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.
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.
Rory, Amelia, Michele and Rupert Hemmings, in front of a portrait of Peter Hemmings, founder of Los Angeles Opera. Photo by Robert Millard


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.
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.”
(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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