It was billed as a gala; the ticket prices bespoke gala, and so, Im told, did the fancy sit-down dinner upstairs after the music ran out. The farewell entertainment concocted by the Los Angeles Opera last week to wish Godspeed to its founder/honcho Peter Hemmings turned out, to its credit, less of a gala in the sense of the typical all-star international assemblage of entertainment tidbits that run on and on until the wee hours, and more of a modest and serious family celebration, short and snappy, relatively free of verifiable trash. Above all, it added up to a remarkably accurate portrait of the company that Hemmings has created here in his 14 years strengths, weaknesses, warts n all.
One of his major accomplishments goes beyond the company itself, in the creation of a heightened operatic consciousness throughout Southern California. When I came here in 1979 there was, to be sure, the beginning of an awareness. Tito Capobiancos San Diego Opera had launched a project to do all the Verdi operas, but that stopped short when Tito was lured away to darkest Pittsburgh. (Mrs. Capobianco, a.k.a. Gigi Denda, trod upon a few toes in San Diego with her ambitions as designer/director, in a manner not uncommon among spouses of opera impresarios. So what else is new?) The Long Beach Opera in its early days ground out a few re-warmed repertory chestnuts with minor-league casts. The opera season in Los Angeles consisted of a month of the New York City Opera squeezed into the Philharmonic season, a situation detested quite publicly by the Music Center management and which ended precipitously not much later with a short, sharp shock from executive hatchet man Tom Wachtell, the limits of whose operatic wisdom were broadcast with his famous putdown of Plácido Domin.go: Well, after all, hes no Pavarotti.
Even without Pavarotti (whose career in staged opera hereabouts consists of one La Bohème at the Hollywood Bowl in days of yore), the Hemmings years have seen the areas emergence as an operatic beehive. Costa Mesas Opera Pacific, the same age as the L.A. Opera, started off as a farm club for David Di Chieras companies in Dayton and Detroit, went off-key for a time, and is now admirably resurrected on its own. Michael Milenskis Long Beach Opera, dangling at the end of a shoestring for as long as anyone remembers, miraculously pulls itself together year after year with fringe repertory chosen and staged with resource and sheer gall. (Check it out on June 11: Luigi Dallapiccollas Volo di Notte.) San Diego seems in good shape; I dont get down there often enough, but the sound of Renée Flemings Russalka is still in my ears.
The operatic underbrush flourishes; I write these words a few hours after a lively, imaginative Magic Flute, the inaugural offering of Opera Nova, with young voices, a surprisingly capable orchestra, and a make-do but adequate staging in a dowdy school auditorium in Santa Monica. You cant write off their ambition; they promise a Marriage of Figaro next season. Ambition, in fact, blossoms all over town. Ill be sorry to miss La Gioconda at the deliciously unreal Casa Italiana this weekend, but Ojai beckons. USCs opera workshop has become a local necessity; UCLAs Susannah this season, for a school with a drastically understaffed voice program, gave the opera better than it deserved.
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You cant hang all this activity on Hemmings, yet the presence of his company, and the particular scope of its activity, has to be some kind of catalyst. The example of Rodney Gilfry, Richard Bernstein, Suzanna Guzmán and Greg Fedderly, all of them distinguished alumni of Hemmings resident-artist program and now active worldwide, looms large on the horizons of the young singers in that Magic Flute. The Tamino and Sarastro, in fact, already have their toehold, via membership in the L.A. Operas permanent chorus. You gotta start somewhere.
As much as anything, the Hemmings gala honored the high level attained by those graduates, with Guzmán blatantly stealing the show. It also bore sadder testimony to the companys real failing over the years: its inability or unwillingness, if you prefer to build a major operatic production around the musical leadership it deserved. Sure, there were exceptions: Simon Rattles Wozzeck, Zubin Mehtas (yes, Mehtas) Tristan, Charles Dutoits Les Troyens, Esa-Pekka Salonens Pelléas, Julius Rudels Seraglio. For every new conductor of genuine merit turned up during the Hemmings administration Evelino Pidò comes first, and perhaps only, to mind there was the sad string of time-beaters, many of whom figured in last weeks celebration. How do you honor the head of an opera company who entrusted Die Frau ohne Schatten to a Randall Behr? a Tristan revival to a Richard Armstrong? or, for that matter, the companys inaugural Otello to a Lawrence Foster?
Edgar Baitzel summoned me to lunch a few weeks ago, shortly after I had expressed terminal displeasure at the companys Rigoletto and La Rondine. Baitzel is the companys new artistic administrator, a post newly created as, perhaps, an admission of the limits of Plácido Domingos horizons; in Europe hed be known as a Dramaturg. He has held that post with several European companies, and worked for a time with the late, great (if greatly controversial) stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Hes a man of consummate charm, with an impeccable talent for handing out bits of information that any arts consumer surely wants to be true. Among the hors doeuvres was a recitation of Marta Domingos considerable achievements as an opera director, spiced with frequent references to Plácidos long-standing friendship with superconductor Valery Gergiev. Dessert consisted of pie in the sky: a complete Ring in the spring and summer of 2003; Moses und Aron. There might have been more, but Im dieting.
Ill miss the other lunches. Back in the days of open warfare, Hemmings used to subpoena me to lunch once or twice each season to hand me my latest report card. He had graded Martin Bernheimers and my reviews according to an intricate numerical system. Sometimes Martin would win, sometimes I would. I never cared that much about the figures; what stayed with me was the knowledge that a mover in the musical world took my writings (yes, and Martins too, if you insist) seriously enough to concoct that kind of numbers game. Without my ever once singing a note on his (or anyone elses) opera stage or standing on a podium, Peter Hemmings regarded me as important. May his tribe increase.