Times Staff Writer

Talk about a great leap forward. Orange County’s Opera Pacific is trying to change--practically overnight--from modest local impresario to big-time Southern California producer of opera and musicals.

In just the past few months, the Costa Mesa-based organization has:

- Hired its first general director, David DiChiera, the highly regarded general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit and past president of Opera America, the national service organization.

- Unveiled proposals for its first production, in the spring of 1987, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and for future joint ventures with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Assn. and San Diego Opera.


- Started a drive to raise $1.5 million by 1987 to underwrite initial productions, and to attract additional monies for expanding educational and talent-development projects.

“It’s a quantum jump for us, organizationally and artistically,” said Opera Pacific chairman Hugh Saddington. “It’s audacious on our part, and we know it. But we have only two years to get ready.”

What’s the big hurry?

The reason is the Orange County Center’s 3,000-seat theater, now under construction in Costa Mesa and set to open in fall, 1986. Like the other local organizations that seek to perform or stage productions at the Center, Opera Pacific is very busy these days, gearing up and lobbying for a spot in the opening season.


The Center so far is negotiating only with the big-name, touring attractions that it believes can fill the house--such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Opera Co. (The opera company, banished from the Los Angeles Music Center in 1982 after 16 seasons there, has been considering a six-week engagement at the Orange County Center in early 1987.)

From the New York City Opera to Opera Pacific may seem a wide gap, but then, backers of the Orange County organization have never been short on confidence.

True, until 1984, the organization had changed little since its founding in 1962.

With an annual budget that never exceeded $15,000, its ventures were small scale. It presented productions (from Verdi and Puccini to Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan) at local theaters, and helped conduct the Metropolitan Opera’s annual regional auditions. Since 1979, it has sponsored “Fun With Opera,” an introductory project organized by board member Niles Gates, that tours local high schools.

When the organizational leap was first planned last year, the premise was that Opera Pacific would be a Center impresario only. “We had already changed our name (from Lyric Opera Assn. of Orange County) to sound more regional. But we figured our role should be to import the big-name companies,” recalled chairman Saddington.

But the opera’s search for a general director resulted in a dramatic change of heart.

“We had interviews with like 20 (opera) experts--some candidates, others on a consulting basis. We came away with this advice, ‘Don’t import; form your own company,’ ” said Saddington. “They told us people prefer local resident companies--companies that lived and breathed in that community, not some group that is here one week and gone the next.”

When DiChiera, 49, arrived in Orange County after his appointment last January, he sounded the same theme.


“I’m here to help build a community for opera and musical theater from scratch. I’m here to build from the inside, not from the outside,” he said in an interview.

“Oh, I’m not knocking the superstar kind of productions. This community needs both kinds at the Center; one is supportive of the other. We’re talking balance,” DiChiera added.

“To me, the big box-office stars are just the cream on the top. There are other considerations for opera and musical theater here. We need programs that provide training for singers and other artists, that develop new and innovative works, that reach nontraditional audiences.”

He was not ready to be specific about the initial productions, DiChiera said, except to suggest the choices would be similar to the Michigan Opera Theatre repertoire, which has included “Porgy and Bess,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Merry Widow,” “The Magic Flute,” “Tosca” and “Aida.”

Collaborations with other area organizations, such as the Orange County Pacific Symphony, are “more than possible,” he said. Productions at the Orange County Center might include “chamber works” in the 300-seat “black box” facility--also to be built by late 1986--as well as the “full-sized works” for the 3,000-seat house.

As DiChiera and the organization’s board officers tell it, the “new” Opera Pacific is off to a rousing start. The revamped organization, which now claims a membership of 3,000, has boosted its annual budget to $250,000 and in recent months, more than $140,000 has been raised in private donations.

But what remains uncertain is the organization’s role as a producer at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Although Opera Pacific and other local organizations have been told they would have “formal participation” in the new complex, the Center has yet to begin negotiating to book any of them and has ruled out naming any “resident” organization so far.


“We have (verbal) assurances from the Center. Nothing is signed, though. Everything for the (1986-87) season is on hold, until the new person (successor to Len Bedsow, retired executive director) comes aboard,” said Opera Pacific chairman Saddington, who is also a vice president on the Center’s board.

DiChiera has met with Peter Hemmings, executive director of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Assn., and Ian Campbell, general director of the San Diego Opera. He said these talks, while “encouraging,” have only been on the “exploratory level.”

(The Los Angeles association’s debut productions began last month, with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis at the Embassy Theatre, to be followed in September by West Berlin’s Deutsche Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.)

The effort to raise $1.5 million to underwrite the first Opera Pacific productions in 1987 is certain to conflict with the fund drives of other local groups, especially the massive Orange County Arts Center campaign.

(The Center has raised more than $62 million toward a $85.5-million goal to pay for construction and an endowment fund to maintain the complex. Once the complex is opened, Center officials said, an additional $4 million a year may have to be raised to underwrite deficits.)

But Opera Pacific backers, sounding as confident as ever, argue that the community support necessary for its arts specialties--opera and musical theater--is there to be tapped in Orange County.

This crucial premise, they say, is backed by a recent Orange County audience-potential survey (a $60,000-study commissioned by the Center, Orange County Philharmonic Society and Opera Pacific). “It (potential audience for opera and musicals) is stronger than any of us at first thought. We see it (survey) as yet another go-ahead signal,” said Gates, a former Opera Pacific board chairman.

Talk about optimism. On Gates’ car, the license plate reads: OPERA 87.

NEXT: Orange County Master Chorale enters the contest for the Center’s opening lineup.