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Opera to Die For

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Everything from the excited expressions on their faces to the way they were dressed--he in a preppie navy blazer and gray slacks, she in a demure evening dress--suggested that this was no ordinary date. College age or close to it, the young couple had arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a night at the opera. The obviously nervous young man asked the ticket clerk what type of tickets were still available. She replied: “We’ve got the $20 and the $70.” The young man asked hopefully if his student ID would have a positive impact on the situation. It would not. While the Los Angeles Opera often offers student “rush” tickets for $15, tonight’s performance was the popular “Madama Butterfly,” and no such tickets were available.

“He looked at his wallet, looked at the girl and said: ‘I’ll take ‘em'--the $70 ones,” remembers Los Angeles Opera public relations manager Elizabeth Connell, who observed the couple from a perch behind the ticket clerk. “They looked wonderful, and they were so excited.”

For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 16, 1997 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 16, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 13 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera director--Francesca Zambello’s name was misspelled in a Feb. 2 article on L.A. Opera.

And the night before, Connell said, a beautiful young woman not more than 22 had arrived for “Butterfly” in a gorgeous 1940s-vintage black velvet dress. “She had really white skin, bright purple hair,” Connell observed. “One night, it was the preppie date, another night it was retro-punk. I followed these guys around--they all had a great time.”

No doubt about it--opera is hot. As the art form celebrates its 400th birthday this year, it’s also celebrating a newfound popularity. Its audience is getting bigger, and younger.

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The statistics: The National Endowment for the Arts reports that opera attendance throughout North America grew 25% from 1982 to 1992; its most recent statistics report an attendance increase of more than 10% from 1994 to 1995 alone.

And, while the opera audience as a whole is, predictably, older, wealthier, more highly educated and more suburban than other arts-goers, the National Endowment for the Arts also found that attendance among 18- to 24-year-olds is growing fast: up 18% between 1982 and 1992, a greater increase in attendance among this age group than “any other traditional performing art form.”

You can see these statistics take shape almost any night at L.A. Opera. Not only is the art form’s general popularity reflected in the frequently sold-out performances (75% so far this season) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but in stories like Connell’s about eager Gen-Xers lined up at the box office before each performance, where black leather is as common as black tie and star sightings include the likes of Drew Barrymore (opening night, 1996-97 season: “Pagliacci”), Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise and Jodie Foster.

In the labyrinth of offices at the Pavilion that are the business heart of the opera, this company’s vital signs are also strong. L.A. Opera is the fifth-largest opera company in America when it comes to total budget; its competition includes such heavyweights as the Metropolitan, the Chicago Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera. The company’s subscriber base fills 60% of its available seats--a healthy percentage by most performing arts standards. While the budget has fluctuated in recent years, occasional deficits over the past five years have been minimal, and this year the opera will show a surplus.

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“While the past five years have not been deficit-free, it’s a far cry from when I first came here in 1988, when we were paying enough interest just on our loans to fund another production,” said Patricia Mitchell, the opera’s deputy general director. “We paid out some $300,000 in interest that year.”

Perhaps most significantly, L.A. Opera has achieved all this in a remarkably short time for an opera company--just one decade.

Opera America, a Washington-based service organization, calls Los Angeles Opera’s steady growth--in a decade marked by both economic recession and dwindling federal arts funding--"little short of miraculous.”

The team that guides L.A. Opera, its board and its managing director, Peter Hemmings, don’t tend to use words like “miraculous” when they describe what L.A. Opera has accomplished in its first 10 years. They are well aware that some critics find the opera a bit stodgy aesthetically, and they have a tendency to emphasize just how hard it is to keep the enterprise afloat, how much more there is to do.

Bernard Greenberg, volunteer chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Assn., likes to quote the late Michael Newton, a former Music Center president: Opera, he says, is “the most expensive thing mankind can engage in short of war.” And however good the vital signs look, says L.A. Opera’s artistic administrator, Christopher Hahn, the company continues to operates “on a knife edge.”

Still, Hemmings et al also have reason to be satisfied with where the company is and where it is headed: L.A. Opera, they contend, has proved to be the right kind of company in the right place at the right time.

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The struggle to create an opera company in Los Angeles dates back to 1948, when the Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera began staging productions at various locations, including the Wilshire Ebell Theater. In 1964, that company presented its first opera in the then-new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Several years later, the company re-created itself as the Music Center Opera Assn., which brought opera from other cities to the Music Center, most notably the New York City Opera, until 1982.

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In 1984, the opera association hired Britisher Hemmings as its first general director, from a position as managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra. His task was to create a company that would produce opera, not just present it.

L.A. Opera, then called Los Angeles Music Center Opera, offered its first production, Verdi’s “Otello,” in 1986.

It was a late start for an opera with ambitions to match the stature, size and impact of a city like Los Angeles. The last major American company to have been formed, the Houston Grand Opera, is still working its way to true world-class ranking and it was launched in 1950. But in a recent conversation, the dryly witty Hemmings, 63, sees L.A. Opera’s Johnny-come-lately status as a plus.

“When I was approached to come here in 1984, I, along with most of my colleagues, thought it weird that a great enormous city like L.A. didn’t have an opera company, and that all attempts to create one had foundered. The fact that we were able to rise fully formed, as it were, from the sea is that there was a latent demand to be filled.

“What the press used to say to me is: ‘What makes you think you can succeed when all the others have failed?’ ” Hemmings added. “And when we had succeeded to some degree, they said: ‘What makes you think you can continue to succeed?’ ”

Hemmings also attributes the company’s success to the Domingo Factor. Since 1984, Placido Domingo--whose status as one of the “Three Tenors” represents nothing short of operatic knighthood--has served as the company’s artistic consultant and in 1995 was elevated to artistic advisor and principal guest conductor.

“I think in a town like this, the fact that Placido Domingo has been involved with the company from the very beginning is very, very important,” said Joan Cumming, the opera’s director of marketing. “Whenever we have a chance, we will put his picture on our subscription brochure; that is a very important part of marketing the company.”

Patricia Mitchell, the opera’s deputy general director, said the opera’s goal is to have Domingo perform at least once a year and conduct at least once a year, and so far, that has happened. Some seasons have featured two Domingo performances. “Most of our subscribers do see Domingo,” she said.

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But even with latent demand and the Domingo Factor, there was no guarantee that L.A. Opera could survive, let alone thrive. Behind the scenes, the opera ain’t over till its paid for.

Next year, L.A. Opera will rent out its gory head of John the Baptist, a prop for the opera “Salome,” to Houston Grand Opera for $300. “We will rent shamelessly anything that is not nailed down,” said the opera’s Mitchell. "$300 is $300.” Such activity is not uncommon in the opera world. L.A. Opera also rents out entire productions--that is, all the sets, props and costumes--to help make ends meet, and sharing creative costs for new productions, in the form of co-productions, is a cost-cutting staple among most American opera companies.

While all arts organizations must balance art and commerce, the complexity and expense inherent in opera--with musicians in the pit, soloists and choristers onstage, elaborate costumes, wigs, sets and staging, and such necessary extras as the German language expert on hand to coach the singers during rehearsals of the opera’s current production, a revival of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde"--seems to heighten the pressures of that balancing act to the level of the high-decibel emotions overflowing the opera stage.

In some ways, this is especially true for L.A. Opera. Despite high ticket costs (from $23 to $130), earned income covers only about 60% of the opera’s costs. And because the opera shares the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, time is available to present only seven or eight operas per year (about half the number that San Francisco, for example, produces each year), with seven or eight performances of each opera, averaging a total of 50 annual performances. Limited opportunities for success mean there also is little room for failure.

“Because of the financial setup, if we don’t fill the houses, or close to fill the houses, we are in a terrible, terrible position,” said artistic administrator Hahn.

“Somebody who doesn’t know that would come to a performance and say, wow, the opera is full, they must be doing very well,” Hahn continued. “But a person who is not in the know could be absolutely deceived.”

Unlike more established companies, L.A. Opera is too young to have much of an endowment to provide insurance against failure. The company has just over $3 million in its combined endowment and working capital reserve; compare that to the $25-million endowment of the 42-year-old Houston Grand Opera, which is comparable in annual budget ($16.5 million for L.A. Opera, $14.7 million for Houston).

“We don’t have any parachute, or safety net underneath,” Hahn added.

And then there is another expensive quirk to presenting opera at the Chandler Pavilion: Every time the opera sets go up, the Philharmonic’s acoustic shell must come down. During rehearsals and the seven performances of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” the orchestra shell has to go up or down 20 times. It costs $4,000 for each move, an $8,000 “round-trip,” as the opera’s technical crew puts it. That’s $80,000 for “Tristan,” a five-hour-long revival of a 1987 production designed and now directed by artist David Hockney, out of a total budget of $1.8 million.

Critics have argued that the budget-minded L.A. Opera errs on the side of artistic conservatism, its schedule dominated by revivals and standard fare. While programming decisions rest with Hemmings, opera insiders say its board of directors is highly opinionated about what appears onstage, unlike many similar boards that seem more civic-minded than arts-oriented.

“Opera is not something that you feel ambivalent about,” said board chairman Greenberg. “We have a constant battle with the opera staff. The board sort of sees itself as representing the audience in coming up with a mix that will be both popular and at the same time not so unpopular as to discourage people.”

While the board to an extent represents the voice of the people, it also must take into account not only immediate box-office returns but the artistic growth necessary to maintain status as a world-class opera company. That means taking some artistic risks. “In order to get the good singers and the good conductors, they have to feel they are coming to Los Angeles to do something significant,” Greenberg acknowledged. “If you do nothing but ‘La Boheme’ and ‘Traviata,’ they’re not going to come.”

Reviving “Tristan” is arguably one of those dangerous-but-not-too-dangerous ventures. There’s the risk of hosting Hockney’s directing debut, and as Hemmings points out, the American opera audience suffers from collective Wagner anxiety, especially when faced with a five-hour dose of the German composer. Still, “Tristan” is a revival of a successful production, and Hockney’s popularity and fame as an artist carries with it an appeal beyond just the musical.

Hemmings argues that the opera’s program has offered a number of groundbreaking productions--John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” directed by Peter Sellars, in 1990-91; the Francesco Zambello-directed “The Trojans,” designed by John Conklin, in 1991-92; Sellars’ controversial staging of “Pelleas and Melisande,” setting the opera in modern-day Malibu, in the 1994-95 season; and Monteverdi’s “Ulysses,” coming up in May, which Hemmings said will help mark the 400th anniversary of opera, since the art form was in its infancy when Monteverdi wrote “Ulysses” in 1640. Hemmings adds that using Hollywood directors including Franco Zeffirelli and Herb Ross for L.A. Opera productions--he is currently courting John Schlesinger for a yet-to-be-announced major project for the 1998-99 season--also attests to L.A. Opera’s willingness to break with tradition.

“It comes down to what we can afford,” Hemmings acknowledged. But Hemmings and others within the opera’s ranks also defend a certain level of conservatism on an artistic basis.

“There’s no doubt that the general public in America is less likely to go for the newest, craziest sensation, compared with Berlin or London or Paris--and thank God,” Hemmings said. He said the opera receives an equal number of letters complaining about the old and the new, so he often copies one to the other to make his case for diversity.

Opera’s bottom line challenges become even more daunting when the opera considers its next leap forward.

If the Los Angeles Music Center gets its wish, in the year 2001, the center’s most powerful resident company, the 77-year-old Los Angeles Philharmonic, will move into a new residence, the yet-to-be-built Walt Disney Concert Hall. Though the concert hall project is plagued with fund-raising difficulties and faces possible cancellation, L.A. Opera must believe the concert hall will be built to begin the slow process of expanding its programming--and its audience--in order to take over as the main tenant of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The challenge is nothing short of operatic. If it were put on the stage, the program notes might read as follows:

The Los Angeles Opera, young and strong, but vulnerable, stands at the palace doors, a mighty, 3,000-seat fortress of chandeliers called the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Los Angeles Music Center, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

L.A. Opera suffers pangs of jealousy; the Pavilion’s acoustics are marvelous for opera but pretty lousy for a symphony orchestra.

The opera wants to rule the palace but awaits news of Disney Hall with both elation and fear. On the one hand, more time for programming could vault L.A. Opera into the future, increasing it in size and artistic stature. On the other, its balanced budget could topple like a tipsy tenor leaning too far out over the orchestra pit.

Trembling, L.A. Opera lifts its sword with one hand, while the other hand clutches its wallet.

The fact is, L.A. Opera’s strategy for the future has already begun: focusing on new ways to bring more people into contact with the opera, and on fund-raising to build up the now-missing endowment.

One million dollars each year goes into community outreach and education programs. A marketing budget of $1.7 million includes developing such youth-oriented programs such as Opera Nouveau, a promotion done through L.A. Weekly, which offers a reception or a party with an opera ticket. African American and Latino support groups play into expanding the audience beyond the still mostly white opera-goers.

Alicia Clark, head of Hispanics for L.A. Opera, for example, said the group is trying to tap into the fact that opera is highly popular in Latin America and accordingly with the Latino population here. “It is not [as popular] as in Italy and Spain, but more popular than in the United States,” said Clark, who hails from Veracruz, Mexico. “Even if people don’t go to opera houses, they listen to opera on the radio, just like people here love the Beatles without ever having seen them.”

The opera’s Mitchell confirms Clark’s observation. “There are major opera companies and houses in all the countries of Latin America, and the art form of zarzuela, the equivalent of operetta, is enormously popular in Spain as well as Latin America.”

It’s not enough just to sell a lot more tickets, however. Hemmings says the opera needs more season subscribers committed to the long-term health of the opera--read: willing to make donations above and beyond the ticket price or become part of the volunteer fund-raising corps.

“Every time you do a performance, you lose more money,” Hemmings said. “We earn about 60% of our costs, but the rest has to come with fund-raising.”

Mitchell said that subscriber base goals remain a moving target for the opera. In its first years, she said, the opera presented three or four performances of each opera; since then, even working within the time constraints of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it upped that to six performances per opera. When Disney Hall opens, there could be 10. Obviously, reaching a target subscription base for that audience represents a bigger challenge than for a smaller opera season.

But more nights also present more opportunities to offer packages promising better seats to potential subscribers, Mitchell added. “I don’t think the single ticket buyer is the lowest of the low [as some opera executives think],” she said. “You gradually increase a patron’s level of involvement. It might start with one performance of ‘La Boheme’ or a community recital, to becoming a full-series buyer, then ultimately to becoming a donor or volunteer.”

That necessity for gradual progress, Hemmings said, is why the opera does not share the impatience of the Philharmonic to see Disney Hall open its doors. The predicted 2001 is soon enough. “The fact that there is a delay in building Disney Hall gives us a little time to get there,” he said.

“Chicago and San Francisco’s opera [budgets] are in the $30 millions; ours is approaching $20 million,” Hemmings continued. “These things take 20, 30, 40 years to cement. The last five years have been difficult for everyone--I think our place in development could be further on if it hadn’t been for earthquakes, fires and floods.”

If Disney Hall does materialize, L.A. Opera has no legal obligation to expand to fill the Chandler Pavilion schedule--yet everyone in the organization seems to feel one.

“If we didn’t, we would lose a fine opportunity,” Hemmings said. “Everybody sees the building of Disney Hall as the opportunity to present the scale of opera season that undoubtedly L.A. could sustain.”

Despite the fact that Hemmings expects to retire by the time Disney Hall might open its door, he remains committed to meeting the demands it implies for the opera.

“I believe I have to push all the time to keep development increasing. I think it would be a terrible thing if, when Disney Hall opens, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion did not have at least one firm resident company that can take up at least half the year. Otherwise, why do it?”

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By the Numbers

Top Five U.S. Opera Companies

By budget, in millions, 1996-97

Metropolitan Opera (age: 114 years) $158

San Francisco Opera (75 years) 46

Chicago Lyric Opera (43 years) 34.5

New York City Opera (53 years) 27

Los Angeles Opera (11 years) 16.5

Opera Attendance

* From 1993-94 to 1994-95, season total attendance rose 10.1% at all North American opera performances.

* From 1982 to 1992, the U.S. opera audience grew by nearly 25%.

* From 1982 to 1992, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds attending U.S. opera performances rose 18%.

Opera Income

Box-office income, member companies of Opera America: $208,602,261 in 1995, up 8% from 1994.

L.A. Opera Budget

* Earned income (ticket sales, rentals, sharing productions, etc.): $10.3 million

* Donations from all sources (corporations, foundations, individuals, etc.): $3 million

* Production sponsor support: $1 million

* Support from Music Center Unified Fund and Music Center Foundation: $1 million

* Income from galas: $1 million

* Local government funding: $350,000

* Federal arts funding: $150,000

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* L.A. Opera is presenting “Tristan und Isolde,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday, Friday and Feb. 12, 15 and 18, 6:30 p.m. $23-$130. (213) 365-3500.


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