Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pounding The Pacific Rim

Several years ago, I was introduced to a music critic from the East Coast who sighed and rather haughtily mumbled something about how it was "nice to know that there are some people writing about music in the West." His attitude matched the illustration from The New Yorker which rudely implies that civilized life comes to a screeching halt at the western bank of the Hudson River. What my colleague failed to grasp (and would probably never want to know) is that a great deal of musical activity continues to take place up and down the West Coast. To put it bluntly, we ain't living in Conestoga wagons and shootin' at the Injuns.

There used to be a saying that the difference between Los Angeles and yogurt was that at least yogurt had an active culture. But after years of struggling to create a resident opera company (the ill-fated Los Angeles Opera Theatre lasted little more than five years) the Southland has, in one felicitous season, given birth to two major opera companies. In its first season, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera reported the ninth largest operating budget of Opera America's l04 member companies. Down in Orange County, Opera Pacific opened its doors for business with l6,000 new subscribers!


Whereas the Los Angeles Music Center Opera places a new company into a familiar theatre (the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) Opera Pacific has, in addition to its 16,000 subscribers, acquired a brand new performance space. At first glance, the Orange County Performing Arts Center is a most impressive sight -- especially when lit up at night. The facility boasts spacious lounge areas, more mirrors than any queen could ever hope to pose for, and a handsome, dark red auditorium with good sight lines and a wildly asymmetrical seating pattern.

Although, on first hearing, the theatre's sound seems decent enough, early reports indicate a severe lack of backstage wing space. Nevertheless, for its first season, Opera Pacific presented La Boheme, Porgy and Bess and West Side Story. Next season's lineup includes Aida, My Fair Lady and Die Fledermaus (with JoAnn Worley appearing as Prince Orlofsky).

The big question facing Opera Pacific's leadership is: Once the thrill of visiting a new performing arts facility begins to fade, will those l6,000 subscribers sign up for more opera? Only the statue of John Wayne at Orange County's airport knows for sure. And she ain't talking!

In the meantime, Peter Hemmings' plans for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera are most encouraging. In addition to having Placido Domingo sing in Puccini's La Boheme (and conduct Verdi's Macbeth) LAMCO's l987-88 season will include new productions of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Rossini's La Cenerentola. A new Tristan Und Isolde starring Jeannine Altmeyer will be designed by David Hockney, directed by Jonathan Miller and conducted by Zubin Mehta. Hemmings will also present Jonathan Miller's controversial new production of The Mikado with Dudley Moore as Koko (on loan from the English National Opera) to L.A.'s audience.

1988-89 promises new productions of Cosi Fan Tutte, Wozzeck, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in addition to Marilyn Horne in Rossini's Tancredi, Maria Ewing as Salome and Janacek's Katya Kabanova (starring Karan Armstrong and Leonie Rysanek). Also due that season are Verdi's Otello (with Placido Domingo and Justino Diaz) and Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (in the English National Opera's brilliant production designed by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe). Casts and repertory sound exciting and -- although most of Hemmings' other plans remain under wraps -- Maurice Sendak tells me that he is busy designing a new production of Mozart's Idomeneo for Hemmings, to be unveiled sometime in l990.


Although my travel schedule prevented me from attending the opening season of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, I was able to fly to Orange County several weeks ago for Opera Pacific's West Side Story. This production (created for Michigan Opera Theatre) replaced much of Jerome Robbins' and Oliver Smith's original concepts with scenery by Robert O'Hearn, choreography by Karen Azenberg and Michael Montel's sensitive stage direction. By not trying to duplicate everything in the prompt book from the original Broadway production, Opera Pacific's West Side Story practically burst its seams with fresh new energy.

Perhaps this production's relevance and vitality was more striking than usual because conservative, right-wing Orange County is not necessarily noted for its extremes of tolerance. Perhaps it was because, during the week prior to attending this performance, I had watched Oprah Winfrey tackle an audience of second-generation immigrants who didn't want those people who belong to America's new minorities to immigrate to the United States unless they could speak English. Perhaps it was because Leonard Bernstein's near-symphonic score and Stephen Sondheim's razor-sharp lyrics (which seemed so dissonant and rebellious thirty years ago) struck me as refreshingly lyrical when compared to the recent crop of pop-rock musicals. And perhaps it was because Opera Pacific's young and likeable cast (drawn primarily from Southern California's huge talent bank) did such a splendid job with West Side Story that I felt like I was seeing the show for the first time.

Since its premiere in 1957, West Side Story has always been an ensemble show. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the impact of Opera Pacific's production was far greater than the sum of its individual parts. Special kudos nonetheless go to Diane Fratantoni's fiery Anita, Luis Perez's sultry Bernardo and John Schiappa's tense and explosive Riff. Jeffrey Reynolds' Tony had a wonderfully dreamy quality; Beverly Lambert's Maria was naive, socially clumsy and radiantly beautiful.

For many, the question which still needs to be answered is whether or not West Side Story belongs in an opera house. Several German opera companies saw fit to stage this piece during the 1960s and, judging by Opera Pacific's production, I'd agree that it belongs in the operatic repertory. Even though its score has become so familiar to me that it borders on second nature, a great deal of Bernstein's music was written for operatic voices and sounds much better when sung with operatic instruments.

As most readers can imagine, I have no objections to seeing a bunch of hot young bodies moving around an operatic stage with the agility of greased lightning. Besides, I didn't fly to Orange County to watch Luciano Pavarotti try to climb a schoolyard fence or listen to Monsterrat Caballe warble "A boy like that, who'd kill your brother!" in the bel canto style.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 9, 1987.

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