Photo by Ken Howard

I cannot believe — or, let's say, I don't want to believe — that in the managerial echelons of the Los Angeles Opera there was nobody to look in on the early rehearsals of Fantastic Mr. Fox, recognize the proceedings as a mess beyond redemption, and simply call a halt. Instead, like the legendary unstoppable Juggernaut, the disaster grew to enormous proportions until the bursting of the bomb — for such it is — on the Music Center stage last week. Peter Hemmings had lunched the New York press and dispatched the tidings worldwide that his opera company was finally primed to produce an American world premiere. The company's educational department set up an admirable program to lure both children and their teachers; the press department circulated word that no, it wasn't just a kiddie opera, but a “family opera” for the young-at-heart of all ages. At the pre-performance talk before the dress rehearsal, Christopher Hailey promised the crowd that the music would be like “nothing you've ever heard.” Wrong: The music is like everything you've ever heard, only not as good.

Tobias Picker, the one acknowledged hand among the many whose music goes wriggling through Mr. Fox's empty spaces, is himself a media masterpiece. “I look out at my trees,” he told an interviewer last week, “and I ask them to tell me where my melodies are. I walk through the forest and I hear my melodies.” At 44, he has gained a firm toehold for a tidy output of correct and trustworthy compositions, full of everybody's best melodic gadgetry from times gone by, all aimed at assuring the timid that new music means us no harm. His 1996 opera Emmeline, an Oedipus spinoff set in New England, with all the melodramatic gestures that you hear as drama until five minutes later, has been televised and is making the rounds; like André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire of this year's vintage, it draws sustenance from somebody's notion that a Great American Opera should be some kind of cultural inevitability in this not-all-that-opera-minded nation. Picker is currently at work on not one but three opera commissions, including one for the Met.

The problems start with Donald Sturrock's talky-talk libretto, which inundates Roald Dahl's wise little children's fable — wily fox bests stupid farmers and feasts on their fowl — with uncute jabberwock of no appeal to any age. (In fairness, there is one line, not in Dahl, but worthy of note: Animals, says Mr. Fox, “have a natural gift for forest life that humans had years ago.”) Dahl's woodland critters, their numbers now swelled by the man-hungry spinster Miss Hedgehog and her amorous swain Mr. Porcupine, are obliged to sing for their supper; Dahl's Rat becomes Rita the Rat, a gabbling, Spinoza-quoting yenta. There is also — I'm not making this up! — a tractor that sings and puffs steam and a singing earth-digger right out of Jurassic Park. As designed by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe's magic pen, on a revolving set that bears some resemblance to Breughel's Tower of Babel, they're all fun to look at, but that's as far as it goes.

Tobias Picker's trees have led him astray. He has transformed Sturrock's logorrhea into its musical equivalent, a featureless up-and-down singsong in rhythms that often clash with the sound and the sense of the words. His dense, busy orchestration further obliterates these vocal lines, often rendering them virtually inaudible. Adults with mature neck muscles can pick out the missing words from the supertitle screen high overhead; children shouldn't have to. On opening night I detected no attempt from conductor Peter Ash to create any kind of balance between stage and pit.

There is something overall depressing about this latest in our local company's long list of operatic miscalculations. It goes beyond the fact that Tobias Picker, widely hailed as American opera's great new hope, has turned out this inept baggage — not at all funny beyond its cutesy staging, manifesting not even the minimum competence for combining words and music into a whole greater than its parts — and now basks in the momentary glory that the Hemmings machine has afforded him. A good cast has given the work better than it deserves. Some of its singers — Suzanna Guzmán, Louis Lebherz, Jamie Offenbach, Charles Castronovo — are “resident artists,” starting with the company in small roles and moving up. Gerald Finley, the titular Mr. Fox, has had a deserved sky-high career since his debut here in 1994. Grant Peter Hemmings high marks in the matter of attentiveness to emerging talent.

As the company has developed since its 1986 inaugural, there is reason to suspect a split personality. In its middle age, it has lost much of its early, appealing edginess: the Janácek, the Berg, the Alden brothers' inventive stagings. Last season's Fedora, Florencia en el Amazonas and Countess Maritza were novelties in name but creaky antiques in actuality. Next season's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini's Romeo and Juliet opera) hardly counts as a brave step into the unknown. Nobody was taken in by Mr. Fox; everyone knew all along that management was trying to pass off a kiddie opera as grown-up fare. Even Hansel and Gretel has more substance.

Basically, the L.A. Opera is now the model of a company in a middle-sized city, doling out its standard-repertory fare, venturing afield only on the safest paths. This excess of programming caution might be justified if the company booked more of the generation that now lights up stages in San Francisco, Chicago and the Met: The names Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner, Rene Pape come first to mind. Jennifer Larmore has been here in roles wrong for her; Carol Vaness is a world-class Mozart singer, but her upcoming Violetta doesn't inspire confidence. Okay, Jane Eaglen's Donna Anna does. Greg Fedderly sings La Traviata's Alfredo, but his recent vocal decline results from too many roles too soon — the consequence, I'm willing to bet, of an overdose of bad advice.

Can anyone believe that Plácido Domingo's accession to the top job will provide the turn toward imagination and adventure that the company now lacks? His star appeal cannot be denied. Yet nobody has accused Peter Hemmings — who runs only one opera company, doesn't sing tenor leads or in three-tenor circuses, shows no inclination to conduct, and isn't married to an aspiring stage director — of being underemployed. As the West Coast pole of a bicoastal opera cartel, the company risks losing some of its Los Angeles identity, a crucial part of the support structure. That's what's been keeping me awake nights lately — along with the recent news stories of Zubin Mehta's ardent declaration of rekindled love for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his resolve to heighten his local presence. Welcome to Pleasantville.

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