of making safe choices . . . but I feel like if they don’t start to swing out, and do the kind of repertoire that [has] legs with the audience, they’re painting themselves into a corner.”

Anne LeBaron, a composer and faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, is quoted as having said about LA Opera: “They’re depending on these old war horses and their aging audience. And they don’t even do productions that are that new in approach.”

Well, I have to stand up for Los Angeles Opera.

I was very vocal during Ring Festival LA because I believed that a major arts festival should not be devoted to one composer, and an anti-Semitic racist composer (Richard Wagner) at that, even though I believed wholeheartedly that a “Ring” should be produced by LA Opera in Los Angeles.

But the fact remains that LA Opera officials found it difficult to raise the funds to meet the budgetary demands of the $32 million production, and were forced to seek a $14 million loan from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which has been partially paid back in an exemplary fashion with the remainder pledged for later this year, according to the Times.

Yes, LA Opera is making safe choices now, which Patrick Scott has questioned. There is no doubt in my mind that LA Opera has grown in wisdom.

Los Angeles Opera has become a tradition in LA. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is the most elegant old-time theater in Los Angeles. Going to the opera is not just about seeing the production and hearing the opera singers, although maybe it should be. Going to the opera is an invigorating experience for all of those who attend. It is an opportunity for people to dress up for the occasion, knowing that they will feel regal once inside the theater. There is nothing more energizing than sitting in the orchestra section and seeing the conductor walk to the podium, raise his or her baton, and then hear the first bars of the overture. There is nothing more captivating than seeing the first glimpse of a creative-looking detailed set as the curtain opens after or during that overture.

Opera is a type of education. There is a reason that people go to see the same operas performed over and over again with different casts, costumes and sets. There is no substitute for the music of composers like Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and others, sung by fat, thin, ugly, pretty or handsome-looking opera singers with voluptuous voices.

There is a definite place for new opera and cutting-edge productions. LA Opera has produced and will continue to produce its share of new opera. And more modern smaller venues might be more prone for success with such genres in their spaces. But the new cannot replace the old. There has to be room for variation and preservation.

If young people only buy tickets to opera if it is visually in the groove, then they haven’t cultivated the love for opera as it was meant to be perceived. Opera is beautiful, elegant and romantic.

LA Opera officials have tried to be innovative at the expense of being unable to fulfill their financial obligations. The company is doing a superb job now that is in tune with balancing the budget while still providing audiences with the opportunity to see and hear the most beautiful operas composed in all of opera.

When the company is able, it will produce more new productions, and more productions in general. Hopefully the number of known international star singers in those productions will increase, with talented younger singers performing as well. And the company will produce more new opera.

But I cannot emphasize enough that there is no competition for LA Opera. It is our premiere opera company, and nothing can tarnish it. I salute the smaller innovative companies that are sprouting up, but without a major opera company in Los Angeles, Los Angeles would only suffer as being culturally deprived of having a traditional opera company when other cities in the United States do. LA Opera helps Los Angeles resonate as a cultural mecca throughout the world.

There is a place for new operatic works staged with innovative concepts, whether produced by LA Opera, the LA Philharmonic, or any other arts organization. But people should not forget that Los Angeles Opera offers its own brand of entertainment in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and it is irreplaceable.

Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90012

Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall
111 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90012