NEWS: Free tickets available for LA Opera’s “Jonah and the Whale”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Free tickets still remain for Los Angeles Opera’s world premiere of Jonah and the Whale, the latest installment in its community opera, which presents family-oriented opera at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angeles in downtown Los Angeles. This production will be presented March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Jonah and the Whale was composed by Jack Perla to a libretto by Velina Hasu Houston. LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct and the opera and will be directed by Eli Villanueva.

Tickets are free, although there’s a $1.00 service charge. They usually go fast for these presentations. Information: www.laopera.com
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Billy Budd” sets sail at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Saturday, February 22 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Remaining performances: March 2 at 2 p.m. March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org

Billy Budd _OT2 _February 16, 2014
Liam Bonner in the title role sings his final soliloquy in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Robert Millard.

Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd can be approached from several — perhaps dozens of — perspectives: religious, political, sexual, etc. It has allusions to the operas of Verdi and Wagner who, like Britten, celebrated important birthdays last year (200 for the first two and 100 for Britten).

But first and foremost, Billy Budd is a gripping drama with a marvelous musical score. Liam Bonner, who made his role debut last night, told me last week that he believed most people would come to the opera first through the drama and then through the music.

Last night, in the first of six performances, Los Angeles Opera succeeded marvelously on both important points. I was on the edge of my seat right to the end and my wife stayed awake all evening — the highest of praise. Everyone involved — cast, orchestra and, in particular, the men of the LA Opera Chorus — sang, played and acted Britten’s music wonderfully. With this production, the company’s multi-year “Britten 100/LA” celebration is ending on an extremely high note.

Britten wrote the original version of Billy Budd in 1951, using a libretto written by E.M Forester and Eric Crozier. In 1960, Britten revised the opera from four acts to two acts plus a prologue and an epilogue. This later version is now standard and is being used here.

Billy Budd is unique in several ways. The cast of more than 20 and a chorus of 46 men and 10 boys (from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), plus 14 fighters and supernumeraries, are all men. In his typically erudite pre-performance lecture, Music Director James Conlon noted nobody had every done that in an opera before. The orchestra of more than 70 was the largest Britten ever used, including in Peter Grimes.

However, Billy Budd has similarities to Britten’s other two big operas: Peter Grimes and Death in Venice. Most apparent is the fact that all three operas use the sea as their locale. In the case of Billy Budd, that’s literally true because the entire opera takes place on an English warship, the HMS Indomitable, sailing the Atlantic in 1797 in search of the French.

In Francesca Zambello’s spare but highly effective production — created in 1985 with sets and costumes by Alison Chitty and last seen in Los Angeles in 2000 — that ship is a large triangular plank that juts from the stage over the orchestra pit; part of the plank raises to form a battle station and the captain’s cabin. Ropes and a mast add verisimilitude to the atmosphere aided, particularly in the last scenes, by Allen Burnett’s lighting design. Director Julia Bevzner moved the action along smoothly.

Bonner, a baritone from Pittsburgh, is creating the title role for the first time and last night the world discovered it’s next great Billy Budd. At age 32 (and seeming much younger) Bonner really looks the part of the sweet, innocent young man. But this was no one-dimensional performance. Bonner sang with impressive power and pathos throughout the evening, particularly in his final soliloquy in which he praises Captain Vere, the man who ultimately condemned him. Equally important, his acting was subtle and thoughtfully conceived from beginning to end, and he deserves special kudos for dangling quietly for 10 minutes following his hanging near the opera’s end.
Vere
As Vere, veteran tenor Richard Croft (right) at times displayed the sort of gleaming voice Britten always favored in his tenors (particularly his life partner, Peter Pears) but in other scenes Croft’s voice turned appropriately steely. His anguish in the scene in which he must choose between enforcing the King’s strict justice over compassion for Billy Budd was heart-rending, as was his concluding epilogue.

Greer Grimsley, making his LAO debut as the evil John Claggart, a Britten-esque Iago, brought Wagnerian fervor to the role. As usual LA Opera has assembled a very strong ensemble cast; that ability has been one of the company’s strengths during its recent run of Britten operas, including The Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring.

Among the many cast members, special mention goes to James Creswell as Dansker, Keith Jameson as Novice and, in particular, Greg Fedderly as Red Whiskers. The men of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, a vital part of the opera, acted and sang splendidly throughout the evening while successfully negotiating steep stairs and scrambling up and down ropes.

Conlon has a deep and abiding love for Britten and that shows every time he steps into the pit for one of the composer’s operas. Last night was no different as Conlon and the orchestra played the score with equal portions of grandeur and grace. Never has a three-hour-long evening flown by so quickly.
Budd Crowd
The crew prepares for battle aboard the HMS Indomitable in Francesca Zambello’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd.” Photo by Robert Millard.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• LA Opera has a number of articles in the “Learn More” tab of the Billy Budd section of its Web site HERE. They and the synopsis provide good reading ahead of time, particularly if you’ve never seen the opera before. The opera portion of the printed program is also available for downloading. And, of course, don’t miss Conlon’s frenetic, pre-performance lecture.
• The final performance of Billy Budd overlaps the beginning of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens on March 15 in a new production that stars Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role. DETAILS.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Passing the baton at L.A. Opera’s “Billy Budd”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story is online today and will run in the print editions of the above newspapers Sunday.
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Los Angeles Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd
Tomorrow, March 5, 8 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tickets: $19-$311. Student and senior rush tickets, subject to availability.
Information: www.laopera.org
Hemmings-Family-2-4Web
Rory, Amelia, Michele and Rupert Hemmings, in front of a portrait of Peter Hemmings, founder of Los Angeles Opera. Photo by Robert Millard

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Although Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is undeniably a tragedy, there’s also an element of sweetness to the title character whose innocence leads to his demise. However, there’s another element of sweetness to Los Angeles Opera’s production of the opera, which opens tomorrow night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of six performances.

If you scroll down the cast list in the printed program, you’ll see listed as the Cabin Boy the name Rory Hemmings. It might ring a bell. Rory is the son of LAO Senior Director of Production Rupert Hemmings and the grandson of Peter Hemmings, who was the company’s founding general director, serving from 1984 to 2000.

That lineage was almost broken before it began. “Dad really didn’t want to hire me,” remembers Rupert, “because he was afraid that people would think it was nepotism. Fortunately, someone else in the company hired me and when the paperwork crossed Dad’s desk, he signed off reluctantly. I had to call him ‘Mr. Hemmings’ in the office but when we got home, we’d have a glass of whiskey and talk about how things were going.”

Rupert left the company in 2000 to become a free-lance producer with major companies around the United States, including Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Florida Grand Opera in Miami. “I did everything you could do in producing opera and was really hands-on in rehearsals,” recalls Rupert, “but it was a pretty hectic lifestyle.”

While in Miami, he met his future wife, Michele, who was in the young artist program at Florida Grand Opera. They married while in Florida and their two children, Rory and Amelia, were born in Miami but when Christopher Koelsch, now L.A. Opera’s chief executive officer, offered Rupert the chance to return in 2007 as LAO’s Senior Director of Production, he signed on willingly.

Rupert spends his days involved in virtually every production decision for the company, including hiring directors, set designers and costume designers. “I love all the elements I am able to touch,” he says. “especially in a good-sized company such as ours.”

Ten-year-old Rory was born after Peter had died but he is beginning to understand the importance his grandfather’s legacy. “When we were upstairs in the company’s offices this week,” recalls Rupert, “Rory looked up and saw a photo of Peter on the wall and said, ‘Hi, Grandpa!”

Rory, a fifth grader at McKinley School in Pasadena, isn’t a music major, although he does play the violin. His favorite subject is chemistry and he’s an avid gymnast. However, last summer he and his sister — perky, nine-year-old Ameila — attended the LAO Opera Camp where he performed in a production of Brundibár and an in-school tour of The Prospector with LAO’s Education and Community Outreach Department.
Rory4Web
When the company was looking for a 10-year-old to play the Cabin Boy in Billy Budd Rory (pictured right, with Richard Craft as Capt. Vere) got the nod. “I started working with my Mom about a month before rehearsals,” he explains. The work paid off; his non-singing role has grown from three lines to five during rehearsals. When not rehearsing his scenes, Rory has enjoyed hanging out with the cast, particularly Liam Bonner, who plays the title role. “We just sit and talk together,” says Rory. “It’s pretty neat.”

While all this is swirling, Mom Michele also juggles a full life. In addition to mothering her family, she is an active mezzo-soprano, singing with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and in choral backup groups for motion pictures. She also teaches at the Pasadena Conservatory of music and privately — “every gig that comes along,” she says with a laugh.

One of those gigs will make L.A. Opera will truly a family affair in March. While Rory and Rupert are finishing up their jobs in Billy Budd, Michele and daughter Amelia will be appearing in the world-premiere LAO production of Jonah and the Whale March 21 and 22 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Since he returned to LA Opera in 2007, Rupert has watched the company weather the challenges of producing its first “Ring” cycle and grow steadily since then. “I loved what Achim Freyer did with his production of the ‘Ring’ and am very proud of our company’s total effort,” says Rupert.

However, the most fun he’s enjoyed has been with LAO’s world-premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino, which debuted in Los Angeles in September 2010. “Not only was it a wonderful success here in Los Angeles,” recounts Rupert, “but I got to be there when it was produced in Mexico, Daniel’s birth country, and in Chile, which was where Pablo Neruda spent much of his life. It’s also been produced around the world in places such as Vienna and Paris, so that was significant for our company, as well.”

But for the moment, Rory and Rupert are focused on Billy Budd, which adds a final touch of nostalgia for Rupert Hemmings. When this production last played at LAO in 2000, it was Peter’s final production at the helm of the company he founded. That was bittersweet for Rupert, who was the Assistant Director/Assistant Stage Manager for that production. “On the last night, when everyone else was taking their bows,” he remembers wistfully, “I had to push dad out on stage so he could take a final bow. So having Rory onstage for this revival will really be meaningful for me.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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LINKS: From the “Were You and I at the Same Show?” file

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Every music critic has received the occasional “Were you and at the same concert?” letter or email, so I’m happy to report that theater critics apparently can engender the same reaction. The Bridges of Madison County, a musical adaptation of the 1992 tear-jerker bestselling book by Robert Weller, officially opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City. The book adaptation was by Marsha Norman, Jason Robert Brown (Parade) wrote the music, and the show stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale.

Broadwayworld.com has a roundup of clips from the reviews HERE. Although there are many similarities, there are some points where I did, indeed, wonder, “Were you folks at the same show?” Remember, dear readers, that a review is one person’s opinion.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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COLUMN LINKS FOR FEB. 16

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

My “Around Town/Music” column in the above newspapers listed links to upcoming schedules for Hollywood Bowl, L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information. (NOTE: my full column is HERE).

Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale 2014-2015 season (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)

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