OPERA : 'La Boheme' Cast Doesn't Take Show Lightly


Anyone presenting grand opera on the Westside needs to love the work--profit most definitely cannot be the goal.

Yet Bill di Donato of Culver City is giving it a go.

For four years, di Donato has been putting on grand operas on the Westside with his Bel Canto Opera Company, using local singers ranging from a bank vice president to a librarian. On Saturday and again on April 8, Bel Canto is scheduled to perform Puccini's "La Boheme" at Robert Lee Frost Auditorium in Culver City.

The dedicated company and its director have been hard at work. To watch di Donato during a rehearsal is to see every note, every gesture register on his face.

"La Boheme," the beloved romantic opera of Bohemian life in 19th-Century Paris, concerns a group of starving artists--the poet Rudolpho, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard and the philosopher Colline. They're struggling to pursue careers, rarely eating, living in a garret.

But they're young and they have their art, and in spite of the poverty, they're happy. Rudolpho falls in love with Mimi and she with him, but jealousy kills love and consumption kills Mimi.

"I'm a hopeless romantic," di Donato said. He lived the starving-actor life in New York in the early '50s. But between acting classes at the Theatre School of Dramatic Arts, he went to the Metropolitan Opera House because, well, growing up first-generation Italian meant Puccini and Verdi were part of your life.

"I wanted to be an actor, but music was always on my mind," he said.

Di Donato never achieved prominence in acting, but he always remembered how tough it was to get a break. He also remembered the joy he often felt while directing community theater productions. Four years ago, he decided to combine his passion for opera with his love of the theater--and the satisfaction of helping young artists advance their careers.

After becoming involved in a small local opera effort, di Donato decided to start his own company. Thus Bel Canto was born.

Ever since, the small company has helped showcase local singers.

Marya Basaraba sings the role of Mimi. It's her third performance for Bel Canto. "He's a nut, a wonderful man with a passion for opera, and he puts himself on the line to put on these productions. There's no way we can show our talent without Bill di Donato," she said.

Basaraba, of North Hollywood, says her work with di Donato helped her win a job this year with the Toronto Operetta Theatre in the role of Rosalinda in "Die Fledermaus." "I actually got paid, even for rehearsals," she said.

Basaraba makes her living as a consultant to the Los Angeles Unified School District, supervising youngsters who make animated public service messages. Like the other performers, she receives no fee for performing with Bel Canto.

The opera company's sole source of revenue is ticket sales. Though only one performance in the last five has covered costs, di Donato says sales for "La Boheme" are strong. Jenn Swenson is one of the reasons. All of her lawyer friends are buying tickets.

Swenson plays Musetta, the lover of Marcello, but during the day she's a corporate attorney.

"I got tired of waiting tables, waiting for my big break, and I didn't want to give up, so I went to law school because I knew I would be able to make a living, sing and dismiss the dizzy blonde image," she said.

Swenson said she'd quit law tomorrow if she were hired by an opera company.

So would Michael Lyon, vice president of the Bank of America in Pasadena--and Rudolpho when he's not checking the bottom line.

"I'll study (voice) for the rest of my life, no matter what. But for now, singing with Bel Canto gives me an opportunity to work with fine people for the love of the music," he said.

Bel Canto presents "La Boheme" on Saturday and on April 8 at the Robert Lee Frost Auditorium, 4401 Elenda St., Culver City. Ticket information: (310) 201-0749.

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