Photo by Anne Fishbein

IT HAPPENED AGAIN. TWO WEEKENDS AGO, while the Los Angeles Opera was showing off the buying power of million-dollar budgets in its oversize Music Center playground, a few miles to the south there was the Long Beach Opera, the little company that could, demonstrating with equal impact — in a college auditorium a third the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — the superior power of brains over brawn. That's the dichotomy — David vs. Goliath, Mutt vs. Jeff, whatever — that enlivens the operatic scene hereabouts.

This year's Long Beach opera was Jenufa, Leos Janácek's 1903 weeper firmly rooted in the category of masterpieces too seldom broached; in anyone's memory this may, indeed, have been the opera's first professional staging in Southern California. The performance was recognizably Long Beach. The young, attractive lead singers, and the veterans in the character roles as well, behaved as if they were actually singing and listening to one another. (Compare this to the leads in the L.A. Opera's Turandot, mostly engaged in serenading the second balcony.) Isabel Milenski (daughter of Michael, the company's founder and general director) made intelligent use of the single, spacious set to create a forced perspective in tune with the sense of the plot. The sounds from the pit may have overpowered the singers from time to time, but the orchestral accents seemed very much in tune with Janácek's own hard-edged, folklike, subtle language. On the way out I stopped, as I usually do, to arrange a return visit.

Call it experimental, call it conceptual, deconstructive or simply off-the-wall, the Long Beach Opera has in its 24 years learned to walk tightropes and hover on brinks of chasms unique among American companies. The very unpredictability of its offerings has earned it label acceptance. Walk out of an L.A. Opera performance and you're bound to hear somebody grumbling about not renewing next year. Walk out of a Long Beach performance, in the company's current home at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach, and the first thing you sense is a kind of wonderment mixed with delight.

Wonderment: It comes in all shapes and sizes at Long Beach. At the recent Jenufa, part of the novelty was that the production was actually set in the time and place — rural Bohemia circa 1890 — specified in the score. Compare that with last year's Elektra, with Richard Strauss' loudmouthed dysfunctionals transported from ancient Crete to a beach house in, maybe, Malibu. Or with the 1999 Bluebeard's Castle, set not in the L.A. Opera's recent murky grotto but in a well-lit but seedy urban tenement. Or with the 1986 Tales of Hoffmann, relocated in a druggie den in Manhattan's East Village.

To these adventurous heights the Long Beach Opera has ascended in slow and easy stages. Michael Milenski produced his first opera, Madama Butterfly, at 13, back home in Cortez, Colorado, and “knew from then on that that was what I wanted to do. Even my high school yearbook predicted I would end up directing the fleas in a circus.” He almost fulfilled that prophecy, in fact, landing a job after college as part of the apprenticeship network backstage at the San Francisco Opera, “driving a truck, typing and helping to put opera performances onto a stage.” From San Francisco, Milenski moved southward, where he collaborated with the San Jose Symphony on several operatic stagings.

Long Beach beckoned; a few civic leaders had, by the mid-1970s, sensed the value in some homegrown culture. After a few seasons of square opera for the folks of squaresville, however, it was time to face more distant horizons. In San Jose, Milenski had worked with a pair of iconoclastic stage directors who also happened to be twin brothers: Christopher and David Alden. In 1981, Christopher Alden came aboard as Long Beach's director of production. The association bore its first fruit two years later; Alden's production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, done in the small Center Theater in downtown Long Beach with almost no scenery but copious imagination, counts as the rebirth of the company. Both Aldens have used Long Beach to try out their brand of operatic hip, usually to excellent advantage. David returns next year to direct Handel's Ariadne in Crete. You've never heard of it? Neither have I.

IN THE RUSTIC STUDIO BEHIND THE RAMbling Long Beach home that serves as office, Milenski, 60 — lightly bearded in the Don Johnson manner, his words a rich baritone that might serve as Oracle in some baroque fantasy — reminisces about financial crises, lousy reviews, diva walkouts: the usual hair shirt worn by opera impresarios the world over. He speaks confidently of another 25 years and then another. He describes the Long Beach Opera phenomenon as a kind of chain reaction.

“Choosing a repertory is actually fairly easy. We look at each other, think it's weird, and then think it's right. Roy Rallo, who began with us carrying coffee, directed the Bluebeard three years ago, and then he came to me with the idea of doing Elektra, which somehow seemed feasible. I'd never have done Jenufa if we hadn't made good with Elektra; they're both from about the same period, after all. It's right for us to do Janácek operas; I felt ripped off when the L.A. Opera did The Makropoulos Case, because we could have done it so much better. The difference is between an opera that becomes one of nine in a big company's season, and one of one when we can really focus on it. I wish we were doing The Flying Dutchman instead of L.A., because that's the kind of story we can tell really well. The big companies are better off with Lohengrin or the Ring.”

Lisa Willson was the Jenufa, in a performance especially remarkable for her naturalness as a country girl in love but in trouble. Daniel Cafiero was the Steva, who had gotten her into the trouble; Roy Cornelius Smith was the loving Laca, who marries her anyway. All of them were new to Long Beach. Where did they come from?

“When you've been around as long as Long Beach Opera,” Milenski responds, “you've got spies. Rich Cordova, who conducted here in 1985, knew that I was looking for the right Jenufa for our stage, young and beautiful and able to act as well as sing. She and Rich were working in an Ariadne auf Naxos in Sarasota, so I flew down to Florida and there she was. We're in good standing with the Herbert Barrett office in New York, one of the top concert managers; there's always someone there who digs the kind of stuff we do, and so he found us the ideal Steva. Then somebody at Barrett remembered a young tenor in Chicago, so we got him on a plane at 7 p.m., and at 9:45 we got him into a rehearsal studio in New York — had to kick out a yoga class to make room — and I had my Laca.

“We also got our conductor, Andreas Mitisek, through the spy system. Peter Kazaras, who was in our Eugene Onegin years ago, met a young conductor in Vienna who had started an opera theater that was a lot like ours, and Peter got us together. Andreas and I found we shared a lot of the same thought process. Besides, he was willing to take on our Indian Queen — Purcell in a high-camp mariachi festival, as over-the-top as anything we've ever done. Jenufa was his fifth production for us, so we now think of him as part of the mix. We don't agree on everything, of course; he likes Stravinsky, which I can't abide. But we get along.”

One other thing Milenski talks of as not abiding is the current passion for supertitles to guide readers through the plots — even when the opera is in English. “There's a constant struggle — word versus music. We do almost all our operas in English, and the ability to sing clear English is one of our criteria in casting. Why should you glue your attention on every single word ticker-taping across above the stage, when your real response should be what the music is doing with and to those words? That, after all, is what opera is about . . . or should be.”

LA Weekly