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Blog entries posted during February 2014

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.


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

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.