OPERA : Facing the Music : A decade ago, Peter Hemmings took on the task of making major-league opera work in Los Angeles. So what if the money is scarce and there isn't even a full-time opera house to call home?

Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic

Peter Hemmings sees the 10th-anniversary season of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera--the company he has headed from the start nine years ago--as "an opportunity to look back, look forward and celebrate in between."

The actual 10th-anniversary performance won't take place until next October. But everybody loves a festive occasion in this town, and who's counting? Not the general director.

He brushes aside an invitation to assess his past achievements and failures. "Looking forward is more important," he insists.

There have, of course, been triumphs worth recalling. Those willing to look backward recall with special pleasure the revelations of the Music Center "Salome," the poignancy of the first "Figaro," the elegance of the first "Cosi fan Tutte" and the charm of the recent "Don Pasquale." Aficionados can point with pride to the modernist bravado of Prokofiev's "Fiery Angel" and the probing force of Britten's "Turn of the Screw," not to mention the joy of discovery engendered by Handel's "Xerxes." One could go on.

Hemmings' brow furrows a bit, however, as he confronts the possibility of an unhappy memory. Could it involve the comic-Kabuki "Macbeth" or the "Lucia di Lammermoor" played on a petrified dung heap? The all-too-mod distortion of "Les Troyens" or the hopelessly dull reheating of "Carmen"? Could it be the fairly long list of vital productions compromised by mediocre conducting?

"I try to remember the nice things," he says.

Opera, as everyone since Chorley knows, is the most irrational of art forms. Also the most costly. Anyone daring--or foolhardy--enough to dabble in it must command an encyclopedic mind, a will of iron and nerves of titanium. A sense of the ridiculous helps too.

Pity the person who takes on this sprawling task anywhere. Pity especially the person who takes it on in Los Angeles, where the tradition is still young, where money is still scarce and where there isn't even a full-time opera house to call home.

Hemmings doesn't look like a frenzied managerial acrobat from Central Casting. Dauntlessly affable at a youthful 61, he exudes British politesse. A family man (father of five) with a suave, no-nonsense affect, he could easily pass as an international banker or corporate attorney.

He wears the sternly optimistic face of an impresario on guard. Most of the time, he wears it well.

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The Music Center Opera, which opens its first "Entfuhrung aus dem Serail" (The Abduction From the Seraglio) on Saturday afternoon, isn't a company noted for star-studded casts. It would seem to be a matter of policy as well as a matter of finances.

Placido Domingo is, of course, a continuing stellar presence. He appears in at least one opera a season (this year serving as raison d'e^tre for the splendid "Stiffelio"). Sometimes he offers less imposing leadership in the pit (next season's vehicle: "Norma"). He also functions behind the scenes as official artistic adviser.

"Placido has given us an international cachet," Hemmings observes. "One cannot underestimate that."

In general, it would seem that the Music Center Opera is more interested in discovering and nurturing relatively obscure talent, both native and foreign, than in importing big, expensive names. Hemmings bristles a bit when asked specifically why Los Angeles has never seen Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus, Roberto Alagna, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Cecilia Bartoli or Kathleen Battle, for starters, in opera.

"Kiri hardly sings in opera houses these days," he claims. "Freni we would absolutely like to have. . . ."

He waxes rhetorical when asked if the two other tenorissimos might join the roster.

"I don't think so. Do you?"

Given the hoopla surrounding the tenorial trio in Los Angeles, and the key role played by Domingo, one might expect Hemmings to climb on the promotional bandwagon. Domingo recently told The Times that special events such as the musical circus at Dodger Stadium brought huge new audiences to the opera house.

"I haven't seen much impact either way," Hemmings says.

His smile turns rueful when he is asked about the extraordinarily popular Thomas Hampson, not engaged here since a modest "Boheme" back in 1987. "We've asked several times and had talks," Hemmings says, "but it hasn't worked out." He denies reports of a serious rift with Hampson; he acknowledges, however, that one artist's loss has been another's gain. "Of course, when we have someone like Rodney Gilfry, we don't need Hampson."

"Our goal," Hemmings explains, "is to find emerging stars, establish relationships with them at just the right moment, rather than get them after they've arrived. The older singers have loyalties with other companies. It makes them hard to book."

Be that as it may, other companies do indeed book them. It may be instructive, for instance, to contrast Los Angeles with Chicago.

When Hemmings & Co. mounted their ill-fated production of Gounod's "Faust" last year, the principals were Veronica Villarroel, Jorma Silvasti, Barseg Tumanyan and Gilfry. When the identical production turns up in the Windy City in January, the central roles will be undertaken by Renee Fleming, Richard Leech, Ramey and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. One doesn't

have to be a critic to recognize the difference in standards.

"Our season isn't less star-studded," Hemmings says, "than, say, San Francisco's."

The point is debatable. This season San Francisco has scheduled Carol Vaness and Roberto Scandiuzzi in "Anna Bolena," an imposing Kirov/Bolshoi cast in "Ruslan and Lyudmila" (conducted by none less than Valery Gergiev), Ramey in "Faust" and "Don Giovanni," plus seasoned Bayreuth principals in "Die Walkure."

More important, perhaps, is the matter of conductors. San Francisco can boast Donald Runnicles as music director on the premises, with Charles Mackerras seconding the positive motions as permanent guest. Hemmings believes that, with Domingo serving as musical adviser and principal guest conductor here, the Music Center Opera requires no resident music director. "It isn't an urgent necessity," he says.

Since Randall Behr--a reliable routinier if hardly a shining light--moved on to other pastures this year, Hemmings employs a different maestro for every opera. So much for continuity.

The impresario tends to get a bit touchy on the subject of "big-name" conductors.

"We have had [Charles] Dutoit, [Esa-Pekka] Salonen and [Zubin] Mehta," he says. What he doesn't say is that, in 10 years, he has had each of these guests in his pit only once. They represent exceptions, not rules. "People like that," Hemmings does note, "are getting harder and harder to find, harder and harder to attract."

Would he be interested in engaging superstars for his pit--a Muti, perhaps, or an Abbado, a Sawallisch or a Barenboim, a Kleiber or a Levine . . . ?

"Interested, yes. But it isn't likely."

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The Music Center Opera has offered its audience a fair sampling of the so-called standard repertory, some obvious lapses notwithstanding. It has unearthed a gratifying number of rarities. It has attempted few, if any, bona-fide avant-garde challenges, however, and has suffered cold feet while confronting several contemporary ventures.

"I am conscious of gaps as well as you are," Hemmings declares.

Why has there been so little Wagner in 10 years--a single "Tristan" in 1987 designed by David Hockney and last month a woeful "Fliegende Hollander"?

"Well," he replies, "we've had quite a lot of Strauss. We did have plans to do 'Meistersinger' and then couldn't afford it."

And what about the "Ring"?

"One day. . . ."

Will "Tristan" come back?

"It is planned for the next two or three years."

With Mehta and the Philharmonic again?

"No." (Subsequently, the international rumor mill suggests that the conductor will be one Richard Armstrong.)

Is there any truth to the reports that Siegfried Jerusalem will sing Tristan?

"Yes."

Would he like to tell us who will sing Isolde?

"No."

Enough not said.

He is somewhat more forthcoming about other matters. "Aida," which was mounted in 1987 in Houston as a co-production with Los Angeles, "will come." It hasn't come yet, he says, "because it's such a big undertaking financially."

Other missing elements in the Verdi canon are "Il Trovatore" and "La Forza del Destino." Hemmings says there are no plans for the former, but the latter is a possibility. "We're talking to St. Petersburg about it. The world premiere took place there in 1862. Gergiev may be interested in a collaboration."

Although Los Angeles was involved in the commissioning of two major novelties--John Adams' "Death of Klinghoffer" and Thea Musgrave's "Simon Bolivar"--neither has been performed here.

"Klinghoffer," a controversial sociopolitical essay staged by Peter Sellars, wasn't as successful as had been hoped when performed elsewhere. "I don't see it coming at the moment," Hemmings says. Does that mean he doesn't like it? "I didn't say that," he snaps.

"Simon Bolivar" fell from sight, we are told, because the intended tenor lost interest in it. "We had commissioned it with Scottish Opera," Hemmings says. "We had hoped that Domingo would do it, but it came at a bad time." Sometimes, it would seem, the singer's the thing, not the play.

A similar fate befell the production of Tchaikovsky's "Pikovaya Dama," a.k.a. "Queen of Spades." Los Angeles was supposed to play host to a new co-production in 1990. When Domingo had second thoughts about the leading role, the vehicle was switched at the last moment to "Don Carlo." " We lost 'Queen of Spades,' " Hemmings acknowledges, "but the production was put on at La Scala."

Will we ever find it again?

"There are other gaps to be filled first."

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By next year, if all had gone as hoped, the Los Angeles Phil harmonic would have moved to its Disney-Gehry palace across the street, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion would have become the exclusive domain of opera and ballet. Hemmings & Co. would have become the chief, virtually full-time tenant.

But as everyone in Los Angeles knows all too well, all did not go as hoped. Disney Hall is nothing more than an empty underground garage, and there is no immediate progress in sight.

"There's no point in discussing that," Hemmings says. He sounds both resigned and philosophical.

"We can cope with sharing the house with the Philharmonic as long as we have to. But it will prevent expansion of our activities."

Nor is he prepared to discuss next season. He prefers to save announcements for stately news conferences. He confirms, however, that there is a Domingo "Pagliacci" in our future--oddly solo, without "Cavalleria Rusticana."

He confirms, too, that there may not be any American opera on the local horizon, though there could be some Latin American opera. Domingo, it appears, casts a long shadow.

Hemmings acknowledges the point that there should be opera here in the summer, that it is silly to have the Pavilion dark for months at a time. He worries, however, about the seasonal habits of his subscribers, and he isn't sure about the tourist trade.

"The Los Angeles public is still somewhat jejune," he says. "When we put on 'Rigoletto,' of all things, I was amazed how many people came up and said it was their first. It's a bit scary."

Given the precarious state of the economy and Washington's growing hostility toward the arts, Hemmings admits to only one abiding concern: "being taken for granted."

He doesn't want the public to confuse survival with security.

"We have to learn how best to use diminishing resources," he says, "especially in Los Angeles, which has had so many God-sent and man-made disasters in recent years. In my view, the arts are more important in times of stress and trouble."

The subject of money suggests a potential crack in the optimistic facade.

"Ernest Fleischmann [impresario of the Philharmonic] and I recently talked about the current climate for putting on music and opera," Hemmings says. "We both agreed that we had never known it worse. We thought years ago we had won the battle about the appropriateness of government support for the arts. Now all that's having to be reargued again."

With an annual budget of $16 million, he tries to downplay the diminution, not to mention the possible demise, of the National Endowment for the Arts.

"I think the NEA will survive despite problems and cutbacks," he says in his best I'm-all-right-Jack tone. "The NEA was always a symbol rather than a major financial player. We get something like 2% of our gross expenditure. The important thing is their money attracts money."

Subsequently, he disavows any expertise regarding the vicissitudes of American politics: "Don't forget, I'm not a U.S. citizen. I pay my taxes here, but I'm a resident alien."

The accompanying shrug is eloquent.

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