How a Bunch of Scrappy Theater Dudes Built the Barack Obama of Opera Companies

Not your typical production of The Barber of Seville
Not your typical production of The Barber of Seville
Martha Benedict

Making opera cool, affordable, accessible and enticing to young audiences is easier said than done. It’s also something every opera company in the country is trying desperately to do. In fact, they have to do it in order to survive the 21st century.

Like politicians pandering for youth votes, some are more successful than others. When Hillary Clinton read Jay-Z lyrics, even her biggest fans cringed a little. Obama, on the other hand, can wear mom jeans and still reign as the king of cool.

Pacific Opera Project is like Obama. It’s not trying desperately to be hip. It just is. Go to one of the 6-year-old company’s productions, such as the quirky Barber of Seville POP is staging at the Ebell Club in Highland Park, and you’ll feel it instantly.

In the beginning, Josh Shaw, POP’s co-founder and artistic director, just wanted to “do opera well for cheap.” The constraints of a ridiculously small budget forced this little opera-company-that-could to think outside the box. Along the way, it came up with a winning formula and developed a loyal fanbase.

“When your options are limited, creativity comes out so much easier,” Shaw recently told L.A. Weekly.

There was the time he was shopping at Goodwill for a red suit for a costume, and the only one available at the right price point was a zoot suit. “So then Don Giovanni turned into this Dick Tracy, gangster type of thing, which worked wonderfully but was not the original idea,” Shaw explains. “It was just what worked for the budget.”

During their second year as a company, Shaw and a couple of guys who were in the gangster Giovanni production were hanging out at Auntie Em’s Kitchen in Eagle Rock, talking about what they were going to do after the show. They weren’t particularly excited by their options: “Go back to the restaurant.” “Pick up some more voice students.” Back to the grind of making ends meet and away from the thrill of bringing the music they love to audiences.

Somebody in the group joked that, with their beards and empty bank accounts, they weren’t that different from Puccini’s 19th-century Bohemian artists, broke and struggling to make ends meet.

“So I said, why don’t we just do La Bohème,” Shaw recalls. “We cast people we knew we could rely on, did four days of rehearsal and one weekend of performances. That way, if somebody needed to take some days off from the restaurant, it was no big deal. I came up with the idea of POP Up Productions — a play on our name — and the show sold out immediately. It was set right here in Highland Park. The people onstage were the same as the people in the audience.”

POP has been building on its hipster Puccini brand ever since. Its productions have gotten larger — this summer POP sold out the Ford Theater in Hollywood with a Star Trek–themed Mozart opera, and its recent production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress received a rave review from the L.A. Times — but it still produces smaller shows in Highland Park, and still sells out the room, night after night.

Sitting in the large, empty hall at the Highland Park Ebell Club, Shaw is both nostalgic for his company’s scrappy early days and excited by its next challenges.

The Highland Park Ebell Club was built in 1912. A historic building that sits just east of North Figueroa on Avenue 57, the space was home to an active social club — think the women’s version of an Elks Club — where suffragettes organized during their push to win the right to vote.

Today's Ebell Club members are still active, but their numbers have dwindled and they are advancing in years. They rent out the building’s wood-floored hall for quinceañeras and weddings. Shaw actually threw his own wedding in the space. Turns out, it’s also the perfect spot for his company’s opera productions.

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The historic space is just part of POP’s charm (only some of the nomadic company’s productions take place at the Ebell). The rest of its appeal comes from a mix of ingredients: a passion for the art form that translates into consistently high musical and dramatic quality, the ability to create an energetic and engaging social atmosphere, an endearing sense of self-deprecation and self-awareness; and a lot of booze.

“Nobody drinks like our crowd,” Shaw laughs. “People just want to sit at a table with their friends and have wine and food, you know?”

For shows at the Ebell Club, a table for four with wine and a generous spread of cheeses and meats costs $120. That’s $40 per person for dinner, drinks and a full-length opera. It’s an unbeatable price for an art form that is notoriously expensive to produce and attend.

Shaw keeps costs down by doing a lot of the work himself. He builds the sets in his backyard, he shops for costumes at Goodwill, and he buys the wine and does all the catering (“I have plenty of experience doing that,” he jokes).

Before Shaw started POP, he was a busy working tenor who supported himself by waiting tables between productions. Before that, he was just a church kid in Louisiana who loved to sing.

Growing up in the South, Shaw’s early music education took place primarily at the Southern Baptist churches where his dad was the music director. He helped his dad build sets for Easter pageants and played in the church handbell choir.

In college, music was the only thing he could see himself doing. He got cast in college opera productions, even though he’d never actually seen an opera before. Then he saw Bryn Terfel in a Chicago Lyric production of Sweeney Todd and found his passion.

“It was amazing,” he remembers. “He’s half the reason I decided to be an opera singer. I thought I was going to be the next Placido Domingo. I’m very far from doing that, but this is much better. I’m much better at this, and it’s way more fun.”

The Barber of Seville was the second production POP produced at the Ebell Club. “It’s kind of along the same vein as our Boheme,” Shaw says. “It’s set in current-day Hollywood and it’s a super simple show. No orchestra, just piano. It’s sung in Italian (with very loose supertitles). The characters are outlandish — there’s a Steven Tyler type of character and a Dr. Dre type, Rosina is a pop star who has just had a meltdown, and Figaro is a Tim Gunn kind of guy. The LAPD make an appearance.”

This Barber is classic POP. It’s a simple production with incredible singing and great acting. When it was offered the first time, it was a huge hit. Now that POP is growing as a company, it's filling the Ebell with even more tables, selling more wine and adding more shows to the calendar so that it can share what it does with even more of its growing fanbase.

“We call it a party where an opera happens to be going on,” Shaw says of the experience.

“We’re competing with so much entertainment in this city — great theater, great movies, great music — you have to give people something more than just a good opera or a good show. It has to be an experience so that people say, ‘Oh, this is unique. I might never get to see something like this again.’”

The Barber of Seville, Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park; Thu.-Sat., Nov. 17-19, 8 p.m.; $20 single seat, $65 table for two, $120 table for four. pacificoperaproject.com.


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