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Opera Teacher Who Planned New Troupe Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Kurkjian, a former Cal State Fullerton music professor who had ambitious plans to start a new Orange County opera company, was found dead Monday in his Laguna Beach home. He was 56.

The cause of Kurkjian’s death was unknown after an autopsy and is under routine investigation, the Orange County coroner’s office said Tuesday.

“At this time we do not believe foul play was involved,” Police Sgt. Robert Rahaeuser said.

Kurkjian, who had been a member of Cal State Fullerton’s staff since 1972, was director of its opera workshop from 1976 until he announced his early retirement this spring after problems with the administration of the university’s school of the arts. He was formerly artistic director of the Lyric Opera of Orange County, the Laguna Beach-based troupe that eventually became Opera Pacific.

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Kurkjian’s problems at the university stemmed from troublesome personal relationships, according to Benton L. Minor, music department chairman.

“Michael was a very intense, talented individual, musically,” Minor said Tuesday. But “he had a lot of highs and a lot of lows, from an emotional standpoint. . . . The fact that he reacted to crises strongly, in his personal life with his friends, caused some difficulties with his assignment here.”

Additionally, during his last two semesters, Kurkjian was away on sick leave at least half of that time, said Minor, who declined to elaborate on the nature of Kurkjian’s absenteeism.

Burton Karson, CSUF professor of music and artistic director of the annual Corona del Mar Baroque Festival, said, “He often had problems with the (university) administration and with his personal relationships with colleagues and students, but he was a splendid musician, and he was able to give musical ideas and techniques of great value to his students.”

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Kurkjian, considered an important force behind the local opera scene, recently announced plans to launch a new Orange County opera company. The Laguna Opera Theatre was reportedly planned as a small, professional repertory troupe geared for young singers breaking into the field.

Lloyd Rodgers, a composer and Cal State Fullerton music professor who was to have been the company’s artistic associate, said Tuesday that the project will probably not proceed.

“Tentative plans had been made for three little mini-seasons next year at the Forum Theatre,” a 230-seat venue in Laguna Beach, Rodgers said.

But the company existed “mostly in Michael’s head and on paper and needed another couple of months of organization and planning to get it to the point where it could continue without him,” Rodgers said. “With his death, I’m sure it will probably not continue.”

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Kurkjian received a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1952 and a master’s degree in piano at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

Aspiring initially to be a concert pianist, he was a soloist with orchestras in the Midwest but switched his focus to voice after developing arthritis in his hands, according to Minor.

Information on funeral arrangements was not available Tuesday.

Freelance writer Robert Pierre contributed to this report.

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