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Blog entries posted during 2014


LA Opera Announces 2014/15 Season

(Los Angeles, CA) January 14, 2014 – General Director Plácido Domingo announced LA Opera’s 2014/15 season, created in collaboration with Music Director James Conlon and President and CEO Christopher Koelsch. The upcoming season will include six mainstage productions, with 41 performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Additional performances will take place in other venues through an expansion of the Company's Off Grand initiative. The season will open on September 13, 2014, and will run through June 14, 2015.

“We have created several exciting projects for LA Opera's new season," said Mr. Domingo. "I’m especially thrilled to perform along with James Conlon in the season-opening La Traviata, our fourth opera—and our third Verdi opera—together in Los Angeles. Our mainstage season features works by composers of six nationalities that trace the course of operatic history for more than 300 years, including adaptations of Beaumarchais’ three Figaro plays retold in three different operatic genres: classical, bel canto and contemporary. I am also very pleased to expand the Off Grand series with three very interesting productions that truly show off the striking diversity of the operatic experience. I think that our audiences will love what we have to show them.”

"Our 2014/15 season is designed to offer our audiences a broad balance of great opera written over the last 200 years: a baroque opera, an 18th-century Mozart masterpiece, a bel cantocomedy and a middle-period Verdi work as well as magnificent operas from both the early and the late 20th century," said Mr. Conlon. "The artistic flexibility of the company in presenting works in Italian, Spanish, English and Hungarian, with an orchestra and chorus capable of passing fluently from one style to another, marks an impressive artistic trajectory which we can celebrate. La Traviata and The Barber of Seville happened to be the first two operas I saw as a child, slightly over 50 years ago. I am particularly looking forward to conducting both of these beloved works, collaborating with Plácido and Marta Domingo in La Traviata as well as conducting all three parts of the Beaumarchais Trilogy."

La Traviata Opens New Season
The season opens with a revival of LA Opera's 2006 production of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata (September 13–28, 2014), conducted by James Conlon and directed by Marta Domingo. Plácido Domingo returns as Giorgio Germont, a role he performed at the Metropolitan Opera last year. La Traviata will star soprano Nino Machaidze as Violetta.

Innovative Director Barrie Kosky Returns to L.A.
From October 25 through November 15, 2014, a strikingly theatrical pairing of
 Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle (October 25 – November 15, 2014) will bring together two masterpieces, written more than two centuries apart, that explore the fine line between devotion and obsession. Staged by Barrie Kosky, director of LA Opera’s 2013 production of The Magic Flute, the double-bill begins with the Company premiere of Dido and Aeneas, a 1688 masterpiece by English composer Henry Purcell, in which a queen loses her heart to a man who abruptly abandons her. Bluebeard’s Castle is a 1918 opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, inspired by the famous story by Charles Perrault. The operas will be conducted bySteven Sloane.

Celebrated Opera by Composer Daniel Catán Returns
LA Opera will next present Florencia en el Amazonas (November 22 – December 20, 2014) by the late Mexican-born composer Daniel Catán, whose final opera Il Postino was premiered in Los Angeles in 2010. Inspired by the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, the opera paints an intoxicating portrait of the transformative nature of love. It will feature Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel as Florencia Grimaldi, a famous prima donna who returns to her Brazilian homeland in search of the great love of her life. Grant Gershon, LA Opera’s Resident Conductor, will conduct a revised and updated revival of a celebrated production by Francesca Zambello that was first presented by LA Opera in 1997.

LA Opera Launches Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play
The second half of the season will be devoted to operas based on plays by one of France's greatest playwrights. The adventures of Figaro, originally told in a series of three stage comedies by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, have captivated generations of music lovers. Operatic adaptations of the first two plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, are repertoire staples, and composer John Corigliano incorporated plot elements from the third play into his 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles. With this "Figaro Trilogy"—LA Opera’s presentation of three Figaro operas in one season, all conducted by James Conlon—audiences have the rare opportunity to follow the complete antics of Figaro, Count Almaviva and Rosina. The trilogy will be accompanied by Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play, a three-month celebration of the revolutionary spirit and the legacy of Beaumarchais. With a variety of programming for all ages, Figaro Unbound will investigate the ongoing relevance of Figaro and the Beaumarchais trilogy, as well as the many ways the arts can impact social change.

“I am looking forward to the robust conversations that will be engendered by Figaro Unboundand the programming of three different operas based on the Beaumarchais plays," said Mr. Koelsch. "It’s a great opportunity for us to reassert the role of the opera house as a center of intellectual and artistic debate, and to explore the many ways that the arts have influenced history.”

The "Figaro Trilogy"

  • The first opera presented in the "Figaro Trilogy" will be John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (February 7 – March 1, 2015). Described as a “grand opera buffa,” the opera premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991. The long-awaited West Coast premiere will be conducted by Mr. Conlon and directed by Darko Tresnjak. The cast will feature soprano Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette and Broadway legend Patti LuPone as the Turkish entertainer Samira.
  • Rossini’s razor-sharp musical wit glints through every scene of The Barber of Seville, one of opera's most delicious comedies (February 28 – March 22, 2015). James Conlonconducts a top-notch cast, led by the Figaro of Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov, who made his LA Opera debut in 2013 as Papageno in The Magic Flute. The production, from Madrid's Teatro Real, was created by Spanish stage director Emilio Sagi.
  • LA Opera’s mainstage season concludes with one of Mozart’s greatest masterpieces, The Marriage of Figaro (March 21 – April 12, 2015), conducted by Mr. Conlon. The cast includes South African soprano Pretty Yende returning as Susanna after her sensational 2013 Company debut as Micaëla in Carmen. An ageless message of love and forgiveness,The Marriage of Figaro returns in one of LA Opera’s signature productions, created by director Ian Judge.

Sondra Radvanovsky Returns in Recital
LA Opera’s season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will also include a recital by one of the most celebrated artists of our time, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, on November 8, 2014. In addition to recent Los Angeles appearances in the title roles of Suor Angelica (2008) and Tosca (2013), the soprano has enjoyed triumphs in Norma, Don Carlo and Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, inUn Ballo in Maschera at La Scala, and in Aida in Munich, Barcelona and Chicago.

LA Opera Off Grand Presents Two L.A. Premieres
The LA Opera Off Grand initiative was developed to expand on traditional ideas of the operatic experience by experimenting with performance spaces, creative artists new to the genre and a variety of musical styles. Three Off Grand productions will be presented during the 2014/15 season.

  • Free performances of a community opera for families, Noah’s Flood by Benjamin Britten, will be conducted by James Conlon and performed at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in March 2015
  • A mash-up of opera and film, Hercules vs. Vampires synchronizes an operatic score by composer Patrick Morganelli, performed live by members of LA Opera's Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, with the spectacular visuals of Mario Bava's cult fantasy film Hercules in the Haunted World. Presented in partnership with American Cinematheque, performances will take place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in April 2015.
  • The West Coast premiere of Dog Days by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, will be presented in partnership with REDCAT, where it will be performed in June 2015. Hailed by The New York Times as one of the greatest operas of our time, the work incorporates elements of opera, musical theater and rock-infused concert music. Dog Days is the first production in a multi-year partnership with Beth Morrison Projects.

For more information about the Off Grand initiative, visit www.LAOpera.org/OffGrand.

Building on New Audience Initiatives
A number of audience development programs continue to enable a broader spectrum of the Los Angeles community to experience LA Opera performances. These include the Community Circle, a seating initiative in which at least 200 seats are set aside at every performance for students, senior centers and underserved groups to attend at minimal (or no) cost. The Domingo Family Program features ticket packages with discounts for children so that families can experience family-friendly performances together.

LA Opera Board Chairman Marc I. Stern Comments
“The year 2013 was enormously successful for LA Opera, both artistically and financially," said Marc I. Stern, Chairman of LA Opera's Board of Directors. "Much of the credit for that goes to our dynamic Board of Directors and steadfast supporters for their incredible generosity and their wholehearted support for Plácido Domingo’s artistic vision. Our recent success will be hard to top, but I think that LA Opera’s 2014/15 season will be one of our most memorable yet.”

Subscription Ticket Information
Season subscription tickets for the 2014/15 season are now available, starting at $102 for all six mainstage operas. For further information, please visit LA Opera’s website at www.LAOpera.org or call LA Opera’s Box Office at 213.972.8001. 

All programs, artists and dates are subject to change.


Breaking the Sexual Codes in Billy Budd

Billy Budd

While Benjamin Britten is often credited with having revived British opera, he could equally be recognized for awakening opera to the mostly untapped dramatic possibilities within the subject of homosexuality. Because he came of age when such things were left unsaid, his hands were tied – constrained by law and social taboo. As a result, Britten’s insurrection was subtle, accomplished by writing in code. 

In a moment when gay civil rights are a subject of fervent national debate, LA Opera presents Billy Budd - a work populated by people with secret feelings: composed by a closeted gay man; with a libretto written by E.M. Forster, also a closeted gay man. Forster described the resulting tension in the opera as “love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but never the less flowing down its agonizing channel; a sexual discharge gone evil.”

Music Director James Conlon has written extensively on the use of code and its meaning in the works of Benjamin Britten. To learn more, read Maestro Conlon's essay in The Hudson Review

LA Opera's strikingly theatrical production of Billy Budd, conducted by James Conlon and directed by Francesca Zambello, opens February 22 for six performances only.


Placido Domingo Remembers Maximilian Schell

Maximilian Schell at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2005 for his production of "Der Rosenkavalier" for LA Opera (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)

Austrian-born actor Maximilian Schell, who died Saturday at 83, is being remembered in obituaries for his long movie career, especially his Oscar-winning role in "Judgment at Nuremberg." In Los Angeles, audiences had the good fortune to appreciate another side of Schell -- opera director.

Schell was a friend of LA Opera General Director Plácido Domingo who brought Schell to Southern California to direct two productions at LA Opera -- "Lohengrin" in 2001 and "Der Rosenkavalier" in 2005.

In a touching rememberance in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Domingo honors his dear friend:

"Maximilian Schell was a great talent but he was also my friend. It was a great pleasure to spend his 80th birthday with him and to see the love and respect everyone had for him. When I think of Max, I particularly remember the friendly rivalry of the soccer matches we played in Salzburg during the festival. One summer, I even sprained my thumb making a goal; Max always claimed later that he had let me score. When I brought him to L.A. Opera, he gave us two striking productions, 'Lohengrin' and 'Der Rosenkavalier.' I had hoped to bring him back to our theater. He was a great artist and my dear friend. I will miss him very much."

Read the full article on the Los Angeles Times website.


Coming Home to the Opera

Our favorite high school blogger, Muse Lee, returns to LA Opera's blog to talk about her experience with our Community Opera Program. This year we are presenting the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

When you mention opera to your friends, chances are that they’ll picture gold-rimmed theater binoculars, fancy dresses, and singers trilling in foreign languages. Well, that is, unless they’ve participated in LA Opera’s Community Opera program.

3 Muskateers

Our First Rehearsal
This season's Community Opera kicked off on Sunday, January 26. People of all ages and ethnicities poured through the doors of East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy (ELAPAA): amateurs and professionals, children and adults, opera veterans and curious newcomers, all coming together to put on the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston, to be performed in late March at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Stacy Brightman, LA Opera's Director of Education and Community Engagement, stepped up to deliver a welcome speech and to introduce the program to us. As she talked about how we’d be performing in the grand Cathedral, how we’d be joined by more than 400 chorus and orchestra members, and how we’d be led by Maestro James Conlon, I just sat there smiling uncontrollably. We’d be singing alongside our friends and alongside world-class musicians, and better yet, working with them to achieve the same goal: a spectacular work of art. Though it’s my second year participating, I still don’t think I’ve quite wrapped my head around it. I sure was glad to be back.

Laughing

We began the day with movement warm-up led by assistant directors Leslie Stevens and Heather Lipson-Bell. They led us through stretches and strengthening exercises to prepare us for the strenuous movement required for Jonah and the Whale. Even as my muscles were screaming, I couldn’t help but think about how much I had missed Heather’s enthusiasm and Leslie’s occasional slip into a Dracula voice.

Rehearsing Jonah

After the mini-workout, assistant conductor Paul Floyd and assistant director Nathan Rifenburg led us through some of our music. We sang through the hymn Faith Be Preserved. As I lifted my voice with everyone else’s and listened to the searching, resolute melody unfold, I made a note to myself to remember exactly how I was feeling: curious, stirred, moved. Since we’re performing the world premiere of this opera, when the audience hears this melody, this would be how they will feel, too. Everyone in the Cathedral will be hearing this music for the very first time, just as we are now.

The kids went with Nathan, and director Eli Villanueva ran a staging rehearsal with the rest of us. He emphasized the importance of moving as an ensemble, led not so much by the music but by the collective breath of the group. He guided us through several patterns of movement, or katas, which we would need to learn for Jonah and the Whale. Leslie joined him, and together, they led us through the katas with the corresponding music playing.

The Jonah Company

Our first Jonah and the Whale rehearsal ended with that. After a few closing announcements, we all headed home. Though we were a little exhausted, we all felt renewed and rejuvenated, and already in love with the opera.

A Visit from the Composer
Our next rehearsal took place on Super Bowl weekend, Saturday, February 1. Because of the big event, we had some traffic problems, but eventually, we were all gathered at ELAPAA. The day began with a big surprise. Dr. Brightman stepped up to give her opening announcements, and after she had welcomed us, she told us that we had an amazing opportunity that day. She explained, “When we’re doing La Bohème, we can’t say that Mr. Puccini is in the room.” However, we now got to say the equivalent, because Jonah and the Whale composer Jack Perla had come to visit.

Mr. Perla sat down to watch our rehearsal. Like last time, we began with movement warm-up, then transitioned into working on the hymn. We’re already making significant progress with the diction, the dynamics, and the intention behind the words. I hope Mr. Perla liked what he heard.

Jack Perla and Cast

Next, the kids went with Nathan for their rehearsal, and we went with Eli for ours. We reviewed our movements from last time, fine-tuned them, and practiced several times with the music. Then, Eli divided us into smaller groups: sailors, clouds, waves and parts of the whale. He worked with the whales and the waves to start choreographing the storm. With the whale and wave props there, I could already start to envision the whole show coming together.

At the end of the day, we received our Jonah and the Whale posters. I admit that I may have screamed a little when I spotted my Operalia favorites in the list of singers. Looking at the glossy poster and reading over the names of all the groups involved, it struck me again what a big deal this production will be. I felt more honored than ever to be a part of it.

Jonah Poster

With that, we broke for the day. After final announcements, they sent us on our way. As I lined up for sign-out and observed the diverse crowd around me, I tried to put a finger on it all. Indeed, opera really isn’t just about daggers and ball gowns and wine glasses. The Cathedral experience is impossible to describe, but this is how I’m feeling right now: more than anything, Community Opera is a lot like going home. 

Tickets are available beginning February 5 at 10am at www.laopera.org


James Conlon on "Billy Budd"

Billy Budd, LA Opera 2000

The entire drama unfolds simultaneously in a space enclosed and claustrophobic (a British war ship) and infinite (the ocean upon which it sails). The ship, with its crew, is cut off from the world and becomes a microcosm of humanity, with good and evil, strong and weak, powerful and powerless. The ocean and the skies suggest the boundless elements of spirituality and eternity.

A universe within the universe, it touches upon Britten’s recurrent themes: outrage for the destruction—not just the loss—of innocence; the abdication by civil authorities of their moral authority to the detriment of the weak; and the importance of compassion and its lamentable absence in the affairs of men.

This is the first of Britten’s four theatrical works with an exclusively male cast. It marks the composer’s return to “grand” opera, after the chamber operas The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring. It restores the extensive orchestra to its prior place, with a large chorus and some 20 solo roles. It is the second of three operas, along with Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, that play out in or around the powerful influence of the sea. It is the biggest of his large-scale works.

This presentation of Billy Budd marks the culminating event of Britten 100/LA. In the past three years, LA Opera has presented three mainstage productions of Britten operas. Through the collaboration of over 90 partners, Los Angeles has hosted one of the largest testimonies to one of the 20th century’s most prolific geniuses and the man who brought the English language back into the mainstream of classical music.

On a personal level, I have devoted much energy and attention to conducting his works around the world this year. This devotion is a small musical offering to a prolific composer whose contribution was colossal  and will live on in the future.


Gavin Plumley: The Unanswered Question

Little tension is produced when good and evil are seen in isolation. Juxtapose the two, however, and a conflagration ensues. More dramatic still is the exploration of the position between these poles. It is the kind of conflict we feel daily, as we ponder what is right and wrong, and it is at the heart of Benjamin Britten’s sixth opera Billy Budd. It tells the story of Captain Vere, as he remembers, confesses the events of the summer of 1797, when he captained a vast war ship, on which Billy Budd killed John Claggart, the evil Master at Arms. But, having presented their respective cases, the opera dares to leave many questions unanswered.

By 1951, when Billy Budd had its premiere at the Royal Opera House in London, Benjamin Britten was an established name, both at home and abroad. Somewhat under the radar before World War II, he shot into the limelight with the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes, performed at Tanglewood the following year, in a series of lauded international productions. With the premiere of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the Spring Symphony and a clutch of other new songs and chamber works, Britten was becoming one of the most prominent figures within post-war music. Yet the comforts this success offered did not dim his acuity when it came to matters moral, theatrical and operatic.

Peter Grimes had shown that Britten was intent on tackling difficult subjects in a vivid manner. Its story of a mysterious fisherman at odds with society tapped underlying social tensions and fatigues within mid-20th-century Britain. The Rape of Lucretia, which followed in 1946, seen in Chicago in 1947, likewise confronted a difficult subject with poetic aplomb. And even Albert Herring, a wry grin of a piece, chamber in form and function, questioned the morals and mores of an otherwise unruffled community.

Billy Budd was no different. For his sixth opera, Britten brought together a pair of superb librettists, England’s veteran investigator of social matters, the novelist E.M. Forster, and Eric Crozier, with whom Britten had first worked as a director on The Rape of Lucretia, before he wrote the text for Albert Herring. The commission for the work came from the recently formed Arts Council in Britain, whose first chairman had been the economist John Maynard Keynes, a close friend of Forster. The council was the artistic face of the post-war Welfare State, established under Clement Atlee’s Labour government, endorsing the importance of culture within modern society.

This was cause, of course, for great celebration, as was the Festival of Britain of 1951, celebrating British contributions to science, technology, industry, architecture and the arts. It was only natural that Britten, the most successful British contemporary composer, be featured as part of the festivities. Billy Budd became one of its centerpieces. The task set before Britten was therefore not insignificant. Yet he was undimmed. Rather than providing a meaningless pageant, propping up British pomp and circumstance for the Festival, Billy Budd questioned issues of power and authority and more ambiguous elements of our experience, which neither rules nor regulations can control.

The heart and head of the HMS Indomitable, depicted in the opera, is the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere. Under his command, each rank has its place, with every task specified. It was all vividly detailed in Herman Melville’s unfinished novella, which E.M. Forster read shortly after its posthumous publication in 1924. Melville catalogues everything, from the roles of the nearly 700 men on the ship, to the 74 guns that protect it from enemy attack. The power of such a vessel was considerable, commanding huge respect by means of its speed, strength and agility. As its captain, Vere is no less revered. But what breaks this pecking order is the affection and aggravation caused by the newest, bright-eyed, press-ganged recruit, Billy Budd, as Melville described: “If a captain has a grudge against a lieutenant, or a lieutenant against a midshipman, how easy to torture him by official treatment, which shall not lay open the superior officer to legal rebuke. And if a midshipman bears a grudge against a sailor, how easy for him, by cunning practices, born of a boyish spite, to have him degraded at the gangway. Through all the endless ramifications of rank and station, in most men-of-war there runs a sinister vein of bitterness.” In Forster’s hands, this “sinister vein of bitterness” gained homoerotic overtones, in which suppressed desire plays a significant and dangerous role. This new nuanced reading rendered Captain Vere and his crew’s situation even more complex.

Britten, the master of ambiguity, was doubtless keen to seize on Forster and Crozier’s daring construal of Melville’s story, though an early letter to his publisher Ralph Hawkes indicated that he was “afraid the subject and the treatment will be controversial.” Controversial it can still appear, particularly in an age of intense militarism (and when DADT is a fresh memory). Yet that debate is what makes Billy Budd so gripping. Neither Britten nor his librettists would have felt at ease creating a work that did not address the instabilities as well as the stabilities of Vere’s world, the rancor as well as the splendor of Melville’s story. These clashes are described not only by the rocking motif that underpins Vere’s uneasy prologue, but also by the conflicting musical characterization of Billy and Claggart, with Vere, uncertain, caught in the middle.

Billy injects a wonderful dose of energy into the drama, right from his first entrance. After the protestations of Red Whiskers and Jones—“nothing special, but we must be content”—comes our fresh-faced, press-ganged sailor. The conversation with Claggart, Master at Arms, continues with the same motivic commentary that underpinned Red Whiskers and Jones’s initiations, yet there is a feeling of crescendo, with the motifs now rising to a peak. A rally of horn calls promises much, until Billy’s crippling stammer interrupts, underlined by a tellingly muted trumpet and a roll on a wooden block. But as soon as he’s assumed the position of foretopman, nothing can hamper his innate, optimistic spirit. “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” he exclaims, accompanied by scurrying strings and cymbal in a jolly scherzo-like display.

How different then from the gruff sounds of John Claggart. Commenting on the young foretopman, clearly enrapt, Claggart plans Billy’s demise: “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I had never encountered you! Would that I lived in my own world always, in that depravity to which I was born. There I found peace of a sort, there I established an order such as reigns in Hell. But alas, alas! The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers.” The model here is Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Just as in the Credo in Act Two of that earlier opera—“I believe in a cruel God who created me in his image and who in fury I name”—in which Iago subverts the Christian creed, Claggart likewise upends the redemptive message at the beginning of St John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

The allusion therefore also triggers thoughts of Billy as a messianic figure, with Claggart as a latter day Judas. Certainly, having set Billy’s beauty, both physical and moral, on a pedestal, Crozier and Forster felt it relatively easy to paint a black portrait of the Master at Arms. Answering the pessimistic text they had provided, Britten obliged with dark sonorities, using low brass instruments, such as the trombones and tuba, as well as the contrabassoon and timpani. This stygian rumble summarily quashes Billy’s lyrical buoyancy, described here by a sweeping line in the violins.

These textual, musical and dramatic tensions come to a boiling point in the confrontation between Billy and Claggart, good and evil, after a French ship has disappeared into the mist at the beginning of the second half. Capturing the negative mood on board, Claggart goes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy of mutiny, prompting an astonished outburst and the punch that knocks Claggart dead. Vere is trapped. He cannot endorse goodness, because it has, like the stammer first indicated, proved flawed. Yet he knows that Claggart is fundamentally evil. The moral focus turns inexorably on Vere—“My heart’s broken, my life’s broken. It is not his trial, it is mine, mine. It is I whom the devil awaits.” Following the codes that were standard on board such a ship during the French wars of 1797, Vere sentences Billy to his death—typical for a man who always turns to his books for answers. For Melville too, the response would have been obvious. Yet Britten and his librettists are less certain, communicated in the series of highly ambiguous chords, 34 in all, which follow the trial scene. The final chord in the sequence is F major, resolving the dark F minor tonality with which Claggart had been associated within the drama. All appears well, for a moment.

Billy’s reappearance in irons, singing his pitiful “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray,” casts significant doubt over Vere’s decision. His death too is totally heartbreaking, as the life and energy of the ship is snuffed out and the sailors are promptly set back to work. Little wonder that Vere confesses, over the returning, unstable, rocking motif, “I could have saved him. He knew it, even his shipmates knew it.” But then, echoing Billy’s final vision of “a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail,” Vere finds resolution, catharsis, echoing St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians—“he has saved me, and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me.” Do we believe him? Would the events of this opera have emerged from Vere’s memories if that were truly the case? The strength of Billy Budd is that, in its portrait of an intelligent but ultimately spineless man, caught between good and evil, it dares to leave such questions unanswered.

Gavin Plumley is a British writer and musicologist. He has spoken on BBC Radio 3, written for The Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, Classical Music and BBC Music Magazine and he commissions and edits the English-language program notes for the Salzburg Festival.  © Gavin Plumley, 2014


Six Questions for Saimir Pirgu

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu returns this season as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, his third appearance with LA Opera.

Cosi fan tutteSaimir Pirgu (right) as Ferrando in LA Opera's 2010 production of Cosi fan tutte,
with Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Guglielmo) and Lorenzo Regazzo (Don Alfonso).

Welcome back to LA Opera! What do you remember most about your previous two appearances here, Gianni Schicchi and Così fan tutte, both of which were conducted by James Conlon?
Thank you! It is always a great pleasure for me to return to this wonderful theater. I want to thank both Plácido Domingo and James Conlon, who chose me at a very young age to make my American debut here with one of the most important film directors of our time, Woody Allen. You can imagine how significant that was for me! I adore everything about Los Angeles: the stupendous climate and the marvelous, very kind people who are part of the company, some of the nicest in the opera world. Again, I adore Los Angeles and if I were to choose to live in the United States, it probably would be here.

LA Opera is a superb company with totally professional people, all at the international level. As far as my rapport with Maestro James Conlon goes, we have an excellent relationship at both the professional as well as “human” levels. The feeling I have for him is one of total respect, both here at his “home” company as well as elsewhere we have collaborated, most recently in Italy. It is always a pleasure to be associated with him.

DC Lucia
Saimir Pirgu as Edgardo in Washington National Opera's
2011 production of
Lucia di Lammermoor. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

You’ve sung Edgardo in the past. What do you like about this character?
I must say that it is a role where he suffers throughout. The work needs a strong director who can bring out all of the drama inherent in this character onto the stage. Vocally speaking, Edgardo is one of the most difficult roles for lyric tenors. His character, more perhaps than many of the other bel canto roles, needs not only a singer with an excellent vocal technique, but also one who can bring to it a musical interpretation worthy of its full drama. I can tell you that it is a role that provides a great deal of satisfaction to me. 

What inspired you to become an opera singer?
I come from a family that has no musical background. My first experience with the lyric art was the great concert by the Three Tenors at the Baths of Caracalla. If I am an opera singer today, I owe it all to that concert. From that very first moment, I started to love the opera world, but I never would have guessed that one day I would actually study with Luciano Pavarotti or sing with Plácido Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I consider myself to be a very lucky person.

Gianni Schicchi
Saimir Pirgu in his LA Opera debut as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi (2008), with Jill Grove as Zita.

This Lucia is a new production. Do you like creating characters in new productions or do you prefer to simply step into a role/character another tenor created?
Of course I say that I like to create a new production. Of great importance is the collaboration between the artist, the director and the conductor. The energy that is created during all of those rehearsals can never be that strong again when a production that is a revival. If I had the choice, and if it were not for the economic problems in recent years that the profession continues to face, I would prefer to only do new productions.

Saimir Pirgu

When you are not onstage singing, what do you like to do?
I love to run, especially when I am in a new city. It’s a great way to explore and provides me with a sense of the place and also a feeling of freedom and liberation. I also love the world of film and rush to see anything new as soon as it is released. I find it interesting to learn from film actors. Watching other people helps me to learn about other genres and also about the public, even if the work I do is not exactly like the movies.

What music are you currently listening to?
All music is important to me, whether it be jazz, pop, electronic or classical. Music need not have a name or be typecast; if it is beautiful, it does not need one. If it is beautiful to me, it gives me pleasure to listen to it.

For more information about Lucia di Lammermoor, click here.


Becoming an Octopus!

Our newest guest blogger, 12 year old Claire Johnson, joins us to blog about her experience with our Cathedral Project. This year we are presenting the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

For me, this week’s rehearsals started before Sunday because our homework was to draw a picture of Jonah and Whale.  I arrived with picture in hand, waiting excitedly to start warm ups.  

Claire Johnson

Instead, we started by going outside.  It was cloudy since it’s been raining all week.  Heather and Nathan, our directors, said we needed to get the feeling of the aisle length at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels.  Since I hadn’t been there for a year, I forgot how long it was.  

Jonah Kids

 

While we were being sea-life outside, it started to drizzle on us.  We all ran inside just before it started to pour. Until break, we worked on our movements in the hallway.  The sky cleared up just in time for snacks!


Octopus Sketch After snack, I was called to costuming. Finally! My octopus  friend, Paloma, and I haven’t seen our costumes yet. I  bounced up and down all the way to the costume area.  They asked me if I was the octopus. I said, “YES!” Then,  they told me they were sorry but they forgot to bring  my  costume. I felt deflated. They said I would get to try it  on  next week.  I can’t wait!

 I walked back to the rehearsal area and found my sea-life  group. Next step, practicing with the whale bones!  As we  ran through our movements, we finally got the feeling of  what it will be like on the big stage.  

 

I must have Jonah and the Whale on the brain. Right before rehearsals I noticed a poster at church I never noticed before. In the poster, Jonah is looking out of the whale’s mouth and reaching out, trying to get to land. It sort of felt like I was Jonah, reaching out, looking forward to the next rehearsal.


Tales of Madness and the Glass Harmonica

By Jane Rosenberg, reprinted courtesy of Seen and Heard International

Although the name glass harmonica sounds more like an imaginary instrument from a children’s book, it is the very real invention of Benjamin Franklin. During a backstage tour of LA Opera’s upcoming production of Lucia di Lammermoor, Thomas Bloch, a renowned soloist of the glass harmonica, along with conductor James Conlon recounted the story of Franklin’s creation. Having heard a glass instrument composed of thirty-seven cups of water-filled glasses in England in 1761, Franklin conceived a more workable alternative and commissioned a glass blower to construct his design. The result Franklin dubbed the “armonica,” based on the Italian word “armonia,” meaning harmony.

Glass harmonica
Glass harmonica (photo by Robert Millard)

Thomas Bloch will be performing with the LA Opera Orchestra under the baton of James Conlon for the opera’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor which opens March 15. The glass harmonica is composed of glass bowls of graded sizes attached to a horizontal spindle, and these bowls line up like meat on a kebab skewer, to use one of Bloch’s analogies. The sound produced by fingers dipped in water and chalk and lightly rubbed on the rims of the revolving glasses (a foot pedal turns them) is transparent and otherworldly, a sort of ethereal organ. But playing the instrument in the United States has its challenges. Bloch, who lives in Paris, says that the water here is too soft, prompting the LA Opera to import a case of Swiss bottled water to accommodate the demands of the instrument. And as for the white powdery chalk, Bloch travels with it with in a plastic bag. One can only imagine the nature of his conversations with airport security officials.

With its delicate and supernatural sound, the glass harmonica was an appropriately melancholy companion to some of the musical repertoire of the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beethoven composed for it, as well as Mozart in his “Adagio in C major” K. 356 and “Adagio and Rondo in C minor” K. 617. Though the instrument fell out of favor around 1830, Richard Strauss used it in Die Frau Ohne Schatten in 1917.

Thomas Bloch plays the glass harmonica
Glass harmonica specialist Thomas Bloch  (Photo: Robert Millard)

Gaetano Donizetti originally included the glass harmonica in his score for Lucia di Lammermoor – in particular the famous mad scene – but in 1835 on opening night in Naples, the musician who was scheduled to perform refused to play because he was still owed a fee for a prior concert. At the zero hour Donizetti rewrote the passages for flute, and from that day forward, until Thomas Bloch’s performance at La Scala (in the 1990s) of Donizetti’s original scoring, only the flute was heard in Lucia.

The instrument’s association with madness extends beyond Lucia di Lammermoor and, in fact, originally inspired Donizetti to score it for the opera. Players of the device were purported to have gone mad (owing to the lead in the glasses), and Franz Mesmer, the German physician infamous for his theories of animal magnetism, incorporated music played on the glass harmonica in his treatments involving hypnosis.

Conlon, Bloch and glass harmonica
Thomas Bloch (right) shows James Conlon how to play the glass harmonica. (Photo: Robert Millard)

Today the glass harmonica is enjoying a resurgence, not only in classical performance but also in rock music, theater music, and film scores. Bloch was heard here in Los Angeles in Tom Waits’s music for The Black Rider, and he has performed with bands such as Radiohead and Daft Punk, not to mention the many film scores he has recorded.

And now he is back in Los Angeles to deliver the strains of the ethereal glass harmonica for Donizetti’s gem, Lucia di Lammermoor. According to Maestro Conlon, the opera plans to stage one bel canto opera yearly, and Lucia will mark its fourth consecutive production from the bel canto repertoire. Literally translated, bel canto means beautiful singing, and its golden age gave us operas such as Barber of Seville and Don Pasquale. For an orchestra, the repertory is as difficult as Mozart or Haydn. Composers like Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini demand the greatest discipline from musicians, but the rewards are a seamless interweaving of voice and music. For those of us planning to attend LA Opera’s new production, Lucia di Lammermoor should offer up countless delights.

Glass harmonica in orchestra pit
James Conlon conducts an orchestra rehearsal with Thomas Bloch (far left) on the glass harmonica. (Photo: Robert Millard)


Young Professionals: Win a trip to Montréal!

 LA Opera's Young Professionals group, ARIA, has announced today a contest to win an all-inclusive trip to Montréal to see Opéra de Montréal’s production of Turandot and invitation to the company's Young Associates events.  The trip will take place May 16-18, 2014 and two winners will be draw - each receiving a pair of tickets to the opera, airfare, hotel accommodations and more.

New and exisiting ARIA members who renew or purchase a 2014/15 Season ARIA package or Full Season Subscription (Series C) are automatically entered in a drawing for the prize.* 

Renewals/purchases must be made by April 4, 2014.

Click here for more details



From a Penguin to an Octopus!

Our newest guest blogger, 12 year old Claire Johnson, joins us to blog about her experience with our Cathedral Project. This year we presented the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

 Velvety brown on the outside, sequined on the inside...my costume!  During practice this week, Paloma and I were called behind the curtain to the fitting area.  Finally, we saw our outfits. The octopus hat was cozy and soft, I didn’t want to take it off.  There were no mirrors, so we had to use each other as a mirror. We both looked like real octopi!

Octopus in Costume

 

Saturday’s practice was different from all other practices.  When we arrived, we saw the orchestra unpacking instruments, the shiny handbells all laid out on a table, and the principal singers talking to each other.  I really wanted to stay and watch the excitement, but the sealife had to go upstairs.  Distracted, we reviewed our movements.  We could hear the instruments and singers rehearsing the first part of the show.  It sounded amazing!.  It wasn’t til after break that we got to go downstairs and do the sealife scene, whale included.  It looked like a real whale and I got to do my favorite thing, scaring the fish!

Near the end of our five hour practice we were relaxing, watching the end of the show, when Nathan, one of our animal directors, gave us new words to learn!  We sat on the ground in a group while Nathan read the words to us and we repeated them.  Singing these words on Monday will feel different because we will be in a new space…. the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  And, this time I wont be a penguin like in Noah’s Flood, I will be an octopus!

 Jonah Sealife

Jonah and the Whale (photo by Robert Millard)


James Conlon: "Lucia" Refracted

Why do we need Lucia di Lammermoor, her tragic story and her dark and dreary Scottish castle?  Gloom notwithstanding, it is Gaetano Donizetti’s most popular opera, and has never left the world stage since its premiere in 1835.

A contemporary prejudice suggests that only the music of composers who revolutionized music or pushed it toward a new stage of development is interesting. Yet Donizetti, who has endured, wrote completely within the forms of the Italian operatic tradition as he received it, feeling no apparent dissonance between that tradition and himself.

Of his 70 operas, 61 are melodramas or tragedies. He succeeded Rossini as the next great exponent of melodrama in the first half of the 19th century. By the time Donizetti died in 1848, Verdi had taken up the mantle and would gradually elevate the form to its zenith.

Through the alchemy of his music, the composer transformed Sir Walter Scott’s cold melancholy Scotland to a hot bed of Mediterranean passion. Scotland (the “wild North”) was to England and continental Europe what the “wild West” was to North Americans. It was perceived as remote and barbaric, fascinating and terrifying. A perfect backdrop for mad passion, or “passionate madness.”

Almost a decade ago I wrote a preface to a book entitled La folie à l'opéra (Madness in Opera) written by three French authors, two of whom were psychologist-musicologists. It was a 500-page volume, published in Paris, which took an intriguing tour through the subject, from the Baroque era to the present day.

It came to mind as I reviewed Lucia. The authors cautioned that the terms “mad” or “crazed” should not be understood as a clinical state but rather should be applied to individuals who have been profoundly estranged from their social environment.  The point of departure for my preface was that music, which exists on the thin borderline between transcendence and reality, was exceptionally well served by its proximity to fantasy. In the Classical period, piano fantasies emerged from the boundaries of rigorous compositional forms (sonata, fugue, theme and variations, liturgical) to an acceptable “formlessness.” In opera, “madness” provided a dramaturgically justifiable pretext for such formlessness, one that afforded the composer an opportunity to break free from formal restraints.

By the time he composed Lucia, Donizetti had already created three mad scenes (including one in Anna Bolena) and subsequently was to write two more. In an irony worthy of Pushkin (whose Lensky in Eugene Onegin dies in a duel, foreshadowing the author’s own death), Donizetti would suffer from mental derangement, expiring in a state of psychosis.

The composer employed a rare instrument to accompany Lucia through her delusional final scene: the glass harmonica.  An Irish musician, Richard Pockrich, first popularized it in the 1740s.  Gluck played a similar instrument, and Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss composed for it. Benjamin Franklin created his own version of it, which can be seen today at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In recent years it has enjoyed a revival of interest by contemporary composers.

Donizetti’s use of the glass harmonica is virtually unique in opera. Significantly, the device was alleged (without any scientific proof) to cause madness in those exposed to it, both musicians and audiences. This may have first prompted Donizetti to associate Lucia’s madness with the glass harmonica, as well as to subsequently withdraw it and allot its extensive cadenzas to the flute.

Even without the glass harmonica Lucia, and her passion-inspired madness became a player in literature, and took on a life of its own.  Significant passages about the opera and its heroine appear in Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert 1821-1880), Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy 1820-1910), and Where Angels Fear to Tread (E.M. Forster 1879-1970, who also incidentally was librettist of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd).

“Every thing is what it is, and not another thing,” observed Joseph Butler, an 18th-century English theologian. Lucia is what it is and matters because it is an artifact of its time. It is important precisely because it is not of our time. By being itself (not like ourselves) it better clarifies us to ourselves. Revolutionary or not (Lucia wasn’t), a work of art needn’t justify itself to subsequent generations or centuries. Whether a Beethoven sonata, a Haydn symphony or a Donizetti opera, an artistic work is both timeless and of its time and needs no irrelevant discussion of its relevance; it just is. And being a bel canto opera, it is beautiful by definition, by design, and by its very nature. As such, Lucia, with her gloomy castle, is hardly expendable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Before the Curtain Rises: Pre-Opera Talks

Pre-Performance Talk

If you've ever arrived a bit early to LA Opera, you've no doubt seen hundreds of people in the Grand Hall eagerly awating one of the evening's most popular highlights - the Pre-Performance Talk

These entertaining and informative talks give the audience an insiders view of the evening's performance and are hosted by some of Southern California's most engaging and highly regarded scholars including acclaimed LA Opera Music Director Maestro James Conlon. In fact, Maestro Conlon's talks are so popular that there's seldom an empty seat left in the house!

The talks, which are free of charge to those attending the performance, are scheduled one hour prior to every performance and generously sponsored by The Flora L. Thornton Foundation and The Opera League of Los Angeles.

Listen to Maestro Conlon's latest talk about Lucia di Lammermoor here


Amanda Woodbury wins Met Auditions

Congratulations to soprano Amanda Woodbury, a member of LA Opera's Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, who was named one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, North America's most prestigious vocal competition, on Sunday, March 30. 

Amanda Woodbury

Amanda Woodbury joined the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program in the 2012/13 season. She made her LA Opera debut on September 28, 2013, in the leading role of Micaela in Carmen,  with subsequent appearances as Papagena in The Magic Flute. Upcoming performances include her Cincinnati May Festival debut in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under the baton of James Conlon, and the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni this summer with the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program. In 2013, she performed Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi at the Aspen Music Festival. Originally from Crestwood, Kentucky, she completed her master’s degree in vocal performance at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. For her competition selections in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions finals, Ms. Woodbury performed Donna Anna's aria "Non mi dir" from Don Giovanni and Ophélie's mad scene, "A vos jeux, mes amis," from Hamlet. Of the latter, WQXR’s Operavore said, “Winning, after that, wasn't just probable but an inevitability.” 

With Ms. Woodbury's win, participants in LA Opera's Young Artist Program have now been selected for the Grand Finals in three consecutive years. Last year, soprano Tracy Cox was a national finalist, and soprano Janai Brugger was named a winner in 2012. 

The other winners were soprano Julie Adams (from Burbank, California), bass Patrick Guetti, bass-baritone Ao Li, and tenor Yi Li. Each of the winners received a cash prize of $15,000. Out of more than 1500 competitors, nine singers were selected to compete in the Grand Finals concert, performing two arias with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the baton of conductor Marco Armiliato. 

Met National Council Auditions winners 2014

The winners of the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. From left to right: tenor Yi Li, soprano Julie Adams, bass Patrick Guetti, soprano Amanda Woodbury, and bass-baritone Ao Li. (Photo credit: Rebecca Fay / Metropolitan Opera)

The Grand Finals Concert was recorded for broadcast at a later date on public radio stations across the United States. On Tuesday, April 1 at 4:00pm (PST), this year’s winners will perform in a concert at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at WQXR 105.9, New York City’s all-classical station. The event will be broadcast live on WQXR and there will be a live video webcast on both www.WQXR.org and www.TheGreeneSpace.org; for more information, please visit www.TheGreeneSpace.org.


LA Opera Trio to Open LA Dodgers 2014 Season

Singers for National Anthem at Dodger Game

A baritone, a bass and a tenor walk on the field at Dodger Stadium... But it's no joke!

On Friday, April 4, the Los Angeles Dodgers begin their 2014 season facing long longtime rivals the San Francisco Giants at 1:10 p.m. in the first game of a three-game series. Before the game begins, the talented LA Opera trio of baritone Stephen Powell, bass James Creswell and tenor Joshua Guerrero (currently performing in Lucia di Lamemrmoor) will sing the National Anthem to a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium!

We'll be there on the field with them capturing all the action. Follow along on Facebook and Twitter via hashtag #LAODodgers, and we'll see you at the ballgame!

p.s. Here's a photo of LA Opera General Director Placido Domingo and a clown in a Giants uniform. Just because. No pun intended.

PD Dodgers

We're ready for Dodger baseball!