Andreas Mitisek is sitting in the Long Beach Opera's modest church-rental office near the southern terminus of the 710 freeway, days after wrapping the first performances of the current season.
“It all started with the opera in a parking garage,” says Mitisek, the company's Austrian-born artistic and general director, in his thick, Schwarzenegger-esque accent. That's when Long Beach's oldest professional opera company abandoned a traditional performance space for a 2007 production of Grigori Frid's one-woman opera The Diary of Anne Frank.
The phrase “opera in a parking garage” casually rolls off his tongue, as if it were perfectly natural for the art form to be presented in a ghostly concrete structure meant to store cars.
It's the same nonchalance with which he says “opera in a pool,” “opera in an abandoned furniture store” and “spaces of unexplored theatricality.” But opera, of course, is not usually performed in these unconventional locales. It has lived for centuries in temples like La Scala and the Met.
“Theaters are safe, in the sense that you never have to shift your perspective,” he explains. “But if you go to a parking garage, your sensitivity is different. You're in a parking lot and you're uncomfortable — and it's a story that is uncomfortable. So, of course, once you're there it all makes sense, but you have to be willing to go there.”
Always interested in “peculiarities and unusual things that are off the mainstream,” Mitisek has had a hand in presenting nontraditional operas since he was an influential member of Vienna's anti-State Opera “free scene” movement.
Since taking over Long Beach Opera in 2004, Mitisek has expanded both its size and its audacity. Donations and subscriptions have increased exponentially each year, and the company continues to present U.S., West Coast and SoCal premieres of rare works from such composers as John Adams, Vivaldi and Philip Glass — each guided by Mitisek's innovative interpretations.
February's production of the 1968 tango-themed Maria de Buenos Aires, for example, was staged at San Pedro's 80-year-old Warner Grand Theater. Mitisek chose to combine characters, pare down the text and use projections and dramatic lighting in lieu of intricate set design to turn the ornate movie palace into the site of Argentina's “Dirty War.”
Mitisek's vision is radical but welcome in an industry struggling with declining ticket sales and aging audiences, so much so that the also-adventurous Chicago Opera Theater would rather share Mitisek with Long Beach than not have him at all. Starting this fall, he'll head both companies, splitting his time between cities and fostering synergies between the productions.
“I started out not liking opera, which is why I have a lot of compassion for people who say they don't like it,” he says. “But what they have in their head about opera is only the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more to see.”