He led opera out of the ordinary

Times Staff Writer

Michael Milenski, the founder and general director of Long Beach Opera, has announced his resignation after almost 25 years of building the company into a small but influential presenter of new and unusual opera.

Calling this a stable time to make a transition, Milenski, 61, will pass the company’s leadership to its principal conductor, Andreas Mitisek, 39, who has been with Long Beach Opera since 1998.

The transition, Milenski said, will begin in January, but his resignation will not go into effect until October. Scheduled June performances of Offenbach’s “La Perichole” and “Seven Small Operas,” by various composers, will be his final productions.


“Southern California has by this point seen my tricks,” Milenski said, sitting in the office behind his Craftsman house in Long Beach’s Bluff Park. “I’m not interested in repeating myself. Somebody else can take the reins and move forward; Long Beach Opera is in good shape.”

Mitisek, a native of Vienna, in Los Angeles last week to meet with donors and staff, promised to keep Long Beach Opera on the cutting edge. “I will create a different vision but it will be similar to what [Milenski] has done,” he said. “It’s such a unique and special project that Long Beach Opera offers; I identify completely with the idea.”

The conductor, who will continue to make Austria his home, says he has a list of productions in his mind that could fill 10 seasons. “Specifically, I don’t want to say anything at this moment. But there’s a lot of work that’s never been seen here, highly dramatic as theater and music.”

“Highly dramatic” is a good way to describe what Long Beach Opera became. It began at Long Beach Grand Opera in the 1978-79 season -- seven years before Los Angeles Opera raised a curtain, with a traditional production of “La Traviata” staged in collaboration with Long Beach Symphony.

In the early ‘80s, Milenski, who had worked for San Francisco Opera in such roles as rehearsal coordinator and assistant stage manager and had staged operas for the San Jose Symphony, began to turn Long Beach Opera toward experiment and what he calls “progressive staging.” “My main interest is in opera as a theater art,” he said, “in the spectacle part of opera.”

The company put on significant 20th century works that others wouldn’t attempt, such as Schoenberg’s “Die Jakobsleiter,” Cage’s “Europeras 3 & 4,” and “King Roger” by Karl Szymanowski. Among the conductors and directors associated with the company are Nicholas McGegan and Christopher Alden, who contributed groundbreaking updates of Monteverdi.


More recently, it presented the first professional U.S. staging of young British composer Thomas Ades’ sexually charged “Powder Her Face,” and Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice,” from 1600, generally considered to be the earliest opera with music extant.

In his review of the company’s production of Manfred Gurlitt’s “Wozzeck,” in June 1998, the Times’ Mark Swed offered words that echo many general assessments of the company’s specialty -- “Opera as adventure and discovery, not convention.”

Milenski, who called Long Beach Opera “probably the most improbable opera company in the United States,” won’t single out any specific piece or season as emblematic: “I think we managed to keep a fairly consistent artistic standard. What I’m proud of, too, is persevering through these crises to make solid, uncompromising art.”

Indeed, the company has had no shortage of crises. On the artistic side, in 1989, librettist Philip Littell demanded that his name be taken off Mark McGurty’s “The Guilty Mother” due to differences with a director. In 1994, Milenski fired soprano Angela Reaux one week before the opening of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” again over differences with that production’s directors.

The nonprofit company is also well known for its ongoing money problems. One major financial crisis came in 1996. The company canceled two of its three productions that year, and then signed an agreement with Cal State Long Beach, in which Milenski became a lecturer at the school and Long Beach Opera got free use of rehearsal space and the university’s Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center. Milenski and the company will continue their relationships with Cal State Long Beach after his retirement.

Since moving to the campus, Long Beach Opera has presented a fortnight-long “festival,” usually staging just two productions. The budget for the June productions is about $500,000, according to Milenski. Los Angeles Opera puts on eight operas a season, at a budget of $32 million.


Mitisek, who has conducted five productions for the company, including last season’s “Jenufa,” by Janacek, called his appointment “exciting, and scary, of course. The monetary situation is not good; no one’s monetary situation is good right now.”

Mitisek co-founded the avant-garde Vienna Opera Theater at age 25 and was its music director for six years. Milenski says he saw a production there of John Adams’ “Nixon in China” that started him thinking of Mitisek has a possible heir. In between, Mitisek became Long Beach Opera’s principal conductor. The two began discussing a formal handoff last spring.

“One of the things audiences in Southern California will appreciate is Andreas’ ambition,” Milenski says, explaining that the conductor was planning to put on “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ as his first production until Los Angeles Opera, in collaboration with the Kirov Opera, added it to its 2002-2003 season. “This is a boy who thinks big.”

Mitisek says the company needs to stay true to its focused mission, but he thinks growth is also important. “We need to become a larger group -- right now they’re doing two productions a year. It’s my strong belief that we need to go to three, so we are more present throughout the year.” He adds that this is unlikely to happen immediately because of financial limits.

Besides Mitisek’s appointment, Christina Slenk, currently an administrative assistant, will become administrator at Long Beach Opera, and a production manager will be named later. All three will handle Milenski’s duties.

As for his own role, Milenski will become general director emeritus, leaving him time for his personal life, some teaching, and an as yet unformed project meant to foster relationships between librettists and composers. “My continuing relationship with Long Beach Opera,” he says, “will hopefully be honorary. I have 25 years of experience and I will be happy to share it. But I will not have formal input into the company.”