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

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conlon’s next Pavilion appearances will be to lead performances of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio beginning Jan. 28 and Richard Strauss’ Salome, beginning Feb. 18 (INFORMATION)

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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LA Opera announces 2015-2016 season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
The Los Angeles News Group
San Francisco Opera, Moby Dick,
Jake Hegge’s opera “Moby-Dick” will be part of the 2015-16 Los Angeles Opera season.

There’s a healthy dose of the familiar to Los Angeles Opera’s 30th anniversary season, which was formally unveiled yesterday, but enough new and/or interesting to make the 2015-2016 schedule worth considering when laying out your long-range plans.

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

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

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

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

Read the 2015-2016 media release HERE.

LAO’s 2015-2016 Web site is HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the complete LAO media release HERE.

(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

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.

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.
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.

• 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.

(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.


• 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.


• 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.


• 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.


* 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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