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.

OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Mario Chang win top prizes at Operalia

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

Chang-Sorensen4Web
Mario Chang of Guatemala and Rachel Willis-Sørensen of the United States won the top prizes at Operalia last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Craig Mathew/LA Opera.

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American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang each won the two top prizes in the 22nd annual Operalia, the world opera competition founded by Plácido Domingo that concluded last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Søorensen and Chang won the male and female overall first prizes of $30,000 and the top Zarzuela prizes of $10,000 each. This marked just the third time since Operalia began a Zarzuela competition in 1995 that the same two singers won both portions of the contest; the others were in 2008 in Quebec and 2011 in Moscow.

Sørensen, 30, who is an alumna of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, also took home the Birgit Nilsson Price for Wagner/Strauss singing for her rich, soaring performance of Dich, teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser Saturday night. That prize was a forgone conclusion since she was the only singer to choose an aria from those composers.

Second prizes of $20,000 each went to American soprano Amanda Woodbury and Mexican-American tenor Joshua Guerrero. Third prizes of $10,000 each were awarded to sopranos Anaïs Constans, 26, of France and Mariangela Sicillia, 28, of Italy and counternors John Holiday, 29, of the U.S. and and Andrey Nemzer, 31, of Russia after scores from the 15 judges were tied for third place.

Chang, 28, who recently completed his third year in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, also won the male audience prize, while Woodbury was the voted the female audience favorite. Each won a watch from Rolex, the competition sponsor. Guerrero, a member of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, also captured the CulturArte Prize of $10,000. Chang became just the fourth singer to win the top two prizes plus the audience prize.

In addition to her Tannhaüser aria, Søorensen — a statuesque blond wearing a bright red gown who had to overcome what is often a liability of being chosen as the first singer in the final round — was equally opulent in her Zarzuela aria, Tres horas antes del dia from Frederico Moreno Torroba’s La Marchenera.

Chang’s gripping rendition of Ella mi fu rapita! from Verdi’s Rigoletto elicited one of the biggest audience ovations of the evening and he backed it up with a heartfelt offering of No puede ser from Pablo Sorozábal’s La tabemera del puerto in the Zarzuela portion.

The 13 finalists came from 40 singers, ages 18-32, who represented 17 nations. The field was trimmed to 22 semifinalists earlier last week and then to 13 finalists for the concluding round. Five singers sang in the Zarzuela portion. This was the first year that no bass or baritone singer made the finals.

Domingo, who in addition to being Operalia’s founder is LA Opera’s general director, conducted the LA Opera Orchestra for the final round and presented the prizes at the conclusion of the evening. Each of the singers sang in front of a backdrop representing their chosen opera. In addition to the audience in the Pavilion, the competition was streamed live via medici.tv.

This year marked the third time that Operalia has been held in Los Angeles (the others were 2000 and 2004). The competition also was held in 2001 in Washington D.C. and 1999 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Information: www.operaliacompetition.org

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Unlike major instrumental competitions, which require quite extensive repertoire of contestants, Operalia singers were required only to prepare four arias in their original language, plus two Zarzuela pieces if they desired. Thus it was disappointing that all but one of the arias sung in the finals were from the 19th century (the exception was a Handel aria, which of course, was from the 18th). Nothing was selected from the 20th or 21st centuries.
• Except for countertenor Andrey Nemzer singing an aria from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and soprano Rachael Willis Sørenson’s number from Wagner’s Tannhauser, everything else was in French or Italian.
• Following the competition, all 40 singers joined Domingo and the orchestra in singing the Operalia Hymn, which was composed by Plácido Domingo, Jr. Although none of the songs had supertranslations, one might have expected that the hymn lyric translations would have been projected.
• The names and numbers for the first two singers weren’t projected (and since the house lights were down you couldn’t read the program). By the third singer the issue had been rectified.
• Thank goodness for women! While men were in black tie or white tie (not a single red bow tie in evidence), the women offered a pleasing array of gowns, different in style and color.
• Operalia took place at the same time as the first night of “Made in America,” the rock concert in nearby Grand Park. Fortunately, nothing — not even the heavily reverberant bass amps on the Grand Park stage — was evident in the Pavilion.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: A new direction for opera?

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

ARenée Fleming stars as Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” being presented May 18, 21 and 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenburg, Lyric Opera, Chicago.

Los Angeles Opera: André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire
May 18 at 5 p.m.; May 21 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.org

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Mozart’s Così fan tutte
May 23 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.; May 25 and 31 at 2 p.m.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Information: www.laphil.com
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Although unintended, it’s ironic that as San Diego Opera continues to struggle with the question of how or even whether it should move forward, Los Angeles during the next couple of weeks offers two notable examples of what the future might look like not only for San Diego but for other opera companies, as well.

On May 18, 21 and 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles Opera presents an innovative staging of André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire with superstar soprano Renée Fleming in the role of Blanche DuBois. Then on May 23, 25, 29 and 31 the Los Angeles Philharmonic will conclude its three-year cycle of Mozart/Da Ponte operas when Gustavo Dudamel conducts Così fan tutte at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

On March 19 San Diego Opera’s board of directors voted to close the company following the completion of this, its 49th season, due to dwindling financial support. Since then plans are moving forward cautiously to (a) find a way to finance a 50th anniversary season and (b) discover a new future direction. Fundraising will be a key to both decisions. For the past year San Diego Opera’s budget was reportedly about $15 million annually and it presented four operas.

If San Diego Opera closes, it will follow in the footsteps of Opera Pacific in Orange County and New York City Opera, each of which shuttered its doors. If SD Opera continues, it will undoubtedly be as a different, probably smaller, company.

Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s chief executive officer, says he has no inside knowledge of the San Diego Opera struggles, but he can relate to them. “When the 2008 worldwide crisis hit,” he remembers, “we at LA Opera had to pivot to become a much different company, going from a $60 million budget to $40 million. It wasn’t easy.”

What’s important, say Koelsch and other arts organization leaders, is that companies must be in constant dialogue with their communities as organizations determine what programming can and should be presented. A key word that Koelsch uses frequently is “diversity,” a word that relates both to audiences and programming.

“The traditional subscription model of selling tickets is breaking down,” says Koelsch. “Instead of one large audience, we now have audiences breaking down into smaller niches. It’s not that we’re totally abandoning the idea of presenting grand operas in a house the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But we’re constantly trying find ways to demystify the art form so that we can broaden our overall appeal.”

Earlier this spring, LAO presented another in its family opera programs, the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels diagonally across the Temple St. and Grand Ave. corner from the Music Center. Thousands of people attended the free performances; many had never seen an opera before.

A Streetcar Named Desire is another example of reaching out to different audiences. The original work was a play written in 1947 by Tennessee Williams, for whom it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Three years later, Elia Kazan’s searing film adaptation won Academy Awards for Vivian Leigh (best actress), Karl Malden (best supporting actor) and Kim Hunter (best supporting actress). Marlon Brando, who played Stanley Kowalski, lost out to Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen) for the Best Actor Oscar.

Previn — who, although he has composed extensively, is better known for his work in motion pictures and as an orchestra conductor — used a libretto by Philip Littell to adapt the play into an opera; it was premiered in San Francisco in 1998. However, rather than using the elaborate original production, LAO is using Brad Dalton’s intriguing staging that puts the costumed cast at the front of the stage, with the orchestra on stage behind the action. The production has played to strong reviews at Carnegie Hall in New York City and Lyric Opera Chicago.

Koelsch cautions that creating a show with a “much smaller footprint” from a larger version may not always be feasible, but it’s one way for companies such as LAO to bring contemporary operas into the company’s increasingly large repertoire.

Of course it helps that Fleming is portraying the one of the starring roles in Streetcar. “I’ve been eager to bring Renée to Los Angeles as Blanche DuBois for more than a decade,” says LAO’s General Director Plácido Domingo, Fleming’s only rival for operatic superstar status. Ironically, Domingo is appearing onstage in Jules Massenet’s Thais, which is running in tandem with Streetcar. The opportunity to present Streetcar came together at the last minute, as least in opera company terms. It didn’t materialize until LAO had already announced its current season last year.

The L.A. Phil’s Così follows in the footsteps of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro to be presented on stage at Disney Hall during the past two years. In each case, the director and stage designer had to find innovative ways to cope with the fact that Disney Hall was built for orchestra and choral groups, not operas. That means there is no proscenium or ways to hang scenic backdrops. Overall, the two Mozart productions successfully managed that challenge.

Well-known opera director Christopher Alden will lead the Cosí fan tutte production, which has been created by architect Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 (the previous productions were also designed by architects; Frank Gehry handled Don Giovanni, while Jean Nouvel did the “installations” for The Marriage of Figaro). Hussein Chalayan has designed the Cosí costumes.

As is the case with LAO, the Phil is using this unique combination of talents to reach out to new audiences, as well as to traditional opera and symphony fans.

Next season LAO continues its broadening trend in two radically different ways. For its production of Hercules vs. Vampires in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company will synchronize live music with the 1961 cult fantasy film. When actors on the screen open their mouths to speak, the audience will instead hear their lines sung by members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra.

The company’s final offering of the 2014-2015 season will be David T. Little’s Dog Days, which will be presented at Disney Hall’s The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), which seats less than 300 people.

This is definitely not your grandfather’s opera company.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: “Billy Budd,” L.A. Chamber Orchestra, L.A. Phil headline busy fornight + upcoming schedues

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Several significant events will take place during the next fortnight, headed by Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which opens next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the first of six performances running through March 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Four performances are in the evening while two are in the afternoon.

LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct this production and will offer one of his typically erudite lectures an hour before each performance. Billy Budd concludes the company’s celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth on Nov. 22, 2013.

Baritone Liam Bonner performs the title role for the first time, joining with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere and bass Greer Grimsley, making his company debut, as John Claggart, whose attraction to Billy is the pivot point of the opera. The production, by Francesca Zambello, originated in Geneva in 2004 and at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1995; it was first seen in L.A. in 2000.
Read my preview story HERE.
John Farrell’s story in the above newspapers is HERE
David Ng’s preview story in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

Information: www.laopera.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents its annual “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena Saturday night at 8 p.m. The program this year focuses on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). In the first half of the program, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead the orchestra in a demonstration and discuss this pivotal work in classical music history. The second half will be a complete performance of the symphony.

Information: www.laco.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic begins its “TchaikovskyFest” series on Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a performance by the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra String Quartet and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Beginning Friday and continuing every night (and some days) except one through March 2, Gustavo Dudamel will lead his two orchestras, the Phil and SBSO, in performances of all six of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus other assorted works. Mark Swed has an interview with Gustavo in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

Information: www.laphil.com

• Muse/ique continues its “Uncorked” series with a performance on Feb. 24 at “The Noise Within,” the theatre/performing space located just north of the Gold Line’s Sierra Madre Villa station at the eastern edge of Pasadena.

Music Director Rachael Worby will lead 13 members of her ensemble in Aaron Copland’s original score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. However, in true Worby fashion, that’s just part of the evening. The 70-minute program will also feature Mike Simpson (aka EZ Mike of the Dust Brothers) and fits + starts for electronic music with live cello, a piece commissioned by L.A.’s Hysterica Dance Company from composer Anna Clyne. Kitty McNamee and members of Hysterica Dance Co. will supply choreography for the evening.

Information: www.muse-ique.org

* The 2014 summer schedule for Hollywood Bowl and 2014-2015 season schedules for L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale have been released. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information:
Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)

PREVIEW: “Walking the Plank” at “Billy Budd”

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
Feb. 22, 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

BillyBudd_5_4Web
LA Opera will use Francesca Zambello’s striking production when it presents Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd beginning Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Photo from Washington National Opera.
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As the clock ticks toward next Saturday, anticipation is beginning to mount as Los Angeles Opera prepares to present Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, the climax of the company’s nearly two-year-long “Britten 100/LA” celebration of the centennial of composer’s birth on November 22, 2013. Staging, lighting, orchestra and cast rehearsals are fusing into what the company hopes will be a seamless whole; dress rehearsals begin Sunday and the Feb. 22 opener will be the first of six presentations of an opera that many people consider Britten’s finest work, although it isn’t as well known as Peter Grimes.

This morning some media members and other guests got a backstage glimpse of the set for the production, which was created by a then-young New York City native named Francesca Zambello. Gary Murphy, LAO’s director of public relations wittily termed the morning “Walking the Plank.” As always, the perspective from the stage is radically different from the seats, although the morning began in the Founders Circle so that we could get front-facing perspective of a set that was still coming together.

This production debuted in Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1994 and opened the next year at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It played in Los Angeles in 2000 and has become, says Rupert Hemmings, LAO’s senior director of production, “THE iconic production of this opera.” Plácido Domingo, LAO’s general director, believes this is the Zambello’s best work. In fact, it is so popular that there are two versions in existence, one based in London (which LAO is using) and the other housed in Paris.

Despite the fact that the opera is set entirely on a British man-of-warship in 1797, the HMS Indomitable, Zambello specified to set and costume designer Alison Chitty that the production couldn’t include a ship and the sailors couldn’t wear military uniforms.

Instead, Chitty created a raked, triangular wooden plank that stretches the width of the Pavilion stage and comes to a point looming over the orchestra pit to symbolize the ship’s deck (rigging and other paraphernalia in the background add verisimilitude to the effect). The front 2/3 of the plank tilts up sharply to reveal the cabin below where much of the second act takes place; from the seats, the effect resembles a geometric “Jaws-like” shark.

Several of us “rode the plank” as it tilted up and down; others climbed warily down the ultra-steep stairs from the deck to the cabin (with my bad foot, I elected not to risk my neck on that trip — the all-male cast that numbers about 25 clearly has to be in great shape to maneuver on this set; no “Falstaffs” here).

What the audience will see is exactly what Zambello created, although Julia Pevzner is credited as the director. “When a company rents a production, as we are doing with this one,” explained Hemmings, “you are contractually obligated to produce what was originally created. Moreover, if the original director isn’t in charge, he or she has to sign off on the director. This production clearly has Zambello’s imprint.”

Zambello — now general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in England and artistic director of Washington National Opera — has, in fact, been in L.A. for what Hemmings described as a week of “intense” rehearsals. Liam Bonner, who is portraying the title character for the first time, remembers Zambello telling him, “You already look like Billy Budd; you don’t have to jump around a lot. Stand still!”

For L.A. Opera Music Director James Conlon, who is conducting Billy Budd for the first time, this production continues a life-long love affair with Britten. “When I was growing up,” Conlon wrote in an Opera News article, “Benjamin Britten was a contemporary composer.” As a high school student, he heard Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, perform two recitals in New York City.

Nonetheless, for Conlon, the complexity of Billy Budd makes it unique. “A universe within the universe,” writes Conlon in the LA Opera program, “it touches upon Britten’s recurrent themes: outrage for the destruction — not just the loss — of innocence; the abdication by civil authorities of their moral authority to the detriment of the weak; and the importance of compassion and its lamentable absence in the affairs of men.”

Written in 1951 and revised nine years later, the opera uses a libretto by E.M. Forster (who write A Passage to India and A Room With a View, among other works) and Eric Crozier from a novella by Herman Melville. “It is the second of three operas, along with Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, that play out in or around the powerful influence of the sea,” notes Conlon. “It is [also] the biggest of his large-scale works.” The orchestra (the largest Britten used in an opera) has more than 70 musicians, the L.A. Opera Chorus numbers 46 and there are 10 boys from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Altogether, counting stagehands and lighting folks, more than 200 people will be involved in this production (“not counting ushers and ticket takers,” says Hemmings with a wry smile).
Bonner
In the title role, Bonner (right) — a 32-year-old Pittsburgh native — steps into the shoes of Southern California native Rod Gilfry who created the part in the London production and played it here 14 years ago. Although new to this role, Bonner has an extensive background in Britten’s music; he played the role of Sid in LAO’s production of Britten’s Albert Herring in 2012.

“Britten does such a wonderful job of writing for the voice,” says Bonner. “What I’ve learned is that to sing his music well I have to be true to myself. The challenges are mainly that you have to be very strict with the rhythms and keep moving forward. There’s always an energy, a current that seems to keep running through the music; it never seems to stops. And yet, there are moments of stillness — in fact, stillness is an important part of the action.”

Although it’s by coincidence given the lengthy schedule times for operas, the revival of this production and the unveiling of an acclaimed 2010 production from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, directed by Michael Grandage, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, (LINK) are especially timely because of the mounting of Charles Wuorinen’s operatic version of Brokeback Mountain, which opened recently at Teatro Real Madrid. “Without Britten having introduced the issue of homosexuality in Billy Budd,” says Hemmings, ”Brokeback Mountain as an opera doesn’t get written.”

Britten’s homosexuality certainly played a role in the writing of Billy Budd, although how much is open to debate. “The homoerotic aspects are certainly a driving force in this piece,” said Bonner in an interview with Chris Carpenter in Rage Monthly, “but they have more do with Claggart than with Billy. Billy is too innocent and naïve, I think, to even realize the way Claggart is drawn to him … Billy is so real and so sincere in his answers, always.” This morning, Bonner summarized Billy as “an innocent. He cannot see the bad in anything.”

One of the critical elements to the role is that Billy stutters; in fact, the opera’s tragedy revolves around this impediment. “What makes that particularly difficult,” says Bonner, “is that Britten writes the stuttering into the music and no two times are the same. You really have to stay on your toes.” Especially when walking the plank.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The opera runs about three hours with one intermission. It is sung in English with English supertitles (it will be interesting to see how much those are necessary).
• Conlon will deliver a pre-performance lecture an hour before each performance.
• The are several excellent articles in the “Learn More” tab of the LAO Web site.
• The sets nearly didn’t make to L.A. in time. Bad weather in London and then New York pushed things to nearly the breaking point.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Make your holiday season a musical one

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Few things better symbolize the Christmas season than music and this year brings an unusually rich assortment of concerts and recitals, beginning with the world-renowned Los Angeles Children’s Chorus presents its midwinter concerts Dec. 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. On Saturday, LACC’s Concert and Apprentice Choirs and its Young Men’s Ensemble will perform; the following evening, it’s the Concert and Intermediate Choirs and the Chamber Singers. Info: www.lachildrenschorus.org

The LACC also appears in several other concerts this season, including four performances of the orchestral score for The Nutcracker played by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Dec. 12-15 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is the first time that Dudamel has conducted the Phil in December concerts.

For those looking for something other than holiday music, the Phil has two offerings. Next weekend (Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon), Rafael Frubeck de Burgos returns to the Phil podium with two symphonies by Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Dudamel will lead the Phil in four concerts (Dec. 19-22) that will feature Yuja Wang as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Stravinsky’s score for the ballet Petrushka and Blow bright, a world premiere by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason, are also on the program. Info on the Phil programs above: www.laphil.com

As usual, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will have an ultra-busy holiday season at Disney Hall beginning on Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. with its “Festival of Carols, with 115 singers and organ performing traditional holiday works. This program repeats Dec. 14 at 2 p.m., but as you will see below that’s a really jam-packed day so you might want to consider the first program instead. Info: www.lamc.org

Other LAMC holiday programs are
• “Rejoice! Ceremony of Carols” on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., when Music Director Grant Gershon leads a program of music by Respighi, Vaughan Williams and Stephen Paulus, along with Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, performed as part of the Southland’s “Britten 100/LA” tribute to the centennial of Britten’s birth. Info: www.lamc.org
• Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 15 and 22 at 7 p.m. Gershon leads 48 singers, soloists and a chamber orchestra in this most familiar of Christmas oratorios. Info: www.lamc.org
• “Messiah Sing-Along” on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Grab your score (or buy one at the door) and join with the Master Chorale and other audience members in singing Handel’s memorable score. Info: www.lamc.org

As noted above, Dec. 14 will be one of those jam-packed evenings that cause concertgoers indigestion because they have so much from which to choose. In addition to the Master Chorale’s “Festival of Carols” listed above, consider:
• The Pasadena Symphony’s Holiday concerts on Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper leads the program that will also feature vocalist Lisa Vroman, members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and the handbell choir, LA Bronze. Info: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
• The Pasadena Master Chorale will offer its Christmas concert of Vivaldi’s Gloria and Bach’s Magnificat at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Info: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org
Pasadena Presbyterian Church will present the 69th annual rendition of its free-admission “Candlelight and Carols” program at 7:30 p.m. The concert will feature the church’s six choirs, two organists and an instrumental ensemble, and will include plenty of audience caroling. The featured work will be On Christmas Night by English composer Bob Chilcott. Info: www.ppcmusic.org
Angeles Chorale will present “Divine Joy: a Christmas Celebration in Music” at 7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, Pasadena. Artistic Director John Sutton will conduct the program, which will feature the first part of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Info: www.angeleschorale.org

One organization that chose not to join the Dec. 14 clog is Pasadena Pro Musica, which continues its 50th season the following afternoon at 4 p.m. in Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church. Artistic Director Stephen Grimm leads a program of music by Benjamin Britten and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Info: www.pasadenapromusica.org

In addition to what’s listed above, Disney Hall offers a number of varied holiday programs; my favorite would be “A Chanticleer Christmas,” which features the renowned San Francisco-based all-male a cappella choral ensemble. Info: www.laphil.com

And this list doesn’t include the ongoing Los Angeles Opera’s ongoing production of Verdi’s Falstaff, which concludes its run today at 7 p.m., nor the company’s presentation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which runs through Dec. 15. My preview story on The Magic Flute is HERE and a followup article is HERE. Info the operas: www.laopera.org
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

FROM THE WEB: Kudos to LA Opera from an unusual source

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

Although the New York Times works hard to attract readers in Southern California, its arts critics rarely venture beyond the confines of the East Coast. Thus, it was notable that Music Critic Zachary Woolfe made the trip west for Los Angeles Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which opened last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Read his review HERE.

What made the review notable was that Woolfe’s focus was to laud the company for reacting quickly (in opera-world terms) after CEO Christopher Koelsch went to Berlin to see Komische Oper’s new, radical production of Mozart’s famous work (read my preview story HERE). After returning to L.A., Kolsche persuaded colleagues Plácido Domingo and James Conlon that LAO should substitute the Komische Opera production for the originally announced revival of LAO’s 20-year-old production by Sir Peter Hall and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

As Wolfe wrote: “The Los Angeles Opera’s late switch — this new ‘Flute’ was not officially announced until June — should be a positive example for the opera world, where artistic choices can be encased in amber up to five years in advance. Companies should be eagerly looking for new singers and stagings that can be presented in a matter of months rather than years. (O.K., I’d accept maybe a year or two.) This new ‘Flute’ shows that the results can be worth the rush and risk.”

Although I haven’t seen the LAO production, to judge from the critics the decision to change was more than worth the risk. Jim Farber’s review in the Los Angeles News Group papers (which include my papers listed above) is HERE. Mark Swed’s review in the Los Angeles Times is HERE. Timothy Mangan’s review in the Orange County Register is HERE.

What Woolfe didn’t say in his article was that Magic Flute was the first of two “last-minute” changes to the LA Opera 2013-2014 schedule. Six months after the season had been unveiled the company announced that it would add semi-staged concert performances of Andre Previn’s opera, A Streetcar Named Desire on May 18, 21 and 24, 2014. That omission was somewhat ironic, since Michael Cooper reported the story in the NY Times on Sept. 4.

Renée Fleming will reprise her starring role as Blanche DuBois from the original San Francisco Opera production. Patrick Summers will lead the LA Opera Orchestra. The production will be the semi-staged version that played at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at Lyric Opera Chicago. DETAILS.

Speaking of Mr. Woolfe, he posted quite an interesting article after attending nine — NINE! — performances of Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. His premise was to evaluate how the Met sounds from nine different seat locations. Read the article HERE. Lisa Hirsch, in her “Iron Tongue of Midnight” Blog HERE, suggested he should have seen the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten instead. To each his (or her) own.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: “Mozart, Buster Keaton and Nosferatu” — LA Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute opens Saturday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.
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Los Angeles Opera: Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Nov. 23 and 30, Dec. 5, 11 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 15 at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lecture one hour before each performance by James Conlon (except Dec. 13)
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.org
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Komische Oper Berlin "DIE ZAUBERFLOETE"
Black and white silent film images are a unique part of a Los Angeles Opera presentation of a Komische Oper Berlin production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which makes its U.S. debut Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Photo from the Komische Oper Berlin by Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de)
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When Los Angeles Opera announced its 2013-2014 season earlier this year, one of the offerings was to be Mozart’s The Magic Flute, using a popular, 20-year-old production directed by Sir Peter Hall and designed with colorful cartoon-like sets by Gerald Scarfe that had been presented four times including its 1993 debut.

The Magic Flute is still on the agenda — it opens Saturday night in the first of seven performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, running through Dec. 15 — but not with the Hall/Scarfe production. Instead, LAO President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Koelsch journeyed to Berlin and fell in love with a wacky production from Komische Oper Berlin that mixes, as the company says, Mozart, Buster Keaton and Nosferatu.” In a published interview, LAO Music Director James Conlon, who will conduct the local performances, called the concept “an extraordinary idea and an extraordinary execution of that idea. For L.A., the birthplace of movies, it’s a perfect fit.”

Created by the British theater group “1927” — led by director Suzanne Andrade and filmmaker Paul Barritt — in collaboration with Australian Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, the production will be making its U.S. debut. This will also mark Kosky’s American debut as an opera director.

The silent-film images come during the opera’s “singspiel” portions that are a unique part of The Magic Flute. Instead of the “song-speech,” the production projects minimalist texts above the Buster Keaton-style images. A review in “Bachtrtack” (a classical music Web site) states, “It might seem a gimmick, or an acknowledgement of the oft-stated opinion that Schikaneder’s spoken dialogue is long-winded and tiring, but it’s actually only the beginning. The technologically audacious, faux-naïve style of 1920s cinema proves an inspired lens (so to speak) for this work’s quirky tone.”

Kosky says, “The rhythm of the music and the text has an enormous influence on the animation. As we worked together on The Magic Flute, the timing always came from the music, even — especially — in the dialogues, which we condensed and transformed into silent film intertitles with piano accompaniment. It’s a silent film by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so to speak!” Beyond the black-and-white aspects, the production also includes a number of colorful images, including flying pink elephants.

Conlon, who conducted the orchestra in the 2006 film version of The Magic Flute directed by Kenneth Branagh, will lead a cast that includes two Americans: soprano Janai Brugger, a LAO alumna, who will appear as Pamina, and tenor Lawrence Brownlee in his LAO debut as Tamino. Also making company debuts will be soprano Erika Miklósa as The Queen of the Night, bass Evan Boyer as Sarastro, and baritone Rodion Pogossov as Papageno.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• The Hall/Scarfe production of The Magic Flute (which LAO owns) hasn’t been abandoned, said Koelsch when this new production was announced. It will be retained for possible future use.
• Strong advance ticket sales encouraged the company to add the Dec. 8 presentation to the original slate of six presentations.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

PREVIEW: L.A. Opera unveils new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This article was first published today in the above papers.

Los Angeles Opera: Verdi’s Falstaff
Nov. 13, 16 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 24 and Dec. 1 at 2 p.m.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Information: www.laopera.com
Concert performance: Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa
Information: www.scfta.org

Falstaff Piano Dress _November 2, 2013 -
Roberto Frontali stars in a new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
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One of the hardest jobs for any opera company is to retire a beloved production for a new one. One has only to look at recent events at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to realize how fraught with peril such a change can be.

For its opening production in 2009, the Met retired a beloved (by most) 20-year-old Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca that was a sumptuous, literal recreation of Puccini’s concept. In its place went a stark, symbolized rendering by Swiss director Luc Bondy. The headline for Alex Ross’ review in “The New Yorker” of that opening night summed up many people’s feelings: “Fiasco.” Time has softened attitudes only slightly.

Likewise, when the Met replaced its decades-old, literal production of Wagner’s Ring cycle with a quirky new one by Robert Lepage, the results were even more disastrous, to say nothing of far more expensive.

So it must be with a bit of baited breath that Los Angeles Opera introduced a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff last night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of six performances with others occurring through Dec. 1. There will also be a concert performance on Nov. 26 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

The production of Verdi’s final opera — based on Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor — is being directed by Lee Blakeley, with scenery and costumes designed by Adrian Linford; both are making their LA Opera debuts. Rick Fisher is the lighting designer and Nicola Bowie is the choreographer.

This replaces an historic production that originated not with LA Opera but with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982. What made that production special was that the Phil’s Music Director, Carlo Maria Giulini, was conducting the opera, something that he had not done for 14 years.

Donal Henahan the New York Times music critic wrote of that night, “For one golden moment, at least, this opera-starved city has become the center of the opera universe.” LA Opera took over the production and revived it three over the succeeding decades.

However in this bicennial year of Verdi’s birth LAO General Director Plácido Domingo and Music Director James Conlon elected to mount an entirely new effort. Conlon will conduct all six Los Angeles performances and the concert performance in Orange County.

Italian baritone Roberto Frontali will appear in the title role as Falstaff, along with soprano Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford and Marco Caria as Ford. Other cast members are Ronnita Nicole Miller and Erica Brookhyser, alumnae of LA Opera’s young artist program, as Mistress Quickly and as Meg Page; tenor Robert Brubaker as Dr. Caius.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.