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Blog entries tagged with James Conlon

Quote of the day!

Gianni Sachi, Woody Allen, James Conlon and Saimir Pirgu

How the times change…from Woody Allen, director of LA Opera’s 2008 production of Gianni Schicchi, to promoting To Rome With Love opening in Los Angeles on Friday, June 29. In the film, Woody Allen plays an opera director crippled by his fear of death.  "I'm not anti–Los Angeles," Allen says today. "I couldn't live here because I don't like a place where I have to drive everyplace, and I don't like sunshine. But I love coming out here for a couple of days. I have a lot of friends here, and the town has, over the years, really come on very strong. When I first came out here years ago, you couldn't get a decent meal in Los Angeles. Now it's full of great restaurants, great museums; the opera's wonderful."

To read the entire article, visit LA Weekly.com.

LA Opera Off Grand Presents "The Two Foscari - In Concert" at the Segerstrom Center October 1

Firebreather from The Two Foscari

In our ongoing mission to bring the artistry of LA Opera to a wider audience, we’ve joined forces with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to present a special LA Opera Off Grand performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari) in Orange County.  On Monday, October 1 at 7:30pm, Plácido Domingo and the cast of our fully staged production, as well as the LA Opera Orchestra and Chorus, will present the rarely performed early Verdi masterpiece in a special concert performance under the baton of LA Opera Music Director James Conlon at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall (615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa CA 92626). Mr. Conlon will also speak at the free Preview Talk prior to the performance at 7:00pm. 

Tickets to the concert performance of The Two Foscari start at $40 and will go on sale to the public at www.SCFTA.org on August 5.

For more information about the concert performance or purchasing tickets, visit LA Opera.com

Opera Camp: "Like A Constant Sugar Rush..."

If I had to describe the feeling of being an Opera Camper, I'd liken it to a constant sugar rush. Just when I think that camp can't get any better, it does. So many awesome things have happened just in the last three days.

LA Opera Summer Camp 2012 Singing

On Day 4 of camp, we had our morning movement session as usual, followed by the vocal rehearsal. During this one, we learned one of the main chorus sections of the opera. It's the song of the desert animals, who gather and speak of the unity of living creatures. My friend and I had to miss part of the rehearsal: we campers get called a few at a time to costume fittings, and it was our turn. The dress they chose for me, reminiscent of a lime-green picnic blanket, is something I wouldn't be caught dead wearing at school. In context of the opera, though, it's absolutely perfect. What I love about this camp is that they let us chorus members develop individual identities. We're not just members of a large blob. Now that I've seen what I'm going to wear, I feel like I have a defined part to play. I can't wait to rehearse with costumes--I know that it'll bring us to a whole new level of focus, intensity, and most of all, belief in what we're singing.

LA Opera Summer Camp 2012 Masks

The mask making workshop came after our fitting. Along with playing an internee, each chorus member also plays a desert creature. We all chose which desert animals we wished to represent. Then, we got the corresponding mask templates, along with decorative fabrics, feathers, and other ornaments. Unfortunately, some of us chorus members didn't participate in the mask creation. A few campers, including me and my aforementioned friend, had volunteered to be "waves.” We manipulate the river, which is made of two blue strips. We waves joined a coaching session with the principals to learn what we were to do. By the end, our arms ached like crazy from making river ripples. It was awesome to see the coaching session, though. We watched the principals rehearse a key scene in the opera. It was like getting a sneak preview.

LAO Summer Camp 2012

Day 4 ended with the staging rehearsal of the desert animals scene. Through most of it, we stand either in a half-lunge or a sumo wrestler position. It set our legs on fire. The scene has countless action cues, with animals constantly dashing on, off, or across the stage, as well as shifting into various positions—yes, all while singing. Other than being complex staging-wise, the scene also is pretty complicated musically. The scene features strange rhythms such as 11/8 and 5/8, reflecting the nonconforming, almost lawless nature of the wilderness. Thus, I had some trouble counting beats and figuring out when to start and stop singing. The scene altogether went brilliantly, though, even though it was confusing and tedious to put together. I wish I could watch this scene as an audience member. I've only seen the action from a corner of the stage. I can only imagine what it looks like as a whole!

The day after that—I don't know how to begin talking about the day after that. I have an urge to skip ahead and write all about what happened after lunch, but I'll start from the beginning. Of course, there was a movement session and a choral rehearsal, as usual. We learned one of the opera's early scenes, in which the internees attempt to cope with their awful situation. I'm beginning to feel more and more comfortable with hearing my own voice, and I'm learning all sorts of ways to improve my technique, which is making me really happy.

What followed the rehearsal was just epic. It was a timed scavenger hunt at the Music Center. A scavenger hunt. At. The. Music Center. Our group leaders received sheets with riddle-like “I am...” questions. Each group's mission was to find the object or location each question described and to take a picture of it as proof. The prize for the winning team? LA Opera tote bags that transform into backpacks. That did it. My group decided then and there that we had to win. We raced through the plaza, snapping photos as we went, and then flew into the Dorothy Chandler. Really, as I ran up those stairs, I felt like I was soaring—we were in my favorite place in the world, and we had it all to ourselves. Pure bliss.

Our happiness was short-lived. Unfortunately, though we correctly answered all the questions, another group completed the hunt quicker than we had. The youngest kids snagged the prizes. I'm glad that the little ones won—it tears my heart when children cry over games. Plus, if the other teenage group had beaten us, we never would have lived it down.

LAO Summer Camp 2012

We returned to Colburn School, our rehearsal building, and ate lunch. When we came back from the break, we had the wonderful opportunity to meet Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz. She herself had lived through the internment, and her chronicle of those times, the illustrated book Camp Days, served as an inspiration for the very opera we're performing. She played us a documentary that displayed her vivid, striking watercolors, accompanied with her narration of her experiences. She then spoke about her life in the camps and of how her family coped after liberation. Then, she took questions from us. When it came time for her to leave, we thanked her by performing the opera's finale, the Bon Odori dance. Knowing that it actually linked to her family history, we were anxious to execute the scene perfectly. It was a matter of respect. Sure enough, we performed it better than ever before. I think she liked it—she was smiling broadly and clapping. What a relief!

My heart is speeding up because I'm getting to the highlight of the whole camp. When she left, we were visited by a group of a few more special guests. The group just happened to include Maestro James Conlon.

LA Opera Summer Campers with James Conlon

We were told the previous day that he would come, but still, I nearly screamed when I turned around and saw him there. After we took a group picture with the Maestro, we practiced the Poston riot scene with  our guests watching. Needless to say, being brand-new to singing and having James Conlon right in front of me was terrifying. I had an awful feeling that of all days, this would be the day I would sing at the wrong time or make some other glaring mistake. Everyone else was feeling the same. Just like a few minutes ago, we were determined to present a flawless, seamless performance. The scene started, and we plunged ourselves into the action and the music. We shouted louder than ever, our notes hot and raw, as if only born in that instant—THE James Conlon was watching. It's ironic that we did it all for him, and yet, we got so into it that we almost forgot that he was there. When it was time for the chorus to retreat offstage, I actually had to blink and look around. I realized that I was on the verge of tears--since I had thrown myself so fully into the action, I was starting to cry from real rage. I left camp that day a bit dazed, both from the Maestro's visit and from the riot scene we performed.

Though today is Saturday, we still had camp. I felt a bit dorky. It was the weekend, and there I was,  heading out the door with my backpack and sack lunch. Like our director said, though, this camp is supposed to make us feel dorky, so I'll embrace it.

We've finally gone through the entire chorus part of the opera. We learned the last bit today. Then, unlike any other day, we had three staging rehearsals, which pretty much constituted our whole schedule. We ran through the entire desert scene, perfecting our animal movements and memorizing our cues to shift, enter, or exit. All together, we rehearsed a scene that the principals had previously only practiced on their own. It's a pivotal moment in the opera, when Akiko encounters the spirit of her grandmother.  For us chorus members, it was the first time watching it and learning our roles in it. The production is really all coming together.

I've never been disappointed about having Sunday off before. I guess this is the camp of firsts for me: first time singing in an opera, first time singing at all, in fact...Of course, it's challenging and even scary, but that's why I love it. I'm already stoked for Monday—the constant sugar rush from Opera Camp shows no signs of stopping.

Verdi: Pater Familias (by James Conlon)

1813: The birth year of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner

1913: The birth year of Benjamin Britten

2013: The year LA Opera and the classical music world will mark these three anniversaries. Actually, 2013 will serve as the center line for observing these birthdates. We have already begun this process, and it will extend into 2014.

One could barely think of three composers who were personally and artistically so different. And yet, aside from their centenary celebrations, they have one enormous attribute in common. All three unquestionably stand at the zenith of their respective operatic cultures. In presenting The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari), in its first production in a major American opera house in 40 years, LA Opera brings to light an essential work from Verdi’s early period, which will be especially appreciated by Verdi lovers. This opera represents an important step in the development of Verdi’s style and musical vocabulary, in which he gradually transforms the inherited culture of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini into a language of his own, quintessentially defining and personifying the Italian 19th century.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi

I Due Foscari is the sixth opera of Verdi’s 26 theatrical works (not counting several revised versions). Between his first opera, Oberto (1839), and Falstaff (1893) are 54 years. Foscari (1844) was written five years into that trajectory—in terms of works written, not yet a quarter of his ultimate output and in terms of years, less than ten percent of the way. It may be, by our standards, an “old-fashioned” opera. It certainly would have been considered as such by the composer himself. But we have come to measure the sophistication of Italian opera precisely by the yardstick Verdi has provided us through his extraordinary life’s productivity.

What it is easy for us to miss, in a first hearing, is actually how much there is that was new and significant at the time, starting with Verdi’s choice of subject. He recounts the story of the forced abdication of a great Venetian statesman (Francesco Foscari) resulting from an unseemly, clandestine intrigue by other Venetian nobles. (The Doge of the Venetian Republic was the head of state, and the word Doge is the Venetian form of the Latin word Dux, whence the English word duke and Mussolini’s self-appellation Duce). Considering that the work was intended to be premiered in Venice, this constituted an unacceptable affront to the nobility at large and to the still-prominent Foscari family. It was rejected as unsuitable, and Verdi later substituted it for a commission in Rome, where it was premiered.

After dispensing raw energy and occasional bombast in his early operas, he took a decisive step toward elegance and refinement. His third opera, Nabucco (1842), catapulted him to prominence as a daring young composer and, almost simultaneously, into a political hero.

Nabucco is to Verdi what Idomeneo is to Mozart, the “Eroica” Symphony to Beethoven, The Flying Dutchman to Wagner, and The Rite of Spring to Stravinsky: a quantum leap into the future. Verdi would continue a pattern of pushing his vocabulary forward with new forms and compositional procedures, followed by a work of consolidation. Foscari is a determined step towards intimate drama following larger-scaled works. It demonstrates a pattern he was to repeat nine years later, following the medieval and stormy Il Trovatore with the elegant Parisian “drawing room” romance of La Traviata.

Verdi concentrates the action of Foscari within a tight family unit: the aging Doge Francesco, his son Jacopo, persecuted by the intriguing nobles, and Jacopo’s devoted and courageous wife, Lucrezia Contarini (herself of noble blood). Venice is an alternatingly colorful and lugubrious background, one of the first examples of Verdi’s fascination with the political world and the ambiance of power. The first two words of the opera, an example of Verdi’s famous “parola scenica” (“the scenic word”), are “silenzio …mistero” (silence and mystery), which are said to reign over and to have protected Venice since its infancy. In contrast, the populace sings to Venice, the daughter, wife and mistress of the sea, as a mirror; the blue lagoon reflects the brightness of day, and the moon transforms its night into silver.

Verdi uses identifying motifs for his principal characters in a more consistent way than in his previous operas. His characteristic devotion to concision produces one of his shortest operas.

But by far the most important aspect of Foscari is the subject and the primacy of the father-son relationship. There is no question that the plight of the father is the single most central theme spanning Verdi’s entire output. Its absence in an opera is the exception rather than the rule. Psychobiography is a highly unreliable, if not an entirely unworthy, approach to analyzing works of art, but it is tempting to state the obvious. Verdi’s loss of his first wife and two infant children within 22 months between 1838 and 1840 clearly left its mark on the composer as well as the man.

His fathers are complex and multi-dimensional; few are stick figures of good or bad. Many of the fathers are unsympathetic by their actions, but win our compassion through their own sufferings, or incapacity to prevent their own tragic fates and/or those of their children: Nabucco, Count Walter (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto, Germont (La Traviata), Monfort (I Vespri Siciliani) King Phillip II (Don Carlo) and even the comic and blustering Mr. Ford, outdone along with Falstaff by his clearly superior-witted wife.

One might consider Miller, father of Luisa, and Simon Boccanegra to be the most enlightened and evolved fathers in the Verdian pantheon. Conversely, Amonasro (father of Aida) is the least sympathetic father, perhaps because he puts his role as king ahead of his role as father. He shares this dilemma with the father Foscari. In fact, one can see in Foscari the kernel of the future tragedies: the conflict between love and duty. Whether it is opposing national loyalties, as in Aida or I Vespri Siciliani, duties of state as in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Violetta’s choice between the dictates of her heart and the demands of the father of her beloved to conform to provincial bourgeois values, the polar forces of love and duty will be omnipresent throughout most of the Verdi corpus.

The Two Foscari is the first of the series of complex father-son relations, passing through I Masnadieri (with a good and bad son) and Luisa Miller (which will present a clear contrast between the “good” and the “bad” father­) on through Monfort and his son Henri until it finds its apotheosis in the portrayal of the monumentality failed relationship between King Philip II of Spain and his son Don Carlo.

Rare is the Italian opera that lacks the triangular love stories that provided the stuff of generations of competing sopranos, bleating tenors and vindictive, thwarted baritones. But Foscari foreshadows Macbeth in its total absence of love conflicts. It is significant that in Macbeth, a tale of regicide, the good King Duncan and the good father Banquo are murdered, but the story of their sons takes on great significance. The role of Macduff is essentially reduced to one aria, devoted to mourning his murdered children. Leonora’s father in La Forza del Destino appears only for several moments at the beginning of the opera, but his accidental death sets the entire drama that follows in motion.

Verdi’s lifelong preoccupation with and failed attempts to set King Lear may have many explanations, but it is noteworthy that the greatest of all tragic fathers in Shakespeare plays intimidated even the genius who had placed so many fathers on the stage. Of the tantalizing “what ifs” of operatic history, Verdi’s unwritten King Lear is the most frustrating.

The Foscari family trio is a unified and tragic entity, bound together by their implacable enemies’ thirst for vengeance. The conflict between paternal love and the demands of the crown break the will of the aging father; the death (murder) of his son breaks his heart. Only the commanding presence of Lucrezia remains alive at the end of the Foscari reign to face the victorious enemies of her family. Brought to its end by the silent and mysterious forces that ruled “la Serenissima,” the “Most Serene Republic of Venice,” the demise of the Foscari family shows that the “daughter, wife and mistress of the sea” was all but serene.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.




Don Giovanni, the Unknowable (by James Conlon)

“Donna folle! indarno gridi, Chi son io tu non saprai!”
(Crazed woman!, you scream in vain; who I am, you will never know!”)

Writing on the subject of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is easy, because the subject is vast and fascinating. It is also unnecessary. Primarily, the music speaks for itself. Secondarily, so much has been written and said about it, that it is virtually impossible to avoid redundancy. Thirdly, almost any position the writer might take on the subject, including all the thoughts set forth in this article, can immediately be challenged and dismissed by an infinite number of equally valid or invalid viewpoints.

This holds equally true for performing the opera. Despite routine claims of innovation and fresh “insight,” performances that actually bring something new to this work are the exception, not the rule. But fortunately, the genius of the work is such that it trumps any attempt to “illuminate” its inner workings. Its substance is fully present in any competent performance. The work is unfathomable in its depths, uncontainable in its breadth, and inexhaustible in its essence.

A saying, often attributed to Artur Schnabel, holds that “A masterpiece is a work that is better than any of its possible performances.” That statement, which can make one’s head spin in its implications, unquestionably can apply to Don Giovanni. Might that partially explain why one of the greatest operas ever written lends itself, paradoxically, to more productions that fail dismally than other works of lesser quality?

Or could it be the constant enticement to artists to attempt to “say” something special or unique, to have a “take” on its meaning all one’s own? Or perhaps to apply some reductionist interpretation that decides for the public how it should think and feel, and react? Have too many tried too hard? Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?

The story seems to have originated with a play attributed to the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, who curiously never acknowledged his authorship. It was entitled El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest”). Don Juan, as it came to be known, would have many new settings—by certain counts over 1,720 in the centuries following its creation—mostly in France in the 17th century and most notably by Moliére. Da Ponte knew and borrowed from an operatic version called Don Juan Tenorio—referred to as a dramma giocoso (jocular or playful drama), the ambiguous appellation retained by Mozart and Da Ponte—with a libretto by one Giovanni Bertati. By the end of the 18th century the subject of Don Juan seemed to be exhausting itself when Mozart and Da Ponte alighted on it. Had it not been for them, the story might have disappeared altogether. But they produced a work of transcendent genius, transformed the story of Don Juan and, whether intentionally or not, gave birth to Don Giovanni, a modern myth.

The “new” Don Giovanni captured the imagination of the some of the greatest writers of the next two centuries. The list is long, but its most prominent exponents were Lord Byron, Alexander Pushkin, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Søren Kierkegaard at first, to be followed later by Charles Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw and Albert Camus. When they wrote about Don Giovanni, it was no longer about a literary character, but Mozart’s Don. Through his music and dramatic genius, the protagonist was no longer just a vulgar profligate of bestial sensuality, but an enigmatic force of nature who continues to fascinate us into the present day.

With his new status of myth, each age has seen him through its particular lens. As the 19th century gradually lost interest in sin and salvation and reshaped itself, it saw him as a reflection of its own yearnings and search thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust had his quest, it was said, and Don Giovanni his conquest. He was now an “antihero” who, through the excesses of his prodigious strivings, drove himself to self-destruction. He became, in the eyes of others, a melancholy hero who represents a romanticized visionary, in search of an unattainable ideal.

In the 20th century he was to undergo a radically different evaluation under the microscope of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. The assessment of a flawed, but almost superhuman defiant hero gave way to a psychiatric outpatient, personifying every form of neurosis and pathology imaginable.

And so on. Each age, including our own, sees in him and his story a reflection of its own worldview. This is why, to return to my earlier statement, so many productions fail. The impulse to reduce the myth to specifics and/or a demonstration of relevance to a contemporary world actually impoverishes the richness of its mythic proportions. All approaches are simultaneously right and wrong, fruitful and sterile, expanding and limiting. The whole is greater than the parts, and by reducing it to an “interpretation” we, perforce, limit its infinite scope.

Although Mozart’s framework for this drama resides in the supernatural and in the rendering of divine justice it should be understood that the abundant freedom with which he and Da Ponte create this theatrical drama has less to do with religious dogma than the infinite variety of the human experience. Don Giovanni and the Commendatore provide the pillars which hold up the edifice that houses all of the other characters. Neither is fully human nor pure incarnation of abstract principles. They have a human life but are simultaneously symbols, manifestations of powerful forces, polar antagonists. That the latter is, if not the arbiter, at least the messenger for a divine judge is an easy conclusion to reach.

But, who is the real Don Giovanni? Even the birth of his story, whose author has never been confirmed, is still mysterious. Kierkegaard defined him as a theoretical construction that never rises above the category of “pure” sensuousness. In this view, Don Juan never existed nor can he, in reality, do so. Taken literally, his story seems almost ludicrous in its dimensions, unless he is seen as a force of nature rather than a real human being. His raison d’être is to arouse sexuality in everyone with whom he comes into contact, thus subverting society. To try to explain why he does so is, in a way, pointless: he simply does so.

“Motiveless malignancy,” Coleridge’s famous description of Iago’s character, leaves the “why” unanswered, and is a potent point of departure for the enduring mythical proportions of Don Giovanni. We meet both the Don and the Commendatore on their last day because, in a peculiar way, their past histories are not important (however fascinating and titillating the former’s might be). On that last day, they both meet their terrestrial deaths, and fulfill their function in the otherworldly drama of defiance and retribution. Divine justice is meted out.

Don Giovanni has no core to his personality. Mozart purposely deprives him of a self-revelatory or confessional aria. Unlike Verdi’s Iago, who explains himself in the Credo, the Don never reveals anything. His three solo numbers are one-dimensional extensions of his principal lusts: wine (the drinking song), women (the serenade) and violence (as he prepares to beat Masetto).

All the other characters are fully human. Tomes are written, justifiably, discussing the three women. They have produced a rich and ever developing literature on their own. These fascinatingly diverse characters, Anna and Elvira (the aristocrats), and Zerlina (the peasant), are bound together on this fatal day and have one important experience in common: they have all had their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer. One assumes that the lives of all of the 2065 women inscribed in Leporello’s catalog (whose list includes Donna Elvira) have been similarly impacted. Each woman’s character develops in the course of events, and each is allotted arias in both acts to chart that growth. At the end of the opera, the servant-class men, Leporello and Masetto, in their very practical way, will continue on seamlessly with their lives. Don Ottavio, the aristocrat, will as well, although Don Giovanni has struck closer to home for him, and one wonders if his marriage to Donna Anna will actually materialize. But the women’s lives are irrevocably changed; whether for better or for worse is a question that is left up in the air.

Together they all try, and fail, to retaliate against the Don. Retribution is the province of the divine. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, and so it is for our “hero.” Greeks of antiquity were punished by the gods, not because they were necessarily bad, but because their actions represented defiance to those gods. The sin of Adam has been variously interpreted, but is essentially that of disobedience. On the day portrayed in the opera, the Don, who has seemingly been allowed to ride herd on society through his legion sexual misdeeds, has become a murderer, and there, it seems, a line has been crossed.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni has been, is, and will be seen as all things to all people: seducer, iconoclast, devil, pioneer, agent of atheism, impiety and sacrilege, defender of Rationalism, mentally deranged psychopath. The list could be endless. Through Mozart’s masterpiece, he came a long way from the burlesque libertine of the original and will have eternal life in the minds and imaginations of opera lovers. Who he is, is unknowable, and what he represents a matter of perpetual disagreement. And so it should be. He has always given us the slip, and always will. He himself told us so while escaping from Donna Anna in his opening line of the opera, uttering words as prophetic as they are emblematic:

 “Chi son io tu non saprai!”

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.







LA Opera Launches Britten 100/LA: A Celebration

Britten 100/LA: A Celebration

Britten 100/LA: A Celebration, a year-long festival honoring the 2013 centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), officially launches on Saturday, February 23, 2013 with a conversation with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon. The free event begins at 4:00 pm and will take place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 

A master of orchestral writing, Benjamin Britten wrote some of the most appealing classical music of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known for his music for the voice – operas, choral works, songs and song cycles – and was as committed to writing music for children and amateur performers as he was for leading soloists of the day. More than 65 Britten 100/LA partners to date have come together to examine and celebrate this remarkable talent through a variety of performances, conferences and exhibitions.

James Conlon, whose lifelong admiration of Britten's artistic genius is reflected in his personal three-year performance cycle of the composer’s works in the United States and Europe, spearheads Britten 100/LA for LA Opera. In a presentation expanding upon the format of his standing-room only pre-performance talks, Mr. Conlon will discuss the music and artistic legacy of Britten, as well as introduce a number of exciting festival events happening throughout Southern California well into 2014.

The event will also include performances of Britten vocal works by members of LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program and all attendees are invited to meet Mr. Conlon in person after the presentation.

The February 23 event is open to the public and free of charge. Reservations can be made by calling the LA Opera Box Office at 213.972.8001. Britten 100/LA: A Celebration will take place in Salon A, on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, located at 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90012.

Generous support for Britten 100/LA provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation. 

For more information on Britten 100/LA, visit Britten100LA.org

James Conlon Extends Contract as LA Opera Music Director through 2018

We are pleased to announce that Music Director James Conlon has extended his contract with LA Opera through the end of the 2017/2018 season.

Zev Yaroslavsky, James Conlon and Christopher Koelsch at An Evening with James Conlon 2-20-13

The news was made public by LA Opera’s President and CEO Christopher Koelsch at a special event honoring Mr. Conlon, held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall. During the event, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky presented Mr. Conlon with an official proclamation from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors celebrating his ongoing and continued contribution to LA Opera and the City of Los Angeles.

Mr. Conlon joined LA Opera as Music Director at the beginning of the 2006/07 season. Since then, he has conducted a total of 33 different operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, including 18 company premieres and two U.S. premieres. To date, he has conducted 190 performances of mainstage LA Opera productions, more than any other conductor in the Company’s history. Additionally, his highly anticipated pre-performance talks continue to draw standing-room only crowds.

Mr. Conlon is currently prepping for the March 9 premiere of The Flying Dutchman followed by Cinderella on March 23. Tickets for both productions are on sale now

Noah's Flood: Our Opera Expedition Has Begun!

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

First days of anything always get me a little paranoid. Did I pack an extra pencil? Is my score with me? And for that matter, where on earth did my singing voice go?  This was me right before the first ensemble rehearsal of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Fludde (Noye's Fludde), this year's Community Opera. Heightening my nervousness, this was also the first time I had ever done this program. I knew a bit about it, though: it is a huge annual opera performed by adults, kids, teens and non-singers like me, as well as music professionals from the community.

Hopping from the car, I walked into our rehearsal venue, the spacious auditorium of East LA Performing Arts Academy. Immediately, all my apprehension went away. I started seeing people I knew from last summer’s Opera Camp, both staff and campers. How I have missed hearing director Eli Villanueva’s continued attempt to make the word “groovy” cool again!

Muse Lee in Opera Camp










Muse Lee in LA Opera's 2012 Opera Camp. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

At the beginning, we were given an overview of the program. On April 19 and 20, we will be performing at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with choruses from all over LA, numbering around 200 people altogether. A community orchestra of 100 members, along with LA Opera Orchestra members, will accompany us, all under the baton of a certain Maestro named James Conlon.  If that's not the pinnacle of epic, I don't know what it is — especially since 2013 marks Britten's hundredth birthday!

flood animals

We plunged right into rehearsal. The younger kids, the animals in the ark, went to a separate room to rehearse. As for the teens and adults, we stayed with assistant director Heather Lipson Bell. Bit by bit, we learned our motions in the opening scene; we pieced together our entrance, exit and the choreography in between. In this scene, we are congregation members searching for the Lord’s guidance. Eli encouraged us to go beyond this simplified sketch and develop individual identities. He asked us to think about who we are, why we're having this crisis of faith, and how this dictates even our subtlest movement choices. Each action we perform can be interpreted in many different ways, and the actions we settle on depend on our own character. I can't wait to get to know mine better!

flood adults

After a short break, we began singing the lonely, searching melody of “Lord Jesus, think on me,” our voices floating through the space, the amateur voices supported and buoyed up by the resonant, trained voices. Noye's Fludde is based on the medieval Chester Miracle Plays, meant to be performed by townspeople and local choristers. Britten intended his opera version to be the same way: a community production with singers and non-singers, adults, children and everyone in between. The resulting sound is something so exquisitely pure and organic that I almost forgot I was actually singing. It just felt completely natural. I can only imagine how gorgeous it will be with 200 other singers and orchestra.

Our next task was to put the action together with the singing. This was easier said than done. Whenever I focused on the singing, I forgot my blocking, and whenever I switched my attention to the action, the words and music escaped me. I never realized how difficult onstage coordination can be—it really makes me appreciate performances more! Though it's challenging for some of us, the opening scene is already starting to solidify.

I left rehearsal brimming with happiness and anticipation. Everything around me looked infinitely more awesome. Now, the flood waters have come in and our ship is off and away. Our Community Opera expedition has begun!

James Conlon: Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman"

flying dutchman collage

By James Conlon

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Henry David Thoreau

Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

The protagonist of The Flying Dutchman has led a (very long) life of desperation, but thanks to Richard Wagner, not a quiet one. He will go to his place in the universe (no grave) but, fortunately for us, will have left behind his “song.” His song is not just that of the protagonist of this opera, but that of one who will be omnipresent in the rest of all of Wagner’s music dramas: The Outsider.

This production marks LA Opera’s first tribute to the three composers who share an anniversary in 2013. They are, in order of their births, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten. The Outsider will be as ubiquitous in Wagner’s works as the plight of the tragic father in Verdi’s and the voice of outraged innocence in Britten’s.

Another key characteristic embodied in the Dutchman is that of “The Wanderer.”

I wander silently and am somewhat unhappy,
And my sighs always ask "Where?"
In a ghostly breath it calls back to me,
There, where you are not, there is your happiness.
(Translation by Paul Hindemith)

Franz Schubert’s rendition of this poem by George Philipp Schmidt (von Lübeck), from which Franz Liszt further developed his work for piano and orchestra, is a classic. Wagner draws from the ancient myth of the “Wandering Jew” and initiates a series of exiles who will appear in his subsequent music dramas: Tannhauser, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan (who will actually be renamed “The Wanderer” in Siegfried) and Tristan. Even Lohengrin and Elsa, despite their enormous dissimilarity with the Dutchman and Senta, also tell a tale of a distant “mythical” figure who exists first in the imagination of a young woman and then in reality. Lohengrin and the Dutchman enter the real world, the former from the realm of the grail and the latter from that of the devil. Both women lose their earthly existence, Elsa as a victim and Senta as the first in a series of self-sacrificing women.

Senta represents a third motif that will be repeated constantly in Wagner’s works: the redemptive woman, who teaches the world true love by sacrificing her own life to save a masculine soul imprisoned in emotional and metaphysical torments. Although criticized for its male bias, Wagner’s vision of this figure implicitly suggests that the man, wracked by his own conflicts and longings, can never achieve what the woman possesses by birthright. She incarnates infinite and redemptive love, and is the core of the universe.

I believe that the full power of the union of Senta and the Dutchman can be understood more completely if interpreted as the mythical (re)union of two parts of a common soul, man and woman, like Siegmund and Sieglinde. Viewed in this manner, Wagner steps into the world of myth for the first time, opening up the future to the Ring.

The Dutchman, who made his Faustian pact with the Devil, has been condemned to sail the seas for centuries, to be released from his curse and allowed to die only if he can find a woman who is faithful to him. He has lived on the sea, lonely and increasingly bitter, apart from any other society, unable to have a home, unable to rest, unable to find serenity.

Even in the most settled and stable of us, there is a part that has known that sense of exile and separateness on some level. The Dutchman embodies the 19th- century German concept of “Sehnsucht” (yearning). The painful perception of the distance between an ideal world and the realities of life is a staple in the artistic environment of the German-speaking world of that time. It fueled the poetry and literature of its time, impregnated the music of Schubert and Schumann, and eventually was projected onto a cosmic screen by Wagner.

This yearning exists not just in the Dutchman, but also in Senta, the young woman who has grown up obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman. She lives in isolation within her community precisely because she has been drawn to the fate of this mythical outsider, whose picture hangs on the wall and through whose agency she becomes an outsider herself. Perhaps she recognizes her status as outsider early on, and bonds with the myth in a mystical union that only she can understand.

Even Erik, the young man who believes himself to be betrothed to Senta, is an outsider. As a hunter living in a community of sea-faring men, Erik is subject to the cultural tensions between the men of the sea and those of the land. Like Senta, he suffers the disdain of his community. The Dutchman wanders, Senta and Erik do not, but all three are equally isolated.

Finally, the power of the sea, in both its real and symbolic forms, competes for the status of protagonist. A perfect medium to express the tempestuous, oceanic emotions that characterize so many operas, it serves Wagner here as it will again in Tristan und Isolde as a metaphor for colossal emotional, metaphysical and erotic forces. Verdi will use it as a metaphor of exile for the Doge in Simon Boccanegra, landlocked as head of state while his heart is at sea. Britten also lives in dialogue with the sea, from Peter Grimes through Billy Budd to the end of his life with Death in Venice.

Thoreau’s “quiet desperation,” or Puccini’s writing the “tragedies of little souls” are nowhere to be found in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. He casts the mythical dimensions of his protagonist onto a cosmic panorama. There is despair and desperation, but there is also devotion and that central theme to all of Wagner’s work: redemptive love.

James Conlon: Returning to Bel Canto

By James Conlon

On the occasion of LA Opera’s production of Cinderella (La Cenerentola), and in a departure from my customary style, I am writing more personally; in particular, the story of my love for the music of Gioachino Rossini.

The bel canto operas (a term used to loosely denote the Italian operas of the first half of the 19th century) have an important place in the repertory of LA Opera. Every opera theater must produce works in many different styles, speaking to all tastes. It must offer a balance of known and unknown works in the Italian, German, French, Anglo-Saxon, English-American and Russo-Slavic repertories. It must include 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century works, along with contemporary opera. Beyond serving the public, we—all of us who are devoted to opera—are responsible in the long term for keeping the art form alive and healthy.

In the Italian repertory, the heart of the theater is a tripod consisting of bel canto, (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini), Verdi and verismo (primarily Puccini). Whatever else is performed, any international opera company must be able to perform with appropriate stylistic sensibilities in each of these three categories.

I have been devoting myself to the bel canto repertory for the past several years, and will continue to do so. There are two reasons for this.

First, it is important that these operas be recognized as the great works that they are. The art of singing, conducting and playing bel canto operas must be learned and mastered.  Knowledge of both tradition and modern critical trends is necessary to conduct these works. The preservation of this now “classical” art and its style is highly important. For the orchestra, performing a Rossini opera demands the same elevated level of transparency, clarity and wit as a Haydn symphony. Whatever charms a theatrical production can provide for these marvelously entertaining and amusing works, nothing justifies mechanical or indifferent musical performances, whether emanating from the stage or the orchestra pit. No theatrical virtues can compensate for a rendition deficient in any of the demands of the bel canto style. Beauty of tone, limpidity of phrasing, brilliant fioratura and clarity of text are neither optional nor dispensable.

Second, in the many years of my professional life, I have largely missed out on the personal satisfaction of conducting much of this repertory. The fact is, at the tender age of 11, Rossini became my favorite composer after I saw The Barber of Seville. It was only the second opera I attended, but it, more than any other, was responsible for the rapid metamorphosis in my life, which drew me inextricably into the overwhelming embrace of classical music. To amuse myself in the summers, I twice organized little performances of the Barber with my friends.  Producing them with the limited means and abilities of youngsters, we made up in enthusiasm whatever else we lacked in ability and training (which was just about everything).

In the following years, as a sort of apprenticeship to learn the ropes in an opera theater, I volunteered to work backstage whenever the opportunity presented itself, including several bel canto operas: The Turk in Italy, Cinderella and The Elixir of Love. I came to know them from the inside out. I got my first opportunity to conduct Don Pasquale at the Juilliard Opera Theater when I was 22, and a year later, to my great joy, The Barber of Seville. My dream had come true, I was conducting the very opera that had set me on my path a little more than ten years before. Seven performances with a double cast (Frederica von Stade and Maria Ewing sharing the role of Rosina) in five days, conducting from the harpsichord at the Washington Opera, provided one of the high points in my life thus far. I thought to myself afterwards, “How wonderful, now that I know how to conduct The Barber, I can do so all of my life.” And then, irony of ironies… I never did again. In fact , until now, I had only conducted Rossini operas at 20-year intervals: Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera (1990) with Marilyn Horne, June Anderson and Samuel Ramey, and LA Opera’s Turk in Italy (2011). Aside from the numerous concert performances of overtures, the Stabat Mater and the Petite messe solennelle, there were no more Rossini operas.

Spending so much time on the concert podium and plunging into “big” operatic repertory, the bel canto simply remained on the sidelines.  There were inevitable choices to be made: Boris Godunov or Norma? Pelléas et Mélisande or La Sonnambula? Tristan or I Puritani? The irresistible pull toward Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Mussorgsky and Puccini had the effect of putting it all on hold.

Three seasons ago, when I conducted The Elixir of Love, I enjoyed myself so thoroughly, that I decided to personally oversee all the bel canto productions here at LA Opera. My decision, far from being merely practical, gave me the opportunity to reunite myself with several works that I have loved since childhood but never conducted. In doing so, I have rekindled a source of excitement and satisfaction within myself, a source neglected for far too many years.

To paraphrase Giuseppe Verdi, sometimes to make progress we have return to the beginning. I am, with Cinderella, reliving a part of my youth, and, who knows, maybe I will even conduct The Barber of Seville again.





Noah’s Flood Rehearsal = the pain, the agony, the achievement

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Recently, I heard a comic comparing a music rehearsal to the ER. Both are supposed to help you get better, both make you cry, and both are filled with excruciating pain. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday, we experienced all three of these things.

For this rehearsal, only the animals, raindrops, waves, rainbows, and the raven and dove were called. I’m one of the fourteen waves. Basically, what we do is maneuver long strips of blue fabric, with two people per strip. I had a similar job during Opera Camp, so I thought I was prepared for this. However, I soon realized that there are two crucial differences between The White Bird of Poston and Noah’s Flood waves. Firstly, this wave scene goes on for 7 minutes, and secondly, while the Poston waves represented the Colorado River, these waves are supposed to make up a worldwide flood.

Flood #1

To help us achieve the desired effect, assistant director, Heather Lipson-Bell patiently and energetically taught us a bunch of different wave movements. I don’t want to give it all away before the performance, but I’ll just say that it involved incessant arm-pumping, duck-walking, and squats. Twenty minutes in, my wavemate and I were already hot and red-faced. By the end, we were ready to drown along with God’s condemned. I think my muscles hate me right now. 

After our exhausting wave movement session, we listened to the music for the storm and flood scene. When I heard the glorious, crashing music, it suddenly hit me: I’m actually in a Benjamin Britten opera. I’ll be singing something written by Benjamin Britten. Both that thought and the beauty of the music gave me chills. My eyes watered. There’s nothing like opera to bring on the tears.

Following this, we were released, but I didn’t want to leave yet. I’d been hearing the kids singing their animal parts upstairs, and I really wanted to get a glimpse of their rehearsal. Halfway there, I heard a huge, enthusiastic voice that almost sounded amplified. Turns out it was assistant director, Nathan Rifenburg – who happens to have twice the energy of an average human being.

When I walked into the classroom, he was animatedly demonstrating monkey movements, bouncing around and bending down to pick imaginary bugs out of a kid’s hair. I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but it was just too awesome not to giggle. The best part was that the kids weren’t laughing at all. They took it all so seriously. Whenever Nathan told them to stand up, they immediately sprang up like jack-in-the-boxes. And their ark entrance scene—wow. They were so focused, and even if I couldn’t immediately tell what animal they were, I saw that they believed in it, and so I did too. The rest of rehearsal was delightful: the best parts included an impromptu “Doe-A-Deer” and Nathan’s colorful description of well-supported singing as “throwing your guts on the table.”

Flood #3

The day ended on an exciting note: as we were leaving, we received Noah’s Flood posters. It includes the names of all participating choruses and orchestras. The fact that we’re on the same poster as James Conlon is way too awesome to handle. And I had no idea that Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noye. I started spazzing out. (download the poster here)

As for us ensemble members, though?  Improvement: check. Tears: check. Pain: double check. We know what that means: this production is on its way to becoming something incredible.

Noah's Flood Rehearsal: When the Opera Pixies Take Over

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Tickets become available tomorrow, March 14 at 10am.

With five upcoming tests, an essay to write, and a lost hour of sleep, I really didn't want to go to Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday. I’d spent the weekend studying, sneezing, and wallowing in self-pity. When I finally dragged myself out of the house, though, everything changed. The opera pixies took over: the moment I signed myself in, all the stress disappeared, and I was ready to sing.

NF - Floyd coaching

Assistant Conductor Paul Floyd leads the adults in a music rehearsal.

The day started with a change of scenery. Instead of practicing in the auditorium as usual, we switched places with the children and went into the upstairs classroom. There, we reviewed the opening scene with assistant director Heather. Before I could get totally wrapped up in it, though, a few of us were pulled out for costume fitting. The group of us went into a small room, and we were greeted by costume designer Paula Higgins. After taking our measurements, she gave us costumes to try on. I loved mine immediately—it really looked and felt like water. I was reluctant to take it off, but I knew I’d see it a lot in the coming weeks, so I put it back on the hanger and returned to rehearsal.

Heather Lipson Bell

Assistant Director Heather Lipson-Bell

When we got back, we practiced the choreography with the singing and moved onto the storm scene. We waves didn’t have to learn the movements, so we stood off to the side and observed. It was so cool to just watch the scene develop—it gave us an idea of how it'll look to the audience.

After trooping downstairs and refining the opening a little more, most of the ensemble took a break. Those of us working with props, though, stepped up to rehearse with Heather and director Eli. Eli distributed wave fabric to each pair and determined our positions and cues. Then, we went over our movements and practiced engulfing the doomed. My and my wave-mate’s “victim” is absolutely terrifying when she begins drowning. To me, it looked like something out of a horror movie. Eli’s take on it was much different: he told our drownee that she’s supposed to look like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Whoever talks about opera and Star Wars in the same sentence is automatically my hero.

NF Adults Rehearsing 

Director Eli Villanueva leads the adults in a staging rehearsal.

With Eli’s instructions in mind, we put it all together, running through the whole storm scene with music. Since my wave-mate and I are standing at the front, we could watch the entire scene unfolding behind us. The effect is just astonishing. Enraptured as I was, I wouldn’t have minded staying longer, but time was up. Rehearsal ended with a few final announcements.

I signed myself out and walked through the door. As I left, I started remembering all that homework that lay in wait, and all that studying that had to be done. Somehow, though, it no longer looked so bad. I guess the opera pixies hadn’t abandoned me.

Tickets Available Now For Noah's Flood (Noye's Fludde)

Noah's Flood Key Art

LA Opera artists will collaborate with more than 300 members of the greater Los Angeles community for two performances of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood (Noye's Fludde) this spring at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Conducted by LA Opera Music Director James Conlon and presented as part of the Britten 100/LA celebration, the performances will take place at 7:30pm on Friday, April 19, and at 7:30pm on Saturday, April 20.

Thanks to generous longtime support from the Dan Murphy Foundation, LA Opera is able to produce Noah's Flood and offer it free of charge as a special gift to the community. Advance tickets are required for admission; there will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household. Tickets are available now and can be reserved online at www.laopera.org or by phone at 213.972.8001. But hurry, they won’t last long!

Noah's Flood is presented as part of Britten 100/LA: A Celebration, a series of events taking place to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). One of several Britten operas on Biblical subjects, Noah's Flood (Op. 59, 1958) is a colorful pageant where children play all the animal roles, parading two-by-two into the ark. Regarded as Britten’s most lovable work, the opera is based on one of the famous medieval Chester mystery plays, dating back to the 15th century.

Scored for a combination of both student orchestra musicians and a professional chamber ensemble, the opera features inspired and delightful musical innovations; for example, the raindrops are represented by the sound of a series of mugs of varying sizes slung on string and struck by wooden spoons.

Bass-baritone Yohan Yi will perform the role of Noah and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noah. Mr. Yi and Ms. Miller are former members of LA Opera's Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program. Actor Jamieson K. Price will be heard as the Voice of God. The orchestra will include musicians from the LA Opera Orchestra performing alongside the Hamilton High School Academy of Music Orchestra and the Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. The performers will include teachers from LA Opera’s Opera for Educators program and students from LA Opera' annual Opera Camp, as well as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Choir, the Beverly Vista Middle School Choir, students from the East LA Performing Arts Academy, the Holy Family Filipino Chorale and Children’s Concert Chorus, the Mariachi Conservatory, Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley, the Sacred Heart School Choir and Schola Cantorum, and participants in LA Opera's Zarzuela Project.

The stage director will be Eli Villanueva. The scenic designer is Carolina Angulo and the costume designer is Paula Higgins. The lighting designer is Tantris Hernandez. The sound designer is Jon Gottlieb and the prop designer is Melissa Ficociello.

Noah's Flood is part of the LA Opera Off Grand initiative, dedicated to presenting a wide variety of artistic exploration throughout a broad geographical area.

This production made possible by a generous grant from the Dan Murphy Foundation.

Special production support also received from the Britten-Pears Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Saunders.

James Conlon Conducts 200th Performance at LA Opera

Cinderella cast, Italian Ambassadors, JC

LA Opera's April 3 performance of Gioachino Rossini's Cinderella (La Cenerentola) marked the debut of a new singer in the title role—Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze—as well as a special milestone for Music Director James Conlon: his 200th mainstage performance at LA Opera.

The performance was attended by Claudio Bisogniero, the Ambassador of Italy to the United States, and Giuseppe Perrone, Consul General of Italy in Los Angeles, who came backstage afterward to congratulate Mr. Conlon and to meet the members of the cast (which includes three Italian singers: baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, baritone Vito Priante as Dandini and bass Nicola Ulivieri as Alidoro). Ambassador Bisogniero is currently visiting Southern California as part of an official mission in celebration of the 2013 "Year of Italian Culture in the United States." This initiative is a showcase of Italian culture and identity and what they mean to the American public.

In addition to 200 fully-staged productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mr. Conlon has also conducted six concerts for LA Opera, as well as six community opera productions at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and five Opera Camp performances of Hans Krása's children's opera Brundibar. Mr. Conlon became Music Director of LA Opera in 2006, and recently renewed his contract through 2018. 

Noah's Flood: Taking The Leap

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood. Performances were this past weekend, April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  This is her final post in the series.

Tuesday and Wednesday

I’ve been saying the word “almost” a lot: we’re “almost” there, it’s “almost” coming together, etc. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we finally abandoned “almost” and took that leap.

On Tuesday, we rehearsed the performance with the community choirs and orchestras for the first time at the Cathedral. Both elements added incredible majesty, grandeur, and energy. Still, the performance remained at the “almost” stage.

However, on Wednesday we added four main things: costumes, lights, the LA Opera Orchestra members, and most exciting of all, Maestro James Conlon.  And one that day, two things happened that completely changed the game.

Noah's Flood

The first of these things came in the form of a surprise visitor: a bespectacled man with a close-trimmed beard. Blinking, I whispered to Noah (Yohan Yi), “Is that Christopher Koelsch?!” It really was.  That’s when I really sank in that we were part of something so significant that it called for a visit by LA Opera’s President and CEO. My determination hardened. I would do all I could to help make it a great performance.

For me, that set the tone for the whole day. When the time came for rehearsal to start, we went to the halls flanking the sanctuary to review notes and warm up. As we did, we heard a murmur and applause from inside. Maestro Conlon had arrived.

Noah's Flood

I knew that the second I ran out into the sanctuary for my opening position, I would see him up there on the podium. My nervousness escalated, and the beatings of my heart hurtled to a peak. The thundering opening chords sounded. My running partner and I exchanged a glance; it was our cue.

At that moment, the second amazing thing happened. The moment I took off sprinting, my nervousness immediately converted itself to fear and anger. I ran down the aisle, bursting with desperation, searching everywhere for answers. When I skidded to a halt, it wasn’t me anymore, but at last, my character. For the first time, I carried my voice to the breaking point, singing on the edge of danger.

Noah's Flood

Throughout the program, director Eli Villanueva, assistant conductor Paul Floyd, and assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell have been urging us to realize our intention. Up until that point, it had been make believe. Now, one by one, we were all finding our own meaning in the words and actions.

We bumped through the rest of the opera, costume changes and Maestro Conlon and all. By the end of rehearsal, the only element left to add was an audience, which would come in during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal.

On the first day of tech week, Monday, I don’t think any of us could honestly say we were prepared to perform. By the time we hit Wednesday, we crossed the boundary between “almost” and “finally.” Thursday, Friday, Saturday, here we come. We couldn’t feel any more ready.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

At this point, I began reflecting on all parts of my Noah’s Flood experience—the beautiful music, the friendships made with the ensemble members and principals, the number of times we imitated Jamieson Price (Voice of God)—and I keenly felt the fact that it would all be over soon. I knew that it wouldn’t end without a bang: the last three days would be a stunning finale. 

Noah's Flood

The first of these three days, Thursday, was our final dress rehearsal. For the first time, we had a handful of people in the audience. It went smoothly, and the audience loved the performance.

We still hadn’t endured the greatest test, though. On Friday, all of our emotions were at a peak. The stress from tech week had now accumulated, and it now aggravated by opening night nerves. It didn’t help that we were told that two thousand people were coming.


Downstairs, assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell led us through our warm-ups and review. Halfway through, Eli came in. He stood up on the platform and began to speak to us. “On Monday,” he admitted, “I was concerned.” He went on to tell us how we had then invested all that we had into the performance, and how it had now evolved into something truly beautiful. He concluded by saying, “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens, and just do what you know to do.”

Noah's Flood

With his words in mind, we went upstairs to the sanctuary and got into our places. When we saw all the pews swelling with people, our hearts fluttered again. “This is what two thousand people looks like…” someone whispered. Eli’s words, though, repeated in our minds: “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens. Just do what you know to do.”

And that’s exactly what we did.

Hearing the applause of thousands of people is a frightening, cathartic, overwhelming moment. We glanced around at each other, smiling uncontrollably. We had done it, and we felt fully confident to do it again on Saturday.

Saturday’s routine was the same as Friday’s: we brought our quick-change costumes upstairs, and then went back downstairs to warm up, review, and receive our final pep talk. Eli expressed how proud he was of us, and thanked us for giving our all. For the final time, we went to our opening positions.

LA Opera

Knowing that it would be my last time singing each number, I poured more than I ever had before into the performance. I tapped into my desperation during “Lord Jesus, think on me,” and let loose my fury in the storm scene. At last, we reached the finale. As we sang the soaring, wondrous melody of “What though in solemn silence all,” with the choirs and orchestra triumphantly accompanying us, I gazed out into the audience, and my throat constricted. When I sang the last “Amen” and slowly retreated offstage with the rest of the cast, there was no stopping it anymore. I sank down in the choir pews and wept into my sleeve.

Noah's Flood

The lights went back on, and audience swept us up in warm, rushing applause. We bowed and waved, still in disbelief. Then, when the audience began to disperse, I met up with my wave-mate. We went downstairs to hang up our costumes for the last time.

Muse and Ellie
Muse and her "wave-mate" Ellie after the performance

There were still tears in my eyes as we went down the stairs and said goodbye to all the staff and ensemble members. That night, before and after, there were many incredible moments, but I think it’s best to end by relating a single incident.

Over the course of the program, I had become friends with a young man with an intellectual disability. He was always cheerful and bubbly, and whenever he saw anyone, he would break into a huge smile. That night, as I spoke with my wave-mate through tears, he walked in and noticed me. For a moment, he watched uncertainly. Then, he stepped forward and tightly wrapped his arms around me for a long embrace. When he finally pulled away, I looked up. To my surprise, there were now tears gathered in his eyes as well. Struggling not to cry, he hugged me and my wave-mate one more time, and shakily said goodbye. “Next year,” I managed to reply. He nodded, bravely smiled, and then slowly walked away.

I’ve covered this Community Opera program over nine blog posts. However, I think describing this one moment makes all of them unnecessary.

Noah's Flood

LA Opera On Air Begins Saturday, May 18

For the eighth consecutive year Classical KUSC brings you LA Opera On Air, Saturdays at 10am.  Each week you’ll hear a complete performance from LA Opera’s 2012/13 Season, recorded live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  The series is hosted by KUSC’s Duff Murphy and continues to be made possible by a generous grant from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, spearheaded by the efforts of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

May 18
Giuseppe Verdi: The Two Foscari

The Two Foscari

Plácido Domingo and James Conlon join forces in a new production of this Verdi masterpiece. The languid canals and boisterous festivals of 15th-century Venice conceal a deadly web of secret plots and vindictive rivalries. Caught up in forces beyond their control, a father and son struggle to reclaim honor in a city that knows no mercy.

Plácido Domingo stars as a head of state, desperate to protect his son -- and himself -- from the ruthless enemies that surround them.

May 25
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni

The legendary seducer Don Juan returns in a production new to LA! Considered by many to be the greatest opera ever written, Don Giovanni deftly balances comedy and tragedy with unforgettable music.

Features a vividly theatrical staging by the legendary director Peter Stein, the smolderingly intense Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Don Giovanni, and LA Opera's rich tradition of Mozart's classics.

June 1
Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly

A love that knows no boundaries goes horribly wrong in a fateful meeting of East and West. What begins as an idyllic liaison in an enchanting land of cherry blossoms turns into the heartbreaking tragedy of an abandoned bride forced to make an excruciating decision.

A stunning production, never before seen in Los Angeles, melds sumptuous costumes with evocative period scenery. From the acclaimed director of Il Postino, Ron Daniels.

June 8
Richard Wagner: Flying Dutchman

The legend of the ghostly ship condemned to wander the oceans forever has fascinated opera lovers - and more recently, movie lovers - for hundreds of years. An enthralling score, illuminated by striking stage imagery, powers a thrilling journey into an unsettling, mythic world where a tormented spirit seeks true love as his redemption.

James Conlon, one of the foremost Wagner interpreters of our time, leads a world-class cast in a mesmerizing production, new to Los Angeles, staged by the brilliant Nikolaus Lehnhoff.

June 15
Giochino Rossini: La Cenerentola (Cinderella)

In her impoverished stepfather's castle, a kindhearted girl dreams of escaping the tyranny of her vain stepsisters. When the prince announces that he will choose his bride at a glamorous ball, she seizes the opportunity to take control of her own destiny.

Rossini's warmhearted retelling of the Cinderella story is a delightfully romantic comedy, brought to life by the dazzling vocal fireworks of an exciting young cast and a production new to Los Angeles! Conducted by James Conlon.

June 22
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca

A fiery prima donna is forced to play a role she never imagined when she becomes trapped between her allegiance to her rebel lover and the scheming of a treacherous police chief who will stop at nothing in his lust for her. The explosive triangle comes to a hair-raising conclusion in one of opera's bloodiest, most intense dramas.

One of the most popular of all operas, Tosca is a passionate tale set to some of Puccini's most openly beautiful and passionate music.

For more information visit www.KSUC.org

James Conlon Cancels August Performances Due to Surgical Procedure

James Conlon

James Conlon, LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director, will undergo a surgical procedure in New York tomorrow (Thursday, August 8) for treatment as the result of diverticulitis.

Per his doctor's instructions, Mr. Conlon will need to rest for three to four weeks afterward. Therefore, he's had to cancel August performances with the Ravinia Festival and with the SummerFest Chamber Orchestra in La Jolla. He is, however, expected to make a full recovery and resume his regular activities by the time he is scheduled to return to the Metropolitan Opera for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening on October 11, followed by his return to Los Angeles for Falstaff rehearsals and several autumn performances he is conducting throughout Southern California as part of the Britten 100/LA festival. 

Please join all of us at LA Opera in wishing Maestro Conlon a full and speedy recovery.  

James Conlon: "Falstaff," A Cosmic Scherzo

Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera Falstaff is a paradox. Together with Otello, it represents the zenith of Italian opera. It a highly innovative culminating achievement of more than a half-century’s artistic output. It is a Janus Head, showing a way towards the future, while integrating and partially repudiating the tradition and style Verdi himself had forged. The disappearance of arias, cabalettas, set numbers, vocal display and high notes has often perplexed traditional opera lovers. But it has also won over countless devotees and connoisseurs of so-called “absolute music,” affording them some access to the Italian opera. Many musicians and musicologists who are restrained—if not downright dismissive—in their appreciation of Italian opera cite Otello and Falstaff, along with the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas and Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal as absolute musical masterpieces. Falstaff completes the cycle, begun in Florence with Claudio Monteverdi, of lyrical works blending text, voice and orchestra, dramatic narrative and reflective prose and poetry, libretto and music. Whether or not in tandem with, or under the influence of, German music (Wagner and Beethoven in particular), the polyphonic intricacy and glorification of the orchestral texture of Falstaff has no precedent or equivalent in the Italian tradition.

Verdi’s 80 years afforded him the privilege of writing for his own pleasure without taking theaters, impresarios and singers into consideration. With detachment, he created a multi-layered work to suit his fancy. First and foremost, with the brilliant collaboration of librettist Arrigo Boito, he transformed a Shakespearean character drawn from two plays into a successful comedy, an accomplishment that had eluded him up until that time.

It is a work of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions. A raucous comedy with profound undertones, it reflects both the philosophical wisdom and resignation of old age. And yet it is infused with astonishing youthful vigor. It demonstrates a total mastery of wedding text and music. Dramatic wit, melodic and contrapuntal invention (the final fugue a culminating accomplishment) cohabit a musical text replete with self-deprecating humor and irony. The use of musical gestures from the long shadow of his past triumphs at times suggests ironic devaluation of the musical and theatrical language that he had built over his lifetime.

And yet it is equally the logical conclusion of the development of the musical language of the entire corpus of his more than two dozen operas. From Nabucco on, one sees a progressive and inevitable metamorphosis from the strict bel canto traditional forms to through-composed music, from set numbers to seamless dramatic constructions. Step by step, Verdi developed the orchestra from its previous subsidiary role to that of equal partner and in the end to that of the center spoke of the wheel. One sees the same wealth of deep humanity that informs all of Verdi’s works, now with a maturity and depth unimaginable at the beginning of his compositional career.

No other operatic work employs numerous subtle self-citations (Verdi connoisseurs will recognize many of them) which fills the work with ironic and self-satirizing humor. With a distanced eye and ear, he winks at the entire melodramatic tradition to which he had devoted his life. It is a perfect combination of the skepticism (even cynicism) of an octogenarian genius and an extraordinary life-affirming joie de vivre.

His three Shakespearean operas have special reverberance in the Anglo-Saxon world, which at times has been a two-edged sword. In the first century after their composition, these works were constantly compared to their literary originals disappointing some while convincing others. The majority view emerged that, in writing Macbeth, Verdi had made a giant leap in the development of his own style but fell short of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. With Otello, he produced the perfect operatic equivalent of the original tragedy, drawing the Italian operatic tradition to its climax. And with Falstaff he surpassed the original Merry Wives of Windsor, already considered to be one of Shakespeare’s weaker works (if written by him at all). Although this viewpoint is somewhat oversimplified, it bears up under serious scrutiny. One of Verdi and Boito’s great accomplishments was to blend in the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor with the Falstaff of Henry IV, Part 2. Both men had so digested the essence of Shakespearean theater, through their life-long study of his works, that their rotund knight achieves a depth and breadth latent in Shakespeare, but only achieved in this musical reincarnation.

Falstaff has been with me for my entire lifetime of music making. I was in my early teens when I first saw it at the old Metropolitan Opera in the now legendary Zeffirelli/Bernstein production. Fewer than ten years later, I conducted it in my first professional engagement, literally a month after my graduation from conservatory. In the Verdian pantheon, Falstaff is to the conductor what Aida, Otello and Rigoletto are to those who sing their title roles. The musical structure, the demands of a perfect ensemble of singers, and the orchestra have become the “protagonist” and hence fully in the domain of the musical direction. The challenge and the joy of steering this ship, while the music goes by at the speed of light, is amongst the greatest that I have experienced.

Fifty years separate this production of Falstaff—my sixth—from my first acquaintance with this work, and the same span of time separated Verdi’s creations of Nabucco and Falstaff. There may be Verdi operas that I love as much, but none that I love more. The entire musical world celebrates Giuseppe Verdi this year, the bicentenary of his birth. I dedicate these performances to him, with the gratitude that we all owe him, for what he has bequeathed to us and to the entire world.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.





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.

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

Tea and Contemplation

It’s 6:30am on our company day off, tea is brewed and here I sit, cup in hand, reviewing my week. Many words come to mind: chaos, naps, communication, education, friends, comedy, concentration and, most of all, collaboration. In a world which can be so divisive, I think about actions which join people together for a richer community. I suppose early morning ponderings are like this—contemplative.

And what a week it was! Let’s explore that word collaboration. Thoreau may have said “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” but let me tell you—great productions are only achieved with enthusiasm, sweat, energy and collaborationGhosts is a beast of an opera. It’s huge with over 30 principals, plus chorus and dancers. But it has met its match in Darko Tresnjak, our inventive, outrageously prepared director. He’s supported by Peggy Hickey (choreographer) who moves and shakes us into beautiful shapes and precise story lines, and by Erik Friedman (assistant director) who worked his socks off as our Figaro stand-in over the weekend. Then there’s Lyla Forlani and her estimable stage management team—you try keeping notes on where over 40 people are at every moment in a scene while trying to maintain a quiet, safe, organised rehearsal room. Chaos doesn’t begin to cut it! Yet, somehow, it all pulls together. It’s a mystery.

Meanwhile, over at the piano we have at least two pianists playing each rehearsal because of the layered musical structure. Then there’s Christopher Allen (assistant conductor) and Miah Im (prompter) who need several more arms not only to conduct the beat but to cue everyone to come in—and when there are possibly five different conversations overlapping, it’s a multitasker’s nirvana. 

And when not in rehearsal, pianist Jeremy Frank and Peggy Hickey were part of LA Opera’s Professional Development for Teachers, along with several other superlative educators, spending a day guiding and lecturing our school teachers not only to enhance their perspectives but to relay this information to their students so they are prepared for the images and sounds they will encounter when they come to our open rehearsals. That’s community creation.

Also on the agenda was James Conlon’s Opera Guild lecture discussing Ghosts, its music and story. Pianist Nino Sanikidze and I joined him to perform, too. I ran upstairs for this on my lunch break after a morning rehearsing the Act 1 finale. I had just enough time to throw on some lipstick and a smile.

Thoreau was right: it does take enthusiasm. Enthusiasm in laughter and lecture, connection and collaboration, and thus we are enriched. I’ve always maintained that we can change the world one note, one word at a time, and I still believe it.