Photo by Michael Douet

It was billed as a “gala”; the ticket prices bespoke “gala,” and so, I’m 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 Capobianco’s 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, he’s 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 area’s emergence as an operatic beehive. Costa Mesa’s Opera Pacific, the same age as the L.A. Opera, started off as a farm club for David Di Chiera’s companies in Dayton and Detroit, went off-key for a time, and is now admirably resurrected on its own. Michael Milenski’s 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 Dallapiccolla’s Volo di Notte.) San Diego seems in good shape; I don’t get down there often enough, but the sound of Renée Fleming’s 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 can’t write off their ambition; they promise a Marriage of Figaro next season. Ambition, in fact, blossoms all over town. I’ll be sorry to miss La Gioconda at the deliciously unreal Casa Italiana this weekend, but Ojai beckons. USC’s opera workshop has become a local necessity; UCLA’s Susannah this season, for a school with a drastically understaffed voice program, gave the opera better than it deserved.

You can’t 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. Opera’s 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 company’s 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 Rattle’s Wozzeck, Zubin Mehta’s (yes, Mehta’s) Tristan, Charles Dutoit’s Les Troyens, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pelléas, Julius Rudel’s 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 week’s 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 company’s 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 company’s Rigoletto and La Rondine. Baitzel is the company’s new artistic administrator, a post newly created as, perhaps, an admission of the limits of Plácido Domingo’s horizons; in Europe he’d 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. He’s 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 d’oeuvres was a recitation of Marta Domingo’s considerable achievements as an opera director, spiced with frequent references to Plácido’s 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 I’m dieting.

I’ll 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 Bernheimer’s 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 Martin’s too, if you insist) seriously enough to concoct that kind of numbers game. Without my ever once singing a note on his (or anyone else’s) opera stage or standing on a podium, Peter Hemmings regarded me as important. May his tribe increase.

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