By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
IT HAPPENED AGAIN. TWO WEEKENDS AGO, while the Los Angeles Opera was showing off the buying power of million-dollar budgets in its oversize Music Center playground, a few miles to the south there was the Long Beach Opera, the little company that could, demonstrating with equal impact -- in a college auditorium a third the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- the superior power of brains over brawn. That's the dichotomy -- David vs. Goliath, Mutt vs. Jeff, whatever -- that enlivens the operatic scene hereabouts.
This year's Long Beach opera was Jenufa, Leos Janácek's 1903 weeper firmly rooted in the category of masterpieces too seldom broached; in anyone's memory this may, indeed, have been the opera's first professional staging in Southern California. The performance was recognizably Long Beach. The young, attractive lead singers, and the veterans in the character roles as well, behaved as if they were actually singing and listening to one another. (Compare this to the leads in the L.A. Opera's Turandot, mostly engaged in serenading the second balcony.) Isabel Milenski (daughter of Michael, the company's founder and general director) made intelligent use of the single, spacious set to create a forced perspective in tune with the sense of the plot. The sounds from the pit may have overpowered the singers from time to time, but the orchestral accents seemed very much in tune with Janácek's own hard-edged, folklike, subtle language. On the way out I stopped, as I usually do, to arrange a return visit.
Call it experimental, call it conceptual, deconstructive or simply off-the-wall, the Long Beach Opera has in its 24 years learned to walk tightropes and hover on brinks of chasms unique among American companies. The very unpredictability of its offerings has earned it label acceptance. Walk out of an L.A. Opera performance and you're bound to hear somebody grumbling about not renewing next year. Walk out of a Long Beach performance, in the company's current home at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach, and the first thing you sense is a kind of wonderment mixed with delight.
Wonderment: It comes in all shapes and sizes at Long Beach. At the recent Jenufa, part of the novelty was that the production was actually set in the time and place -- rural Bohemia circa 1890 -- specified in the score. Compare that with last year's Elektra, with Richard Strauss' loudmouthed dysfunctionals transported from ancient Crete to a beach house in, maybe, Malibu. Or with the 1999 Bluebeard's Castle, set not in the L.A. Opera's recent murky grotto but in a well-lit but seedy urban tenement. Or with the 1986 Tales of Hoffmann, relocated in a druggie den in Manhattan's East Village.
To these adventurous heights the Long Beach Opera has ascended in slow and easy stages. Michael Milenski produced his first opera, Madama Butterfly, at 13, back home in Cortez, Colorado, and "knew from then on that that was what I wanted to do. Even my high school yearbook predicted I would end up directing the fleas in a circus." He almost fulfilled that prophecy, in fact, landing a job after college as part of the apprenticeship network backstage at the San Francisco Opera, "driving a truck, typing and helping to put opera performances onto a stage." From San Francisco, Milenski moved southward, where he collaborated with the San Jose Symphony on several operatic stagings.
Long Beach beckoned; a few civic leaders had, by the mid-1970s, sensed the value in some homegrown culture. After a few seasons of square opera for the folks of squaresville, however, it was time to face more distant horizons. In San Jose, Milenski had worked with a pair of iconoclastic stage directors who also happened to be twin brothers: Christopher and David Alden. In 1981, Christopher Alden came aboard as Long Beach's director of production. The association bore its first fruit two years later; Alden's production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, done in the small Center Theater in downtown Long Beach with almost no scenery but copious imagination, counts as the rebirth of the company. Both Aldens have used Long Beach to try out their brand of operatic hip, usually to excellent advantage. David returns next year to direct Handel's Ariadne in Crete. You've never heard of it? Neither have I.
IN THE RUSTIC STUDIO BEHIND THE RAMbling Long Beach home that serves as office, Milenski, 60 -- lightly bearded in the Don Johnson manner, his words a rich baritone that might serve as Oracle in some baroque fantasy -- reminisces about financial crises, lousy reviews, diva walkouts: the usual hair shirt worn by opera impresarios the world over. He speaks confidently of another 25 years and then another. He describes the Long Beach Opera phenomenon as a kind of chain reaction.
"Choosing a repertory is actually fairly easy. We look at each other, think it's weird, and then think it's right. Roy Rallo, who began with us carrying coffee, directed the Bluebeard three years ago, and then he came to me with the idea of doing Elektra, which somehow seemed feasible. I'd never have done Jenufa if we hadn't made good with Elektra; they're both from about the same period, after all. It's right for us to do Janácek operas; I felt ripped off when the L.A. Opera did The Makropoulos Case, because we could have done it so much better. The difference is between an opera that becomes one of nine in a big company's season, and one of one when we can really focus on it. I wish we were doing The Flying Dutchman instead of L.A., because that's the kind of story we can tell really well. The big companies are better off with Lohengrin or the Ring."