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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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.

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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.

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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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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)

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