U.N. of Opera : Multicultural Cast for ‘La Traviata’ Fulfills a Long-Held Dream


The cast in a new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” opening Friday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, is like no other. It looks like Los Angeles.

The rich mix of ethnicities is a dream come true for Korean opera singer Philip Roh, who has long sought to use music as a vehicle to improve race relations.

“I think Los Angeles has all the ingredients to make the idea work,” said baritone Roh, 43, founder of the Los Angeles Hanmi Opera Company.


Roh, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, teamed up with conductor James Michael Martin, whose family arrived before the American Revolution, to open the Korean America opera company.

“We’ve had many discussions and luncheons over this,” Martin said. “I agree with Philip philosophically and musically.”

Since it was founded in 1989, Hanmi Opera has produced several Italian and French operas with a mainly Korean cast. But with “La Traviata,” Roh is accomplishing his longstanding goal to reflect the city’s multicultural texture.

In November, Hanmi (meaning Korean American) Opera held auditions and more than 60 singers came.

The result is a heart-stirring rendition of Verdi’s masterpiece in which principal roles are shared by singers of Italian, Cuban, African and Korean ancestries, and the supporting cast looks like a miniature United Nations.

“La Traviata” is a story of unfulfilled love between a beautiful courtesan named Violetta and Alfredo, a dashing young student. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, prevails upon the self-sacrificing Violetta to end the affair for the sake of his son’s future. By the time Alfredo learns the truth and rushes to her side, it is too late. Stricken with consumption, the frail Violetta collapses and dies in Alfredo’s arms.


During a rehearsal this week, Nmon Ford-Livene, an African American baritone who plays Giorgio, said he felt privileged to be part of the multiethnic cast.

“This is the only [opera] where you see such an eclectic mix of people,” said Ford-Livene, a Los Angeles native who has performed throughout the United States and Europe. “We need this--especially at this time in Los Angeles.”

Standing next to him inside Koreatown’s Lighthouse Mission Church, Gabriel Pasos, a Cuban-born tenor who plays Alfredo, nodded in agreement.

“Everybody in the opera really wants to be here,” said Pasos, who has sung leading roles in “La Boheme,” “Madame Butterfly” and others here and in Tel Aviv. “There is such a wonderful feeling here. Everything is teamwork and they value everyone.”

What unites the 150 singers, musicians and supporting staff-- strangers until their first rehearsal--is the love of music.

“People love opera all over the world--especially Italian opera,” said Martin, who has led 400 performances in nine major cities during his long musical career. “When we have all nations trying to sing good Italian, it makes for an interesting rehearsal sometimes.”


Anita De Simone, an Italian American who plays Violetta, says proficiency in Italian varies among her Korean colleagues in the cast. “It all depends how much they’ve studied Italian--just like Americans,” she said.


To accommodate the diverse cast, Korean American stage director Jae-Woo Lee, an accomplished opera singer, switches back and forth between Korean and English during rehearsals.

One moment, he tells a singer, “Go after her, go after her,” in Korean, and the next minute, in English, he’s saying, “I want you to be like this.”

Whatever the cast’s degree of proficiency in Italian, singing the great arias, duets and ensembles seems to work magic.

“Italian is the most beautiful language to sing in,” said Martin, who has conducted “La Traviata” numerous times.

Hanmi Opera’s “La Traviata” is a significant social event for Southern California’s estimated 500,000 Korean Americans, the largest concentration of Koreans outside Asia. Opening night will feature a special performance by South Korean superstar tenor In-Soo Park.


For weeks, local Korean-language television and radio stations have been touting the opera as one of the cultural events of the year.

“I’m amazed how Koreans, who seem so reserved, can transform when they start singing after dinner,” Martin said.

More than anything, Roh hopes to build a lasting institution that will enable diverse peoples to perform and watch together.

“When performers come from different communities, they tend to bring audiences from their communities too,” he said. “I don’t believe in Koreans performing music just for themselves.”

“La Traviata” is just the first of many multiethnic operas that Roh, who works by day as a midlevel executive at a Koreatown radio station, hopes to produce. And he cannot think of anywhere else he would rather be than in Los Angeles.

“I really like Los Angeles,” said Roh, who previously sang with the Washington Opera. “I’ve performed all over the country, but it is here that I feel I can combine my love of opera with something that is greater than music.


“I feel even an Asian can aspire to do this because people in Los Angeles are aware of Asians and tend to be more open,” he said.


“La Traviata,” presented by the L.A. Hanmi Opera Company at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. 8th St. in Los Angeles. Performances: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, $20-$50.; Ticketmaster (213) 480-3232 and in Orange County (714) 740-2000.