Opera Pacific's Emphasis on Musical Theater Helps to Build Up Its Audience

Times Staff Writer

Verdi, 5, Forrest and Wright, 18. That's not as bad as Lions, 44, Christians, 0. But the numbers do tell a depressing story: Local opera lovers may have to wait a long time before getting a very adventuresome Opera Pacific season.

While Angelenos see comparatively rare operas such as Prokofiev's "Fiery Angel" or Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Orange County will get mainstream works such as Verdi's "Aida" (five performances, starting Saturday), Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" (eight performances) and 18 performances of Forrest and Wright's Tony-award winning Broadway musical, "Kismet."

Welcome to Opera Pacific's "Season of Gold."

"There are really two issues here," said David DiChiera, Opera Pacific's general director.

"First, should an opera company present Broadway musicals? From a philosophical point of view, yes, (it) should. Second, from a practical point of view, well, I'm looking, evaluating and searching into which direction it is practical for the company to evolve into."

DiChiera said that while he is committed to the concept that "opera, operetta and musical theater are all part of what a company should do," the decision whether to offer such repertory "should never be based on whether it (is) appropriate or not."

"The context should be how much a community wants and is anxious to support, not just with tickets but also with fund-raising. These are the same questions with opera.

"If the audience won't emerge, we won't do (musical theater), whether I think it's valuable or not. But while the audience does, and our sales figures prove it does, we must do it."

According to Luke Bandle, Opera Pacific's marketing director, 7,926 tickets have been sold for a three-show package and 4,895 for a two-show package, which includes "Kismet" and "Die Fledermaus."

The numbers were "roughly the other way around last year when the two-show package included 'West Side Story' and 'La Boheme,' " Bandle said.

According to Bandle, 56,000 single tickets have been sold to date. Altogether, the company is trying to sell 96,000 tickets.

DiChiera said his interest has been to look at musicals as "a heritage of musical theater," reviving works that "filled a very unique place in American musical theater."

"An opera company can bring some important contributions to that area," he said.

Such works would include "One Touch of Venus," "Lady Be Good," "Carousel," last year's "West Side Story" and, yes, "Kismet."

" 'Kismet' is in a different category from 'West Side Story,' " DiChiera said. "But the music is very beautiful. . . . It gives local audiences a chance to come in contact with a great Russian composer, but in a format which is accessible to them. . . .

"Yes, these are all period pieces, but (Verdi's) 'Il trovatore' is reflective of a period or a creative merging of music and theater and a certain place, too."

Besides, DiChiera said, Opera Pacific is not the only company offering Broadway musicals.

"New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and more and more companies are doing it," he said. "It has its place."

Another source of revenue for the Irvine-based company will be the rental of the "Fledermaus" set designed by Alan Kimmel and now being built for Opera Pacific.

"This production will go to Detroit in May and maybe later to the Kennedy Center in Washington," he said. (DiChiera is also general director of Michigan Opera Theatre.)

"That's the only way any opera company in the country can make it work, by renting to one another," DiChiera said. "If opera companies had to create every production for itself, every company in the county would be closing its doors, all the way up to the Met."

The "Aida" production was created for the Miami Opera in 1984 and later used in Detroit, DiChiera said. "Kismet" was developed two years ago for the Canadian Opera.

Finances are never far from the general director's mind.

"This year, our budget is $4.2 million," he said. "Our total ticket sales are projected to account for $2.6 million." He believes the Performing Arts Center and local organizations, such as Opera Pacific, have "begun to grow in their appreciation of one another's problems. . . . We're all out there scrambling to raise the money we have to raise to operate." But he foresees a future in which the Center might be more of a competitor than an ally.

The center already offers a musical theater series. "I believe that the Center will get to the point where it plans to bring in its own guest opera companies over the years," DiChiera said.

He doesn't seem particularly worried about the Center's musicals. "If the community is supersaturated with musical theater, then the question becomes what musical theater (to offer)," he said. "I'm interested in works that have been dormant, repertory from the '40s and '50s and even earlier, that has filled a very unique place in American musical theater, which can be revived."

In any case, he said, "I give (the Center) an informal review of my production plans so we won't compete with one another." He noted that he does the same thing with companies in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego.

Meanwhile, he said, "We're looking at the practicability of going from three to four productions next season and also splitting the time, doing two in the early part of the year and two more in the summertime.

"That also will be our way of helping the Center," he added. "There's a crunch on using the facility at certain months, and splitting our season helps during a downtime for them."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World