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Blog entries posted during September 2011

Tales from the Costume Shop

Fur hats for "Eugene Onegin" (photo by Robert Millard)

Our costume shop is always full of fascinating things to see and equally fascinating, highly skilled artisans. Here’s a great interview with one of them, Hallie Dufresne, our Senior Craftsperson, who has created fur hats for Eugene Onegin, baroque confections for Prince Poppycock, and more masks for the Ring cycle than anyone could possibly have imagined. Click here to read it.

An Insider’s Guide to the Costume Sale

Do the clothes really “make” the man or does the man make the clothes? We literally made these costumes in the LA Opera costume shop, and now we are giving you the chance to let them “make” you.*

With Halloween fast approaching, you may be in the market for a unique costume. Why not make yours a one-of-a-kind handcrafted piece from the LA Opera costume sale ? We will have many different pieces ranging from whole costumes and accessories to shoes, wigs, masks, and more.

In fact, you might like yours so much, why not just make it a general “holiday costume”? Make holiday parties extra special for your family and friends this season and really give them something to talk about when you arrive dressed like you stepped out of the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. You may even choose to make it a year-round costume. Maybe your idea of “casual Fridays” means an entire outfit from Turandot rather than just plain old khakis. We will have a variety of pieces ranging from the modern to the fantastical. It could be the perfect way to add a little “pomp and circumstance” to your everyday life.

Come turn heads and be a part of LA Opera history!

Sale will be held Sunday, October 9, from 11am to 4pm or until we sell out.

* Note: costumes do not affect your ability to sing. It may be best to leave the arias and the drama to the professionals.

Raves for Così fan tutte

There are only three more chances to see one of the most delightful Mozart productions you are ever likely to see! The critics have weighed in on our Così fan tutte , and they loved what they saw and heard (click on the links to access the full reviews).

“Sexy, red-blooded…something special. The young cast of this Così is cause for celebration.” ( LA Times , Mark Swed)

“This Così fan tutte is vocal dynamite… The orchestra delivered a world class Mozart performance… great singing, superb musicianship, and first-class comedic acting chops.” ( Out West Arts , Brian Holt)

“Smart, elegant and cohesive; all the components are top quality… James Conlon’s conducting is par excellence. Nothing can top this Così fan tutte . A ‘must see.’” ( ConcertoNet , Christie Grimstad)

“Fantastically entertaining… we are hard-pressed to imagine a more perfect apotheosis of Mozart’s exuberantly cynical opera… If you’re at all inclined to go see Così fan tutte—anywhere, ever—this is the one not to miss.” ( LAist , Lyle Zimskind)

Costume Shop Sale!

On Sunday, October 9, just in time for Halloween, LA Opera will clear out its overstuffed costume racks with its second ever costume sale: “Revenge of the LA Opera Costume Shop Sale!” Trick-or-treating connoisseurs looking to stand out in a crowd of Snookis, Charlie Sheens and Captain Americas will have the opportunity to snag one-of-a-kind items that have been seen on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Prices range from $20 for individual accessories including masks, wigs, military items, plumed hats, belts and shoes, to $300 for complete costumes.

The sale will take place in the Costume Shop’s parking lot, 330 South Alameda Street, Los Angeles CA 90013. Street parking is available, and there will be secured pay parking in the Little Tokyo Galleria parking structure, directly across the street from the sale at 333 South Alameda.

The gates will open to the general public at 11am. Customers who have bought tickets to LA Opera’s November production of Roméo et Juliette can show their tickets at the gate for early entry beginning at 10am; each ticket shown will admit one person. The sale will continue until 4pm or until the stock is sold out (whichever comes first). Cash or credit cards will be accepted.

Food stands are back!

Coming to Eugene Onegin or Così fan tutte? Come hungry! We’ve teamed up with the Patina Restaurant Group to present a new outdoor dining option at the southeast corner of the Music Center Plaza (inspired by the huge success of our Ring cycle beer garden).

For Eugene Onegin, enjoy Russian-inspired grilled beef “shaslyk” skewers with Anaheim chili and sweet onion relish. For the set-in-Naples Così fan tutte, you can savor grilled Italian sausage, olive salad and a roasted garlic asiago roll. There will be an assortment of beverages available for purchase as well.

You can even beat the crowds by pre-ordering before the show for intermission dining. Food stands will be available for every performance except the Saturday, September 24 performance of Così.

Another Opening, Another Show

The curtain has risen on the 2011/12 with a fantastic performance of Eugene Onegin. How about some Mozart to keep the celebration going? Cosi fan tutte opens tomorrow at 2pm. If you can’t be here with us in the theater, join us at home by listening to our live radio broadcast at KUSC 91.5 fm (or online at www.kusc.org).

We’re number one!

With our season opening this weekend, we’re #1 on the “Los Angeles Downtown News” list of top five things to do this weekend. Click here for your weekend entertainment to-do list.

Ten Questions for Aleksandra Kurzak

When our Fiordiligi, Aleksandra Kurzak, took on the Out West Arts questionnaire, we found out that she was destined from birth to be an opera singer. Click here to find out why.

Photo by Andrzej Swietlik

Joy for “Gioia!”


There’s a terrific review at Parterre Box for soprano Aleksandra Kurzak’s solo CD debut. (She’s our Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte.)


“By any measure, this disc is a feast of great singing…a triumphant offering from an artist whom I believe to be most important vocal discovery of the past five years.” Click here to read the full review.

Meet Alexander Prior

Alexander Prior has been commissioned to compose LA Opera’s new opera for families, Jonah and the Whale, which will have its world premiere  in March 2012 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, conducted by James Conlon. The fast-rising, London-based composer/conductor has had a number of high-profile engagements with major orchestras and ensembles around the world in recent season. You can check out excerpts from a number of his works at his website: www.alexprior.co.uk.

“It is such a privilege to be collaborating with one of the world’s great opera companies and one of the world’s most inspirational and outstanding conductors on Jonah and the Whale,” says Mr. Prior. “When Maestro Conlon initially approached me with his idea, it spoke to me directly and immediately. I have long had the idea of an all-encompassing opera like this in the back of my head, and now I have a most amazing opportunity to fulfill it. I am really enjoying my collaboration with librettist Velina Hasu Houston as we create a way to involve everyone present at the performance, drawing them into the music and hopefully touching their hearts. I hope that this will offer a wonderful opportunity for people from all walks of life to experience opera and I’m so happy to share my music with the people of Los Angeles. One of the major themes of this opera is the great power of love, both from God and between humans, and how it can overcome great obstacles and distances to reunite. It is my hope that this just might become a work that will come to mean something special to children, and to those of all ages and backgrounds, for many years to come.”

A remarkable young talent, Mr. Prior was born in London in 1992 of English and Russian parentage. (Interesting trivia: he is the great-grandson of renowned theater director and reformer Konstantin Stanislavski.) He graduated with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition and conducting. He was a prize winner in the 2008 International Prokofiev Composers Competition during which his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, Northern Dances, was performed by the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of St. Petersburg.

Other performances of his works include his opera-ballet The Jungle Book at the Kremlin in Moscow, his Quadruple Concerto with the Northern Sinfonia and Royal Philharmonic, the symphonic poem Stalin’s March by the City of London Sinfonia, The Prince’s Feast by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, conducted by the composer, and Svyatogor’s Quest by the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio at London’s Wigmore Hall. In 2008, following successful performances in St. Petersburg, the Rossica Choir toured the UK with performances of his choral cycle Sounds of the Homeland and parts of his All Night Vigil. The St. Petersburg Concert Society commissioned his choral symphony based on Gogol’s Diaries of a Madman, which was premiered in the Smolniy Cathedral in 2009, with the composer conducting the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra.

Most recently, in August 2011, he conducted the world premiere of his Triple Concerto, entitled That which must forever remain unspoken, with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. In April 2012, he will conduct the world premiere of his 6th Symphony with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by the Fluor Corporation.

In his career as a conductor, Mr. Prior has performed with the Royal Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra (U.K.), Northern Sinfonia and St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony. Conducting engagements for the 2011/12 season include performances with the German Chamber Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Royal Danish Opera Orchestra and Helsingborg Symphony.

“I feel that Alexander Prior, an extremely gifted and prodigious young composer, is the right person to realize this project,” says James Conlon, who will conduct the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale. “His collaboration with one of Los Angeles’ most talented writers, Velina Hasu Houston, should prove rewarding for all of us who are devoted to bringing the classical arts closer to everyone in greater Los Angeles.”

LA Opera Commissions “Jonah and the Whale”

Alexander Prior, the composer of "Jonah and the Whale"

LA Opera has had enormous success with its annual productions at the Cathedral  of Our Lady of the Angels, bringing together Angelenos of all ages for community performances of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and The Festival Play of Daniel. This spring, we’ll offering something completely new, the world premiere of a delightful work commissioned by LA Opera, Jonah and the Whale, by composer Alexander Prior and librettist Velina Hasu Houston. Conducted by LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director, James Conlon, Jonah and the Whale will be performed at the Cathedral on March 16 and 17, 2012. The production will be directed by Eli Villanueva. Tickets to Jonah and the Whale will be free to the public and will become available at the beginning of the year.

Alexander Prior was born in London in 1992 of English and Russian parentage. The fast-rising composer/conductor recently conducted the world premiere of his Triple Concerto, entitled That which must forever remain unspoken, with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, and he will conduct the world premiere of his 6th Symphony with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in April 2012. He graduated with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition and conducting. “One of the major themes of this opera is the great power of love, both from God and between humans, and how it can overcome great obstacles and distances to reunite,” said Mr. Prior. “It is my hope that this just might become a work that will come to mean something special to children, and to those of all ages and backgrounds, for many years to come.”

Librettist Velina Hasu Houston is an internationally acclaimed, Los Angeles-based playwright of over 20 plays as well as a published poet and essayist, and screenwriter.

Click here for the full announcement.

For more information on the composer and librettist, please visit www.alexprior.co.uk or www.velinahasuhouston.com.

Love and its Discontents

By Basil De Pinto

Of the three operas which Mozart made from librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte has always been the most problematic. It has neither the sheer musical grandeur of Don Giovanni nor the expansive humanity of The Marriage of Figaro. It shares their comic element — it alone is called an opera buffa — but until recently it has not rated highly in audience appreciation. Happily that has changed, and in our day not only music critics but the public at large have taken it to their hearts. And rightly so.

What bothered people in the past? Certainly not the music, which is typical of the fully mature Mozart. By the time Così appeared in 1790, the composer had finished his last three masterful symphonies and quantities of chamber music and concert arias. He was at the height of his powers with, among other masterpieces, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito and the Requiem still to come. But the libretto of Così aroused a good deal of Victorian prudery; infidelity in love and partner swapping raised self-righteous hackles in 19th century society. In our time, the title itself (translatable as “women are all alike”) sent out feminist alarums with the suggestion of the intrinsic flightiness of female emotion. Of course we can counter that with abundant evidence of the wanderlust of the male of the species.

Then there is the question of the theatrical form: can such matters be adequately treated by an opera buffa? We know well enough that descriptive tags in Mozart can be deceptive. Don Giovanni’s “dramma giocoso” tries to have it both ways; Figaro is just “an opera in four acts,” although it was well known that its source was Beaumarchais’ comedy of the same name. But in both cases there are serious undertones that do not merely supplement the comic aspects but are woven intrinsically into them. So in Così: the genre is plainly comedy, with a basically amusing plot and many hilarious moments. Add to that elements like Fiordiligi’s almost camp parody of opera seria in “Come scoglio” and there is no doubt that we are firmly planted in the Shakespearean world of “What fools these mortals be.”

But the real point of the story lies elsewhere. The central tenet of the opera is the need to discard illusion and embrace the reality of human weakness — not to extol it but to live with it courageously. When the opera begins, the two sets of lovers are absolutely convinced that nothing could mar the purity of devotion that unites them. Don Alfonso claims to think otherwise and challenges Ferrando and Guglielmo to test the claim of total fidelity. To prove that their ladies cannot be unfaithful, the two lovers engage in the nasty plot devised by Alfonso and Despina, and Fiordiligi and Dorabella eventually fall, if ever so briefly, into the trap laid for them.

So there is a purposeful ambiguity that founds and sustains the flow of events and the actions of the characters. The two men say that they believe in the firm commitment of their ladies, but they still agree to put them to the test. Are they as sure as they claim to be or is there a hidden uncertainty they cannot admit? We have to be alert not only to what is going on, but to what is suggested, what is concealed behind what is revealed. The initial wager is an apparently cynical claim by Alfonso that all women are easily misled, emotionally undependable. The two young men make no ideological disclaimers, they just insist that such a statement could never be true of the women they love. Already we may suspect that neither party to the claim is fully devoid of illusion: both Alfonso’s broad generalization and the indignant reply of the lovers are open to question. Basic knowledge of human nature would incline the listener to say, wait a minute — how about some balance here.

But that would stop the opera before it has hardly begun. Illusion has to be nourished on all sides, and cynicism must have its say. The outcome is so wonderful because both sides in the dispute will have to play out their designs, there will be dissatisfaction and disappointment all round, and the conclusion will refuse to tie up the whole thing in a neat package, but will force the recognition that reality is always the only if not the best thing we have.

This is quite a bit to chew on but it is not enough; it only touches the surface of the opera. The only way to plumb its depths is to immerse ourselves in Mozart’s scintillating and highly expressive music, which is the living soul of Così. The music is able to act as a hidden commentator on the action. When the surface shows a comic face, the music often tells us that something else is going on. An apparent calm may well disguise turmoil underneath. For Mozart has not simply alternated cleverness and frolicking with hidden gravity, but actually reveals two things at once, through both the voices and the orchestra.

Take the Act 1 quintet for the lovers and Alfonso, “Di scrivermi ogni giorno,” (Swear you’ll write me every day). The two couples about to part sing in meltingly lyric tones; the melody pulsates with romantic ardor as the singers attest to the unbreakable bond that unites them. This is music of deeply felt passion and it is easy to be swept up in its sweet sorrow. But along with it we hear Alfonso’s aside, “Io crepo se non rido” (we’d say, “I’m cracking up here”). He knows that the whole thing is a ruse of his invention. The orchestra betrays his self-satisfied cackle with short, tripping notes that contrast with the suave, lilting flow of the lovers’ music.

Mozart also knows how to provide contrast between the purely comic scenes and moments of contemplative calm. As the engine of the plot is accelerating and the two men are warming to their task, Ferrando pauses to sing “Un aura amorosa” (The breath of love will feed our souls), surely one of the composer’s most meltingly lyric tenor arias, rivaling if it does not surpass, the tenderness of Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Tamino’s portrait aria.

There is considerable contrast, too, between Fiordiligi’s high flown “Come scoglio” and her second act “Per pietà” in which she acknowledges her infidelity. Again there are big jumps from high to low, suggesting that the same basic character is in play, but the whole tone of the aria is one of a more gentle and placid frame of mind, an attempt to approach honest self-recognition.

To return to the central puzzle of the plot: will the ladies stand firm in their commitment to their lovers or will they be seduced by the disguise the men have put on to test them?

Ferrando and Guglielmo twice play on the soft hearts of Fiordiligi and Dorabella, claiming that they are so smitten with love that they are going to die if they are rejected. In the first act, poison (and a fake cure by the wily Despina) is the ploy, and in the second act the men need nothing more than the power of their amorous persuasion. Things begin to move very fast towards the end, so that the bounds of credibility are somewhat strained. First a phony marriage contract signed by the women; the return of Ferrando and Guglielmo sans disguises; horror of both couples at the breach of faith; and a hasty reconciliation followed by general rejoicing.

To tell the truth, the music at this point may be more of a hindrance than a help. As in any Mozart finale, the score is brilliant, sparkling and makes a total claim on the attention. But we have to ask, how do the couples finally pair off, as it was in the beginning or are they newly conformed? There seems to be no definitive answer. What’s really important is declared by Alfonso in his final words: I deceived you so that you would be undeceived, so that you will be “più saggi ormai” — wiser in the future. Wisdom, therefore, is the goal towards which the whole action of the opera is aimed.

This is a focal point in much of Mozart’s work for the stage. In that sublime moment at the end of Figaro when the Countess bends down to her faithless husband and pronounces her words of forgiveness, what do we see but an overflowing wisdom that comes from a truly magnanimous heart. The Magic Flute as a whole, but especially in Sarastro’s two great arias, is an expression of the search for the truth and goodness that constitute the highest human wisdom. In Così, the conventions of opera buffa veil but never obscure the central contention of the work, that illusion is the enemy of true happiness, and that love is worthless unless grounded in reality.

For all the fun there is to be enjoyed in this opera, we are never far from pain. The men, in tricking their loved ones, know that if they are successful, they face irreparable loss. The women, battling the lower angels of their nature, struggle with forces they know can overcome them. But the end of this struggle is the beginning of wisdom. What the couples want is total love, complete fidelity; they have to face the reality of human beings who cannot give them exactly what they want. Will the men collapse in despair, will the women die of shame — or will they listen to Despina who says at one point: “Così fan tutti” — men are just the same. Don’t look for a romantic ideal that doesn’t exist; everybody bears the same burden. We have to carry the load with and for one another.

Once again the famous question: do the couples rejoin their original partners or not? If we are all alike, what would be the point of switching partners? This is not to suggest a cold, calculating resignation, but a mature willingness to face our common weakness and support one another with love, the true love all concerned were looking for in the first place. Maturity comes from wisdom, which recognizes the basic flaws in our human makeup and the struggle we must constantly maintain to live with it.

The music of the finale crowns these sentiments without, even at the end, making definitive declarations — a good idea considering what has happened and the people involved. The women swear in the sweetest of tones to be faithful and the men promise vigorously not to test them again. And everybody joins in the concluding peroration: always look at the bright side of things and, in the sturdy tones of Enlightenment philosophy, let reason be your guide. The result, bella pace (lovely peace) will be your reward. The music for these words manages to convey both suavity and fierceness together, and the inevitably bright allegro brings things to a close.

Both Mozart and Da Ponte are supreme realists. They have clothed their vision of life and of human behavior in the bright colors of comedy. They know that to be at play, like the characters in this opera, is a deep human need and also a great achievement. After them came the flood of 19th-century romanticism, another high-water mark in the annals of art, but of another stripe; Beethoven and Wagner could never be called playful. They also dealt with love and its discontents, but in a very different way.

Mozart’s genius was his power to look at the serious, even tragic aspects of life and clothe them in the raiment of joy. If, as Auden says, “In the real world…no love is totally innocent,” Mozart’s reply is: even so, it is redeemed by sincere good will and the honesty of self-renewal. There is no ideal solution, only the joyful, peace-filled embrace of the real.

Basil De Pinto has written for the opera companies of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.

The Dark Side of the Age of Reason

By James Kincaid

Twist it how you will, Così fan tutte is a squirm-inducing opera. It’s been suggested that one is best served by blocking out the lyrics, blinding oneself to the supertitles. Short of that, we seem to be faced with a bitter fable that asks us to regard as comically satisfying a set of humiliations and betrayals,  set up to illustrate the universal truth that women are faithless and stupid.

So challenging is Così fan tutte [Women Are Like That] that, after some initial success, it all but disappeared from opera houses for 200 years. American opera houses were the most resistant, avoiding this collaboration of Mozart and Da Ponte until 1927. Mozart’s first biographer, Niemetschek, called it “a trashy text.” Later composers were even harsher: Beethoven called it “immoral” and Wagner dismissed it as “unworthy.”

How do we understand such fury? One way is to mount our usual high horse: those Romantics and Victorians were unable to understand the opera as we do. Claiming to be more sophisticated and insightful than a whole century is a dangerous game to play, but it may be a game worth playing, for all that. The 19th century was not very well attuned to comedy of any sort, much less the worldly, pragmatic comedy that Così fan tutte sets out. Reacting as the century did to the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment, they pressed idealistic figurings of human capacity as far as they could be stretched. An opera which ridicules such idealism could not sit well with an age so hell-bent on perfection, and this opera may be more attractive to us battered 21st-century sorts when it is urging us to take the world as we find it, live in it, fluff up our own pillows and make others comfortable too.

This atmosphere of easy tolerance can be emphasized in some productions, especially if Don Alfonso is made more avuncular and whimsical than cynical when he pointedly swears not “by heaven” but “by earth.” It is “earth” which rules here in Così, a warm ac-ceptance of things and a willingness not to calculate too closely others’ wrongs. In that vein, it makes us think of golden comedies of accommodation, of Shakespeare’s romances, of Groucho and Mae West. It’s not a small thing when such glorious music allows us to laugh at our limitations, flightiness, and deep frailty.

Yes, but the flightiness, frailty, the ready capacity to betray, the mindless selfishness we may possibly be cajoled into welcoming into our hearts is, in Così, pretty much confined to women. “Tutte” is feminine, after all, and to be “like that” means, apparently, to be capable to vowing eternal love to one person in the morning and to another in the after-noon.

How do we escape the feeling that we are wallowing in the darkest side of the Enlightenment, that Age of Reason which almost always denied that faculty to women? This dark misogyny amounted sometimes almost to sadism, as in the fierce comments of Diderot and Voltaire and the milder but no less certain ones of Thomas Jefferson and, memorably, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote “When women cease to be handsome they study to be good.” As Così concludes, the women are unmasked, humiliated and left to pick up what crumbs they can.

And what is left at the end? We may not even know who marries whom. It is here, in this strangely poised, open ending that we may find a way out of our dilemma, explain to ourselves the great pleasure we have experienced in Così fan tutte. After all, the men have been instigators in the betrayal and have found it as easy as the women to change partners. Does it, then, matter if the final couplings are the original ones or the alliances that spring up (and seem somewhat deeper) with “the Albanians”? Recent productions have made different choices about the marriage pairings, and some have been content to have all four young people laughingly part with no hard feelings, but also no commitments, no marriages, no idealistic pledges to feel tomorrow what we think we feel today.

That may be cynical or it may be liberating: Così fan all of us.

James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.

James Conlon: Lessons from the School for Lovers

Errare humanum est… (To err is human)

“Così fan tutte le belle…non c’e alcuna novita” (That is the way all the beautiful women do it, there is nothing new), exclaims Don Basilio, when he discovers the apparently unfaithful Susanna alone in her room with the young page Cherubino, in the first act of The Marriage of Figaro. 

It is pointless to ask who is the best composer, or painter or sculptor. There is no “top ten” in art. At best we can imagine an arc at the highest levels of accomplishment rather than the point of a pyramid. But were I forced to choose one composer above the rest, it would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). There is none better. Beyond the perfection of his music, there is an intangible, mysterious cosmic dimension. He intuited laws of the universe and human nature. His operas portray humanity in all its foibles. He wrote with an understanding of the human heart that defies explanation as and transcends the age in which he lived.

Mozart’s collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte (born in Vittorio Veneto in 1749; died and buried in New York City in 1838) produced three Italian operas which are, in order of their composition: The Marriage of Figaro, 1786 (drawn from a French five-act play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais); Don Giovanni, 1787 (based on multiple sources of the Don Juan myth); and finally Così fan tutte, 1790, whose sources are diverse and ambiguous. Together, these three operas bring to life the battle of the sexes more vividly than any comparable set of works.

Among its many virtues, the trilogy contains sharp satiric elements. Satire is “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own…” wrote Jonathan Swift. I wonder if the same can be said for the creators of those satires. Does Mozart see himself in this imbroglio? Or is it possible to infer a moral standpoint from which Mozart structured his works? Can we say what were his beliefs, his politics or his value system? Can one deduce any of this from the many personalities in his operas? It is no more possible to do that anymore than it is to derive a personality profile of Shakespeare, the man, from his works. Knowing the person behind the art is interesting, but not relevant when we experience the work.

Although each of these Da Ponte operas is a universe unto itself, the three are interconnected. In Figaro and Giovanni, the men fare poorly, the women much better. That balance is redressed in Così. Subtitled La scuola degli amanti, “The School of (for) Lovers,” it is a rich (and serious) comedy which questions women’s fidelity, after the male bashing in the two previous operas.

What does the title—which defies easy translation—signify? Così (thus); fan, the poetic form for fanno (they do); tutte, the feminine plural (all women). What do they do? It. What is it? We shall see. (Please note that the last letter makes more than an iota of difference: it means ALL WOMEN. The masculine and collective plural is tutti, which would mean “all men” or “all men and women.”)

Do the women in Così look as bad as the men in Figaro and Don Giovanni? If one were to survey opera enthusiasts’ opinions of each character, there would be as many perspectives as respondents. Passionate and contentious opinions would emerge as each character—Figaro, Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, the Countess, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, Fiordiligi and Dorabella—could serve as a Rorschach test for opera lovers everywhere.

In Figaro, the men show themselves to be self-centered. The Count is arrogant, petulant, jealous and manipulative, all in the service of maintaining le droit de seigneur (a nobleman’s presumed “right” to spend the wedding night with any bride in his dominion). Figaro, despite his celebrated shrewd mind, lags behind the curve of events. They both are out-smarted by their virtuous women. The young Cherubino, charming as he might be, is nothing more than a Count in training. Don Basilio, a corrupt intriguant and Don Bartolo, pompous and vengeful, fill out this masculine rogue’s gallery. The Countess is the most evolved figure. In her act of forgiveness, she elevates the comedy to the sublime. Susanna, representing the servant class, is a dynamo, loyal to both the Countess and to her fiancé Figaro, even when his behavior doesn’t merit respect.

Don Giovanni’s misdeeds are fathomless, epic. They require divine intervention, and he is suitably sent to eternal damnation. The story of this mythical character continues the critique of the male. The other men—Don Ottavio, Masetto and Leporello—are weak or victimized. None is heroic or a positive male image. The women, far more complex, are portrayed in a more favorable light. Donna Elvira is the most evolved, showing a capacity for love, sensuous and passionate, fiery and strong, and ultimately capable of forgiveness and devotion.

What will we learn in Così’s School for Lovers from its professor, Don Alfonso? We learn that women, too, are unfaithful. Or is there more to the story? By hatching an intricate plan to prove to the young men that their fiancées are imperfect, does Alfonso open a Pandora’s Box? Or does he merely lay bare a reality, allowing the four young lovers to marry with a levelheaded understanding of human nature? Are the women as culpable as Giovanni or the Count? Are the men wholly innocent victims of a scheming mentor and their women’s flightiness? Is Così a complete departure from the earlier operas in turning the tables on the women?

No. In deceiving their fiancées, the young men, masquerading as exotic visitors, are duplicitous. When they realize that they are in competition with each other to prove their seductive prowess, the boys redouble their efforts. Is Don Alfonso motivated by generosity or cynicism? Does he revel in destroying their illusions? Is he an avuncular therapist, positive and practical disciple of Swift’s aphorism: “Blessed is he who expects nothing… for he shall never be disappointed”?

In the epilogue, the moral is drawn: “Happy is the man who looks on the bright side of things, and lets himself be guided by reason. That which makes others weep, will make him laugh, and amidst the terrestrial whirlwinds, he will find a beautiful calm.”

In the end, don’t the women do what Mozart’s men have been doing all along? Why shouldn’t they, asks Despina, the sisters’ servant and Don Alfonso’s accomplice. Dorabella, the more lighthearted and sensuous sister, gives in to this erotic adventure more readily. But is she any less loveable than Cherubino? Fiordiligi, far more serious and passionate, resists longer and suffers before she surrenders to her new feelings. She has emotional depth, like the Countess and Donna Elvira. Is Despina, in encouraging the sisters to carpe diem, any different from Leporello, who helps his master’s conquests for the price of a daily meal? What about Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter in Figaro, who, at a tender age, has already learned to use her feminine charms to obtain what she wants from the Count? And Zerlina, who sets a speed record in falling for Don Giovanni on the morning of her wedding?

The list of could go on. Neither the men nor the women are completely innocent in any of these operas. Mozart eschews moral judgments and presents his characters for our delight and recognition, accepting them all as a part of the universe. Mozart and Da Ponte, like Swift’s looking glass, show the behavior of others, not for condemnation, but for instruction. And we will be wiser when we see ourselves in this marvelous and motley troupe of characters. Mozart, by peering into the microscope, holds up the mirror to us as well.

Mozart envelops each character in his sublime music with acceptance and affection. The rhythmic dynamism, the transcendent harmony and lyricism, the sensuous, evocative voices of the orchestra, the perfectly structured architecture of his music provide equilibrium encircling the characters and their tumultuous emotions. He takes them apart, but then puts them, us—and the universe—back together again.

His music lives in an idealized Enlightenment world, but is equally at home in the real world of human passions and imperfections. The battle of the sexes can never be won, nor can a lasting cease-fire be expected. Vive la différence! It has always been that way; there is nothing new, as Don Basilio told us.

At the end, Don Alfonso says to the boys, and all of us: “Everyone accuses women, but I excuse them, if a thousand times a day they change their love. Some call it a vice and others a habit, but to me it seems a necessity of the heart. The lover who, in the end, finds himself disappointed, should not condemn the error of others, but rather, his very own; Inasmuch as women young and old, beautiful and ugly……”

And, leaving his sentence incomplete and his thoughts to the imagination, he adds: “Repeat with me: Così fan tutte.” Or rather, implies Mozart: “Così fan tuttinon c’e alcuna novita!”

James Conlon, the conductor of Così fan tutti, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.

Salvatore Licitra (1968-2011)

Opera has lost one of its brightest stars, tenor Salvatore Licitra, who died at the age of 43 on September 5 after suffering head and chest injuries in a scooter accident in Sicily on August 27. Los Angeles audiences were fortunate to experience his artistry in three productions. His LA Opera debut came in 2005 as an impassioned Cavaradossi in Tosca (top left), and he returned the following season to sing the title role in Don Carlo (center). His final LA Opera appearance came in 2008 as a powerhouse Luigi in Il Tabarro (right), the dramatic opening chapter of Puccini’s Il Trittico.

“The untimely passing of Salvatore Licitra is a great tragedy for those of us who knew and loved him, and a terrible loss for opera lovers around the world,” said Placido Domingo. “Not only was he was one of today’s finest Italian dramatic tenors—a truly rare breed—he was an absolute joy to work with, a man who never took his enormous gifts for granted. I will treasure the memories of his wonderful performances at LA Opera and elsewhere, with great sadness to have lost such an artist in his prime, and profound sorrow to have lost a treasured friend and colleague.”

After notable early successes in Italy at the Arena di Verona and at La Scala, he had an international breakthrough at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002 when he was flown in on short notice to substitute for Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi, singing not only to a sold-out house expecting to see Pavarotti in what was to have been his farewell operatic performance, but also to some 3,000 people watching a live transmission on the Lincoln Center Plaza. He was instantly welcomed to the major stages of the world as one of the rare tenors who excelled in the dramatic Italian repertoire of Verdi and Puccini. His final operatic performance was as Cavaradossi, in a Ravinia Festival performance of Tosca under the baton of James Conlon.

“It is very difficult to discuss Salvatore Licitra’s untimely death,” said Mr. Conlon. “I met him before his rapid rise to prominence, and I delighted in news of his successes all over the world. He sang with me twice at LA Opera (Don Carlo and Il Tabarro), as well as at the Met, the Cincinnati May Festival and at the Ravinia Festival. It was there that, on July 30, we collaborated in a concert performance of Tosca, together with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was to be his final performance. It is hard to believe that the very young man and friend who stood near me that night, will never perform again. I was always confident that, with his magnificent natural endowment, he would grow into greatness, but his tragic death cruelly prevented him from fulfilling his ultimate potential. His genuine warmth, generosity and capacity for friendship were his trademarks, and for those of us who were close to him, this is a moment of great sadness.”

We will never forget his thrilling performances, his clarion voice and his generous, outgoing personality. He was a delightful colleague, liked by everyone, whom we will miss greatly. Our hearts go out to his family, his loved ones and his many fans around the world.

Click here for more information on the life and career of Salvatore Licitra.

(Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera)

Eugene Onegin: Duty, Absurdity and the Everyday

By James Kincaid

Tchaikovsky tells us he was, at first, alarmed at the idea of turning Pushkin’s beloved masterpiece Eugene Onegin into an opera. Luckily for us, he soon saw in that poetic narrative a chance to escape “Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings and stilted effects of all kinds.” Here, in a simple story of domestic screw-ups, the great composer also spotted a chance to “convey through music everyday simple, universally human emotions, far removed from everything tragic or theatrical.”

Fully aware of the risks he was taking in abandoning tried and true dramatic formulae, Tchaikovsky insisted what he had done was not an opera at all, simply “lyric scenes.” “The opera,” he said, “will, of course, be without any strong dramatic action; but on the other hand it will have an interesting everyday aspect to it.” Such low-mimetic realism, he also figured, would guarantee a flop: “it is insufficiently lively and interesting to be to the public’s liking.” So convinced was he that he had a loser on his hands, he trusted this “opera without any prospects” to the students at the Moscow Conservatory for its debut in 1879.

Now this not-quite-an-opera is part of the standard repertoire and much loved. Nor did it take long to establish itself: 1881 at the Bolshoi, Prague in 1888, and, settling matters for all time, a triumphant 1892 performance in Berlin, conducted by Gustav Mahler. The always modest Tchaikovsky attributed the success altogether to Mahler, clinging to the notion that his work was nothing more than a small thing suited to production in homes or small concert halls.

Not that everyone was thrilled at the time. Some disliked any meddling with this iconic Russian work. Some, more pointedly, disliked the particular meddling Tchaikovsky had done: Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy, praising the music (as all have since) but disdaining the story: “What a libretto!”

What a libretto, indeed! The form of the narrative circles round a central irony of missed opportunities caused by characters whose motives, if one can call them that, are derived from trashy novels or passing winds. Upright people still regard Eugene Onegin as an opera teaching us the importance of Duty, which it may well. Tatiana can easily be seen as the central character and her actions as exemplary of mature and responsible being in the world. Having thrown herself into a tempestuous but ridiculously artificial passion for Onegin in her youth, she later sees that what counts is not passion — there is no sign that she connects to old, grizzled Prince Gremin in that way — but moral rectitude, being true to one’s pledges. There is a little of this even in Pushkin’s tricky and poised poem. “Complete moral independence is taking control over all lusts,” he said.

Doubtless true but, speaking only for myself, I find opera most pleasing when it is willing to invade the lust area a little and ease up on the iron moralisms. Duty makes me think of Mother at her worst, of George S. Patton (“duty is the essence of manhood”) and Robert E. Lee (“duty is the most sublime word in our language”), and calls up a longing for Oscar Wilde (“our duty… is to revive the old art of lying”), Shaw (“when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty”) and Albert Camus (“our only duty is to love”).

Speaking of Camus, there is the chance we may take this opera not as a Victorian paean to dull responsibility but as a relentless portrayal of an absurd man. After all, Eugene Onegin, though central to the action, seems hardly ever present to us and, even less, to himself. Tatiana steals the first act from him, Lensky the second, and Gremin the third. Onegin postures, causes lots of damage, but never makes contact with a real motive or cause. More than Prufrock, he is the Hollow Man. He rejects love, kills his friend, does a poor imitation of Byron, and then is abandoned, as lost as ever. And why? He has done none of this for any reason, his murder of his friend making Meursault’s shooting of the Arab in Camus’ The Stranger seem deeply motivated. Worse, Onegin is not even the victim of any external forces. We’ve known Oedipus, and Gene here is no Oedipus, not even a Willy Loman. Just what we tough post-modernists recognize and thrill to: he’s so like us.

James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.