10 THINGS I THINK I THINK ABOUT: LA Opera’s “Salome”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Allan Glassman as Herod and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera
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Los Angeles Opera: Richard Strauss’ Salome
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Next performances: March 2 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. March 5 and 19 at 2:00 p.m.
Pre-performance lecture by James Conlon one hour before each performance.
NOTE: The opera runs 90 minutes without intermission, not counting the lecture.
Information: www.laopera.org
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(With apologies to Peter King of SI.com, who runs “10 Things I Think I Think About” in his weekly “Monday Morning QB” column)

1. James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra are, once again, worth the price of admission. The orchestra occasionally swamped the singers but, in his pre-performance lecture, Conlon said that was the composer’s design (the Pavilion problems also accentuated that problem — see No. 7 below).

2. Strauss reportedly told the original portrayer of the title role in his version of this story that Salome was supposed to be a teenager who could sing the role of Isolde. The singer replied, “You can have one or the other, but not both.” Patricia Racette, singing the role during this production, came darn close to the ideal. As she cavorted about the stage, she gave a great approximation of a bratty teenager (quite a feat for someone who is age 52) and her singing was riveting all the way up to and through that ridiculously daunting final scene.

3. Racette’s early costume — a sort of tunic/pants suit — didn’t exactly look like something the original Salome would have worn (the story dates to Biblical times). On the other hand, Racette’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” would certainly have captivated the original tetrarch, Herod. Overall, the new costumes, by Sara Jean Tosetti (in her company debut), were striking.

4. Peggy Hickey — who made her company debut in 1989 as a dancer in Orpheus in the Underworld and her choreography debut in the company’s 1992 presentation of Don Giovanni — gets high marks her choreography for this Salome, her fifth LAO choreo job in the last three seasons.

5. The balance of the cast was uniformly strong, particularly Issachah Savage, making his company debut as Narraboth, and Allan Glassman as Herod. This was Savage’s second strong performance in a month; he was one of the stars of the production of Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, the final part of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Lift Every Voice” series in January.

6. The issue of the five Jews often causes some people heartburn but I thought this quintet did a fine job of elucidating the tensions that Jews struggled with about Jesus (and John the Baptist) in Palestine during the time of the Biblical story.

7. Once again, the Pavilion’s sound problems when it comes to singers were audible. The farther back onstage the singers are, the harder it is to hear them, even with the raked stage floor. This won’t ever be solved until there’s a major renovation of the Pavilion, which is now well into its second half century of usage, but — given the cost of such a project — I don’t expect to live long enough to see that happen.

8. This production was the third ever mounted by the company, in 1986 during its original season (see my preview article HERE). To my memory, the original lighting scheme had a richer blue cast, but the basics remained the same and quite effective.

9. Conlon revealed in his pre-performance lecture that he saw his first Salome performance at the age of 15 in the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Karl Boehm conducted (“for about the 150th time,” said Conlon). Birgit Nilsson sang the role for the first time, he remembered. It’s kind of hard to go anywhere up from there.

10. Conlon also told the pre-performance crowd that the first two notes of one of Salome’s theme were the same as the last two notes of Isolde’s “Liebestold” (in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). “It’s not crucial that you know this,” said Conlon with a chuckle. If you will be attending one of the final performances, don’t miss the lecture, which as usual is erudite and worth the time, even if you know the opera.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: L.A. Opera’s “Salome” marks a revival of an historically important production

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tomas Tomasson as John the Baptist and Patricia Racette as Salome in LA Opera’s historic production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” which opens tomorrow night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Ken Howard/LA Opera
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The story is legendary in the opera world; even those who weren’t in attendance (as I was) remember it. 1986 — the inaugural opening night for Los Angeles Opera: the curtain rising on the opening act of Verdi’s Otello pauses partway up before continuing its ascent a few seconds later. It was a “heart-in-the-throat” moment for those in attendance (particularly for those in company management, one suspects). It also provided a ready-made, humorous lead for critics (including me), leaning forward in anticipation.

That opening production was an exciting time for all concerned, but fewer people remember the third opera in that inaugural season.

Otello was followed by a very conventional presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring — somewhat implausibly — Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San.

However, it was the third offering — a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome — that in retrospect, put the company on the international opera map. It’s also the only production from that original season that remains in the LAO repertoire, 31 years later. The Met still has Franco Zeferelli’s iconic Madama Butterfly in its rep; Sir Peter Hall’s Salome is LAO’s equivalent.

Tomorrow night LAO revives that Salome production in the first of six performances, running through March 19. The big news has been that superstar American soprano Patricia Racette is portraying the title heroine; both Michelle Mills in our SCNG papers (LINK) and Catherine Womack in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) have focused on that story.

Yet, it’s not too big a stretch to say that without that 1986 production of Salome, there might be no LA Opera (as the company now calls itself). Thus the historical aspect of this opera deserves to be remembered.

That seems strange in retrospect because Salome wasn’t an easy sell in a city where opera was still working to establish a beachhead.

For one thing, LAO’s production of Salome was created by Sir Peter Hall, who was far better known for his work in the theatre than in the opera world, although, with conductor Georg Solti, he did direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1983 at Bayreuth for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Second, the opera (written by Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century using a libretto that he adapted from an infamous Oscar Wilde play) runs in a single act that lasts an hour and 40 minutes without intermission — although for those who don’t like long nights at the opera house, that’s a plus.

Another issue is that the character originates in synoptic Biblical gospels of Matthew and Mark, although in those accounts she is unnamed. Wilde’s and Strauss’ “scandalous” treatment of a Biblical character always caused ruffled feathers among conservative Christian folk.

A final (and related) problem was the opera’s most famous moment: Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she writhes before Herod in an erotic dance and where each of the veils are removed until she stands naked before the king. The scene so scandalized the performers and audiences that in earlier productions a dancer performed, and, later, singers used a body stocking for the dance. Even today the nude scene features prominently in almost any article, include those noted above.

Sir Peter would make no offering to modesty, in part because the Salome in that 1986 production — his wife, Maria Ewing — was good looking and was willing to end the dance naked. In addition, the production was notable because the performers were both compelling as singers and actors. It was, particularly, a hard role for Ewing, who was a mezzo-soprano rather than a sopranos, but she carried off the singing handsomely and her acting was riveting.

One other aspect of that LAO Salome premiere was the size of the orchestra: 92 players (much larger than either of the first two offerings), bulging the Pavilion pit and led by Henry Lewis. Hearing this luscious score played this by the now top-flight LAO Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon, should be one of the prizes of this year’s production.

Reports are that Sir Peter’s production has been refurbished for this run — not surprising given that it has been lent to companies around the world (a nice money-maker for the company). Sir Peter (who reportedly suffers from dementia) will not be on hand, although he continues to be listed for his production. Instead, David Paul makes his company debut as director and Duane Schuler will handle the crucial lighting details.

Like all productions of Salome, there’s a great deal of complexity and intrigue that will surround this revival. But there is also a great deal of history, which should not be forgotten. The L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Martin Bernheimer — not known for throwing around accolades lightly — wrote of that 1986 production: “This is what opera should be about.”

Information: www.laopera.org
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Indeed, great news! Conlon renews LA Opera contract for three more years

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Conlon 2016With no fanfare, merely a simple media release, Los Angeles Opera took a supremely important stop in its growth by announcing that Music Director James Conlon (pictured right) has renewed his contract for an additional three years, through the 2020/21 season (click HERE for the release).

While General Director Plácido Domingo is the best-known figure in LAO management (more for his legendary singing career and his ability to draw other major singers than for his administrative abilities), Conlon — now in his 10th season at LAO — and President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch are equally important — many would say more important — than Domingo for the company’s long-term growth and success. Last year Domingo re-upped his contract through the 2021-22 season.

Domingo understands Conlon’s importance. “It is impossible to overstate what a profound impact James Conlon has made during his ten years in Los Angeles,” said Domingo in the release. “I am thrilled that James will continue to shape the company’s artistic legacy for many years to come, for he has truly become an essential member of the LA Opera family.”

Thus, with companies such as New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco in transition, it is significant that L.A. was able to keep Conlon, now age 66, on board. He will continue as Principal Conductor of the Italian RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Turin, a post he assumed last year.

It is Conlon who directs the majority of the company’s main-stage productions (this season he leads four of the six offerings at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) and offers erudite preconcert lectures before each performance. However, his involvement doesn’t stop there.

Conlon will lead a revival of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde on May 6 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles as part of the company’s “Community Opera” program.

Moreover, on Feb. 3 at The Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, Conlon will conduct the Pittance Chamber Ensemble (comprised of member’s of the LA Opera Orchestra) in a program of Mozart’s Serenade in B flat (Gran Partita) and Octet for Strings in E flat, Op. 20. (INFORMATION)

Conlon’s next Pavilion appearances will be to lead performances of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio beginning Jan. 28 and Richard Strauss’ Salome, beginning Feb. 18 (INFORMATION)
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(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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LA Opera announces 2015-2016 season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
The Los Angeles News Group
San Francisco Opera, Moby Dick,
Jake Hegge’s opera “Moby-Dick” will be part of the 2015-16 Los Angeles Opera season.
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There’s a healthy dose of the familiar to Los Angeles Opera’s 30th anniversary season, which was formally unveiled yesterday, but enough new and/or interesting to make the 2015-2016 schedule worth considering when laying out your long-range plans.

The season will have six productions, totaling 38 performances, and two recitals — including a 30th anniversary gala pairing of Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming on March 16, 2016 with James Conlon conducting the LA Opera Orchestra — in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. There will also be five offerings (13 performances) in the company’s “Off Grand” series (i.e., locales outside the Pavilion).

As has been the case in recent years, LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct four of the six Pavilion productions. He won’t be leading the opening offering — Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci — nor the last production, Puccini’s La Boheme (see below for details on these).

Among the Pavilion highlights:
• The Los Angeles premiere of Jake Hegge’s Moby-Dick, with Jay Hunter Morris singing the title role. This was originally a co-production of five companies, including San Diego Opera — I loved it when I saw it there. Opens Oct. 31 for six performances.
• A revival of the highly successful 2013 Barrie Kosky production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, featuring sets that evoke the silent-film movie era. Opens Feb. 13, 2016 for six performances. Another in the “don’t-miss” category.
• The season-opening double bill will revive the company’s Woody Allen production of Gianni Schicchi, with Domingo singing the title and Grant Gershon, LAO’s resident conductor, leading the orchestra. After intermission, in an idea that only Domingo would think of, he will change clothes, wipe off makeup and pick up the baton to conduct Pagliacci. Opens Sept. 12 for six performances.
• The season concludes with Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel making his company debut leading the final two performances of La Boheme on June 10 and 12, 2016. Italian born conductor Speranza Scappucci makes her company debut leading the first four performances. Opens May 14 for eight performances.

Among the “Off Grand” productions
• Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet will perform Glass’ score to the classic 1931 film Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi) Oct. 29-31 at the recently restored Theatre at Ace Hotel, a 1927 Spanish Gothic movie palace in downtown Los Angeles that was once a United Artists flagship movie theatre.
• The world premiere of Anatomy Theatre by PulitzerPrize-winning composer David Lang and visual artist Mark Dion will mark the second collaboration between LAO and the Beth Morrison Projects at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theatre) located in the Disney Hall complex. June 16-19, 2016. Incidentally, the first of these collaborations, Dog Days, opens June 11 (2015). Information: www.laopera.org

Read the 2015-2016 media release HERE.

LAO’s 2015-2016 Web site is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Domingo, Koelsch ink long-term extensions with LA Opera

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

Barring unforeseen circumstances (e.g., illness, death or artist pique), Los Angeles Opera has solidified its senior management core for the next five years by announcing long-term contract extensions for General Director Plácido Domingo and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch.

Domingo, who has been in his present position since 2003 but whose tenure traces to the company’s founding in 1986 when he sang the title role in LAO’s inaugural production of Verdi’s Otello, has extended his contract through the 2018-2019 season. Koelsch, who joined the LAO staff in 1997 and was named CEO in 2012, has extended through 2018.

They join Music Director James Conlon, who has a contract through June 2018, and Resident Conductor Grant Gershon, who recently extended his contract through June 2017. In today’s announcement, the company also named John Nuckols, who has been with LAO since 2002, to the new position of Executive Vice President through June 2018.

The executive staff includes Faith Raiguel, who has been Vice President and Chief Financial Officer since 2008, and Diane Rhodes Bergman, who has been Vice President of Marketing and Communications since 2011.

Domingo, now 73, continues to be a workhorse. This month he will appear as Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata, his 26th different role with LAO. He has also conducted 15 operas to date with the company and continues to appear as singer and conductor all over the world. During his role as LAO General Director, he founded what is now the Domingo-Colburn-Stern Young Artist Program and recently oversaw the 22nd Operalia vocal competition (for good measure, he conducted the LAO Orchestra in the final round). LINK

Koelsch oversees all aspects of artistic planning for the company, including repertoire development, music administration, the casting of artists, and the selection of guest conductors. He has overseen the creation of more than 32 new productions, including five world premieres, and seven television recordings for LA Opera, including Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which won two Grammy Awards upon its DVD release. He is also in charge of every aspect of the company’s strategic resources, including board development, fundraising, branding, marketing, public relations and educational administration.

My qualifiers in the first paragraph are worth noting. I’m sure the Vienna State Opera thought it was in fine administrative shape until its General Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst, resigned abruptly today LINK. Nothing is for sure in the music world.

Read the complete LAO media release HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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