A POST THAT A PIONEER CAN'T REFUSE

Times Staff Writer

As the new artistic director of Los Angeles Opera Theatre (LAOT), Henry Holt may be considered by some cynics as overqualified for the job.

True, he comes to the post with more than two decades' experience as an operatic administrator. After completing musical duties with companies in Koblenz, West Germany, and Portland, Ore., Holt served as music and education director with Seattle Opera beginning in 1966.

True, he succeeds an inspired and successful operatic amateur, Johanna Dordick, as head of LAOT.

And true, he never planned to take over Dordick's post, though he has been nominal music director of the 6-year-old company for most of its existence.

"But I never intended to run an opera company," says the soft-spoken, 51-year-old Holt, who opens LAOT's first Dordick-less season with Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Tuesday night in Wiltern Theatre.

"Several years ago, when I first contemplated leaving Seattle, I decided there were two things I never wanted to do. The first was to return to Los Angeles (he grew up here, and was graduated from USC before he went to Germany in 1961); the second was to head an opera company."

Now, Holt says, he has had a change of heart.

"I've changed my mind because I see that I am better at pioneering work than at maintenance. That was my problem in Seattle--the pioneering was completed."

He recalls an earlier time of his life.

"Suddenly, I am reminded of when I was 15 years old, and Los Angeles had all these wonderful opera people--Jan Popper, Wolfgang Martin, Carl Ebert, Fritz Zweig, Hugo Strelitzer, Vladimir Rosing, Glynn Ross. Any one of them knew how to make an opera company: Put that man at the helm, and let him create.

"The fact that it never happened doesn't make our efforts today any less valid. The nature of the business changes all the time, and these days are different than any that have come before."

Holt talks about an already-existing operatic base in Southern California, one he considers indispensable for the future success of all operatic activity here.

"You are now looking at a city with three opera companies, with a fourth in Orange County," he points out.

"Already, we are meeting and cooperating," he says, referring to Peter Hemmings (of Music Center Opera), Michael Milenski (of Long Beach Opera), David DiChiera (of Opera Pacifica in Orange County) and himself.

"We are not only friendly, I think we can be very cooperative. We have already begun coordinating our performance dates.

"In the future, I think we can share several things, beginning with young singers--singers who will probably go East, or to Europe, if we don't keep them here. It's no secret that we have here, especially when you consider Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona, a huge talent pool, to rival what there is on the East Coast."

Holt says he believes that "Southern California, as one of the entertainment capitals of the world, has a huge potential opera audience. It is an audience that is already there, but not developed.

"Look at the radical change in demographics, just in the past 20 years. In addition to the remnants of the mid-European audience who supported opera here in the 1940s and '50s, we have added people from the Orient, Hispanics and all the ethnic splinter groups, like the Armenians and the native Italians. Los Angeles has never served the native Italians operatically."

About his latest project, "Don Giovanni," Holt waxes enthusiastic, expressing pleasure with the cast and pride in the approach that he, as conductor, and Hans Hartleb as stage director are able to bring to this new production of Mozart's opera.

"Allowing all of four weeks for rehearsal is something Johanna and I agreed on. It means for the conductor and stage director that we don't have to accept everything the singers come with--conceptually and interpretively.

"And, as Hans says, not having our singers involved in other productions at the same time means getting their whole attention and energy. With this kind of rehearsal schedule, singers doing their roles for the first time have the opportunity to work out the details."

He mentions that Kay Griffel, who sings Donna Anna for the first time, has extensive experience as Donna Elvira, and that Jeffrey Wells, who takes the title role, has never sung it before.

"We could not produce this opera this way except for the longer rehearsal period," Holt avers.

Is there a problem in putting on "Don Giovanni" in Los Angeles in July, against the competition of uncounted entertainment options?

"Absolutely," he replies without hesitating.

"There is, first of all, a very high price for visibility in L.A. It is, I can't deny, very difficult to compete with 'Cocoon,' even with three performances of one of the greatest masterworks of all time."

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