NEWS: San Diego Opera, L.A. Phil announce major promotions

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

This has been a busy week for promotions in the classical music world:

• David Bennett has been named General Director of San Diego Opera. Considering that a year ago the company nearly closed down, this counts as a major resurrection story. The most interesting aspect is that Bennett comes to SDO from Gotham City Opera, a small but growing and innovative company in New York City, which is quite different that what SDO was in its first 50 years. One can hope this is a good omen for SDO’s future. James Chute’s analysis in the San Diego Union-Tribune is HERE. David NG’s take in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

• Closer to home, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has promoted Gail Samuel to Executive Director and Chad Smith to Chief Operating Office. Both will report to LAPO President and CEO Deborah Borda, who will take a sabbatical in the fall at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she will join the Center for Public Leadership community as a Hauser Leader-in-Residence (LINK).

The well-deserved promotions of Samuel and Smith are also part of the orchestra’s ramp up to its centennial season in 2018-2019. Read the media release HERE.

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: San Diego Opera avoids closure, announces 50th anniversary season

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

In a scenario that would make great grand opera, the board of directors of San Diego Opera voted to rescind a previous decision to close the company and announced plans for a slimmed-down 50th anniversary season of three fully-staged operas and a “gala concert.” Previous years have featured four full productions.

The company’s board voted on March 19 to close the company and sell its assets due to dwindling fund-raising and ticket sales. About half of those board members have since resigned and the company raised $2,116,376 in donations from 2,461 of donors as of midnight Sunday, May 18, 2014. 48% of these donors have never given before, said the company. The campaign received gifts from six countries — Austria, Australia, Canada, England, Italy, and Mexico — 36 States.

The 50th season will open on Jan. 24 with four performances of Puccini’s La Boheme,• which was the first opera the company produced. Other productions will be Mozart’s Don Giovanni and John Adams’ Nixon in China. All will be presented in San Diego’s Civic Theatre. In place of a previously planned production of Wagner’s Tannhauser, the company will present concerts on April 18 and 19 at the Jacobs Music Center – Copley Symphony Hall, home of the San Diego Symphony, which plays for the opera.

Left unstated were any plans for beyond 2015 or how the company plans to make up the gap between the funds raised and the estimated budget of $6.5 million in contribution income for the season. The reported operating budget for the season is 10.5 million, with ticket sales making up the bulk of the difference. The company is also negotiating a financial settlement after parting ways with long-time Artistic Director and General Ian Campbell and Ann Spira Campbell, the company’s deputy director (and Ian’s former wife).

• The San Diego Union-Tribune story is HERE.
• The KPBS story is HERE.
• The San Diego Opera Web site is HERE


(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

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

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.

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

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NEWS: San Diego Opera to shut down

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

San Diego Opera has voted to shut down following the conclusion of the 2014 season, its 49th year of operations.

The San Diego Union-Tribune story is HERE.

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

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: “Moby-Dick” sails into San Diego

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



San Diego Opera: Moby-Dick

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 San Diego Civic Theatre

Next performances: Friday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.




Dazzling projections are part of the production of the opera
Moby-Dick, now playing at San Diego
Opera. Photo by Karen Almond (Dallas



Moby-Dick — a
stunning new opera by composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer and director
and dramaturg Leonard Foglia — has dropped anchor in San Diego this week (last
night I saw the second of four performances in San Diego’s Civic Theatre). Moby-Dick, the opera, comes with a
backstory worthy of novelist Herman Melville (who wrote the original story in
1851). It’s also a vision of what opera may look like from this time forward.


Heggie — who up to this time has been best known for his
2000 opera Dead Man Walking — first
considered Melville’s novel as a potential opera in 2005. It was originally
written to open Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House in 2010; eventually four
other companies signed on as co-commissioners. San Diego Opera is the fourth to
present the work; Australia Opera and Calgary Opera followed the Dallas
premiere last April; San Francisco Opera gets its turn this fall. Notably
absent from the list, of course, is LA Opera.


Playwright Terrence McNally originally collaborated with
Heggie on the libretto but dropped out for unspecified reasons. Enter Scheer,
who had worked with Heggie on a several projects. Although asked by Heggie to
retain some of McNally’s original suggestions, Scheer did an excellent job of
streamlining Melville’s novel and providing dialogue that brought all of the
major characters to life. Scheer also reordered the story; the book’s famous
opening line, “Call Me Ishmael,” is
at the end of the opera and Scheer has made Ishmael an older and wiser
Greenhorn instead of a separate character.


It’s also worth noting that Heggie and Scheer spent April
2008 in Nantucket, Mass., where the novel is based. They met with author
Nathaniel Philbrick, whose novel, The
Heart of the Sea,
related the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 (the tragedy
later inspired Meville’s epic tale).


Foglia — who directed Dead
Man Walking
for several companies — and his scenic designer, Robert Brill,
have created a stunning set for Moby-Dick
that, among other things, uses a floor that curves upward sharply at the
back (think of a skateboard ramp made of wood). Scrims and moving backdrops
helped focus the nine scenes and several characters (most notably, Pip), are
required to sing and act while suspended on wires hung from the ceiling.


About the only major problem wasn’t connected with the set.
The San Diego Civic Theatre was built long before supertitles came into being
and the house elected (for no good reason, that I can discern) to suspend the
supertitle monitor below the top of the proscenium. That meant that any time a
character ascended one of the ship’s masts (most critically, Ahab), he was
invisible to a large segment of those of us in the balcony (and the vocal
projections were hampered as well). Every director and stage designer should
remember to check the sightlines from the entire house, not just from the
orchestra seats.


The most impressive aspects of the scenic design, however,
are the projections (originally done by Elaine J. McCarthy and realized in San
Diego by Shawn Boyle), which create the heavens, seas, the Pequod, and the whaling boats with effects that would have been
worthy of George Lucas. The opening sequence, one of the most imaginative I’ve
ever seen and set to the opera’s overture, brought forth a salvo of applause
last night from the audience at the San Diego Civic Theatre. The effective
original lighting design was by Donald Holder and realized in San Diego by
Gavan Swift. Jane Greenwood designed the atmospheric costumes.


Not everyone is in love with Jake Heggie as a composer;
among other things, he’s often tarred with that worst of modern epithets, tonal (many similar kvetches were lobbed
at Daniel Catn after the premiere of his highly successful opera Il Postino last year at LA Opera). No
matter; like Catn, Heggie has created a gripping, dramatic, melodic score that
carries the story well for the three-hour production. His arias bring real
pathos and depth to the characters and there’s plenty of sweeping music and
hummable tunes to make most everyone leave the hall happy.


Just getting this production to the San Diego stage was a
triumph of perseverance, good company management, and luck. First, Resident
Conductor Karen Keltner had to pull out due to illness. In her place, the
company imported Joseph Mechavich, who had conducted the Calgary Opera
presentation last fall (a story about the switch is HERE). Mechavich led 85
members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra (which doubles as the opera
company’s orchestra) in a committed performance that almost never flagged.
Moreover, even with that large an orchestra, the sound rarely overpowered the


The conductor switch was just the beginning. You can read
about the multiple machinations for the role of Ahab HERE (read the threads for
the full story) but in the final installment, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who
had created the role in Dallas, struggled with illness in Saturday night’s San
Diego opening performance. To the rescue came Jay Hunter Morris, who nine days
previously had been singing the role of Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s
new production of Gotterdamerung but
who had created the role of Ahab with Australia Opera last summer. Hunter will
finish out the San Diego run.


Despite the facts that no amount of makeup or costumes can
make Morris (he appears much younger than his 48 years) look like a
58-year-old, weather-beaten sea captain and that he had little, if any time, to
work with the current cast before last night, Morris cut a compelling figure as
Ahab. His gleaming tenor voice is a shade light for a role that really calls
for a heldentenor (one could easily
imagine Jon Vickers dominating this role), but Morris unraveled Ahab’s
complicated, tormented character and sang with alternating amounts of majesty
and pathos. His final duet with Starbuck when he laments on his 40 years at sea
and what that has cost him personally, was gripping.


To a degree, Starbuck dominates this opera and Morgan Smith,
who created the role in Dallas, made for a hunky Starbuck who sang with a rich,
resonant voice. His scene just before intermission when he contemplates killing
Ahab was profoundly moving.


Jonathan Lemalu reprised his role as Queequeg, Jonathan Boyd
sang the crucial role of Greenhorn with equal amounts of power and grace, and
Talise Trevigne, another original Dallas performer, displayed a rich soprano
voice and sharply delineated character in the “trousers role” of Pip. She was
particularly impressive singing as she hung suspended on a wire.


The other cast members were Matthew O’Neill (Flask), Robert
Orth (Stubb), Ernest Pinamonti (Tashtego), Kenneth Anderson (Daggoo), Chad
Frisque (Nantucket sailor), James Schindler (Spanish sailor) and Malcolm
MacKenzie, as the offstage Captain Gardiner). The crew of the Pequod made a might sound as a chorus
and the diction of the entire cast was exemplary; except for ensemble numbers,
supertitles were almost never needed.


Similar to Catn’s Il
Heggie’s Moby-Dick is a
crowd-pleasing opera but, again like Il
it’s richer and deeper than just that. Moreover, as companies plan
future performances of all operas, they’re going to have to think seriously
about what Foglia and his team created in terms of this production. It’s going
to be hard for many who will see Moby-Dick
to be satisfied with your standard painted backdrops again. And Morris, who has
cemented his reputation as the best pinch hitter since Manny Mota as playing
for the Dodgers, clearly has a role that he may be singing for many years to




Despite the fact that it’s not on the company’s Web site
(at least not that I could find), SD Opera does have a rush program with
tickets being offered two hours before each program. However ticket sales for
the final two performances are reportedly running very strong, so — especially
if you’re coming from a long distance — you may want to talk the box office
before you make the trip. (619) 533-7000, M-F, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Also not on the Web site is that there’s a lecture an hour
before each performance. Moreover, neither of the excellent articles by Heggie
or Scheer printed in the program are posted online, although there are videos
and podcasts available (believe it or not, SD Opera folks, some of us still

The production ran just under three hours last night,
including one intermission.

If you’re traveling from Los Angeles south, you can make
the trip on for Sunday’s 2 p.m. performance on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. You
can drive it faster, but if you’re traveling alone, the $72 RT fare is far less
than the real cost to operate your car for 250 miles RT, plus parking. You will
probably arrive in time for a quick bite before the performance; Downtown
Johnny Brown’s is a bar and restaurant across the plaza from the Civic Theatre
that, among other things, offers free Wifi and serves an excellent bacon
cheeseburger. (LINK). Unfortunately, you can’t make the train trip Friday night
because trains back to L.A. don’t run late enough.



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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