Holding onto a high note

Times Staff Writer

ON its 20th anniversary, how old is Los Angeles Opera?

According to some longtime supporters of the Music Center’s resident opera company, this is sort of a trick question.

The company’s official story starts on Oct. 7, 1986, with its first performance -- Verdi’s “Otello,” starring Placido Domingo -- on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

But talk with those involved at the beginning, and you’ll discover that the company may not be the dewy ingenue its official age suggests.

Its roots go back to 1948, when an Italian-born furniture maker named Francesco Pace formed Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera Assn. and began presenting opera on a shoestring, sometimes with only a piano as accompaniment, at a church in Beverly Hills. He made armchairs and cabinets, they say, only to support his opera habit.

Along the way, dozens of local opera enthusiasts have played a role in developing what is now, budgetwise, among the top five opera companies in America. On the company’s 20th anniversary, a handful of veteran board members, most of whom can recall the days when the opera was, in the words of one, “just a desk and a telephone,” talked about what it took for Los Angeles Opera to finally earn its place as a resident producing company of downtown’s Music Center.


It would be hard to call it a grass-roots effort, since the opera’s volunteer leadership and major donors have included business leaders, entertainment executives, financiers and billionaires. But getting the arias to the stage required a persistence rooted in a devotion to the art that Francesco Pace would no doubt understand. It’s been reported that there have been as many as 20 attempts to start an opera company in Los Angeles since World War II, and theirs was a rare success.


Far-reaching roots

A local opera factoid: On Oct. 14, 1897, downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre was the site of the American premiere of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” performed by the Del Conte Italian Opera Company. Beverly Hills attorney Bernard Greenberg, 75 -- who has variously served as opera board chairman and president and now chairs the executive committee -- doesn’t go back that far, but he was among the first board members of Pace’s company, and he’s the only one active after 46 years. “The others have either moved on, or died,” he says matter-of-factly.

Greenberg’s father loved opera and passed on the passion to his son. “He was not well and somewhat reclusive, but when San Francisco Opera would come to Los Angeles, he would go every night,” the attorney recalls. “Opera isn’t something that you are ambivalent about -- you are passionate about it, or you’re not.”

In 1960, Greenberg was a 29-year-old graduate of UCLA Law School, just returning to Los Angeles with his wife, Lenore, after a belated European honeymoon and a teaching stint at Harvard, when friends and colleagues talked him into joining the board of Pace’s opera company, which was by then performing at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. Pace left the company in the mid-'60s when the board decided to make a go of it at downtown’s new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which opened in 1964 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its primary tenant.

Opera board president Carol F. Henry, who began her association with the company in 1981 as a member of the Opera League support group, is not the only one to point out that opera remained the stepchild of the Music Center for many years. The founder of the performing arts complex, the late Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of former Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, was more interested in nurturing the Philharmonic.

“The Phil was her baby -- I think that’s pretty general knowledge,” says Henry, 67, who is married to businessman Warner Henry, chair of the Founding Angels, a circle of million-dollar donors. “The Phil has always been the favorite child of the Music Center.”

In its new location, the company Pace founded staged only three operas before Chandler reorganized it to present solely work by other companies, believing that the fledgling arts center could not afford to launch an opera company and build a world-class orchestra at the same time. So from 1967 to 1982, the Los Angeles Opera Assn. presented the New York City Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

For a time, the arrangement worked, but by the early 1980s, the company’s biggest stars, including Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle and Domingo, were no longer performing regularly, and dissatisfaction set in.

“The handwriting was on the wall,” says Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer Don Franzen, a Los Angeles Opera board member. “Ticket sales were down; nobody could pretend that the quality of New York City Opera was what it had been.” The relationship with the New York company was dissolved in 1982.

Almost immediately, the opera’s supporters began holding informal meetings about reviving a producing opera company at the Music Center -- and talking to Domingo about becoming part of it.

Although he did not officially join the board until 1985, Franzen -- whose wife is a former opera singer and whose clients, not incidentally, include Domingo -- recalls an early 1980s dinner when he and his law partner, Peter Funsten, sat down with Domingo in Los Angeles. The singer, he says, was in town for a “Tonight Show” appearance. “To my knowledge, it was the first time opera plus Los Angeles plus Domingo was discussed.”

Greenberg remembers another dinner that took place not too much later, in 1983, at which he and other opera representatives met with Domingo and invited the singer to join them in reexploring the idea of forming a producing opera company at the Music Center. “It was at the Pacific Dining Car,” Greenberg recalls. “Placido said: ‘Los Angeles is the last great city without an opera company.’ ” Domingo agreed to help and was invited to join the opera board.

Then came a life-changing event for the company: the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. For that event, the Los Angeles Opera Assn. brought in the Royal Opera of Covent Garden to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to present “The Magic Flute,” “Peter Grimes” and “Turandot” -- starring Domingo.

That casting was no accident, says Greenberg. “Domingo called the opera and said: “I understand you’re doing ‘Turandot.’ I’m singing.”

Alice Coulombe, a board member who, with husband Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, has supported the opera since the early ‘80s, says the Royal Opera’s success here launched Los Angeles Opera. “We charged $75 for the best seats -- it was unheard of then,” she says. “And the place sold out. Even for the tiny roles, they brought the best singers. And the Reagans were in the White House; Mrs. Reagan was honorary chair for our opening-night gala.

“A lot of people came from around the world for the Olympics and said to us in a relatively snotty tone: ‘Isn’t is amazing that you don’t have an opera company?’ ”

Coulombe, who became involved with the company through the Opera League, is, like her husband, a longtime opera fan. “I like sitting there and seeing what’s working together to make that sound,” she said in a recent conversation at the couple’s Pasadena home, which has served as the site for many opera-related functions. “For me, it’s almost the mechanical part of it: How do they do that?

“People always ask me what my favorite opera is, and I find that it is whatever is on. I love ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ which is my husband’s favorite opera; that’s what started it. Part of it is just knowing how happy it’s making Joe. But the ability to fill an enormous space with your own sound is irresistible.”


A shaky start

WITH a sense of possibility buoyed by the Royal Opera’s successful run, the board began a search for a general manager and later that year hired veteran British arts administrator Peter Hemmings, who had just completed a stint as head of the London Symphony. Domingo left the board and was named artistic advisor.

A history of Los Angeles Opera by Tom Jacobs from a 1992 company publication speaks of the curse of “Otello” that troubled the company’s first production. First, they lost two Desdemonas -- Rosalind Plowright became pregnant, and her replacement, Daniela Dessi, collapsed while boarding a plane in Milan five days before the opening.

Dessi’s replacement, Czech soprano Gabriela Benackova, was ready to go when the curtain went up on Oct. 7, 1986 -- but it didn’t, exactly. The curtain got stuck on its way up for an agonizingly long moment.

Franzen doesn’t remember anyone referring to it later as a “curse,” though he does recall the rocky start. “I was sitting in about the fifth row and my wife gasped and grabbed my arm,” he says. “But it wasn’t a curse. The curtain went up; it was lucky.”

The curtain kept rising for the next 20 years. Before retiring from his post in 2000, Hemmings, who died of cancer in 2002, took the opera from a paltry budget of $6.4 million to $22 million and steered the ship through the national economic downturn of the early 1990s, during which the company ran up a deficit of $3 million. He took critical heat during that period for designing conservative, crowd-pleasing seasons, but his approach stabilized company finances.

Henry thinks this period tends to make people forget Hemmings’ more daring contributions, which included a celebrated version of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” designed by David Hockney, a controversial “Flying Dutchman” directed by Julie Taymor and joining a consortium of commissioners for John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” She adds that the board should be held equally responsible for Hemmings’ “safe” choices. “We really held his feet to the fire, because those were difficult financial times,” she says.

Since Domingo took over from Hemmings in 2000, his title has expanded from artistic director to general manager. The opera’s budget has grown to $54 million. And when the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved to its new digs, Walt Disney Concert Hall, three years ago, the opera became the main tenant of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- ironic, given Chandler’s initial feeling that the Music Center could not support a producing opera company.

It’s not been consistently smooth sailing under Domingo. An economic downturn after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks derailed ambitious plans for a $30-million- to $60-million production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle that are only now being revived. (Eli Broad recently donated $6 million to the project -- though it’s no secret that it is not Broad but his wife, Edythe, who is the opera fan in the family.) And the company scrambled to recover after multimillion-dollar pledges from philanthropist and money manager Alberto Vilar failed to materialize, leading Domingo to donate $2 million in Vilar’s name.

Still, in 2006, the earliest board members and supporters no longer have to apologize for Los Angeles’ not having its own opera company. And, Greenberg says, it’s been fun. “We did some adventurous things,” he muses. “We also did some things it would be better if we didn’t do. But we did some wonderful things.”

Henry says Los Angeles Opera succeeded because it has the cushion of Music Center support. But she also gives credit to a board that is committed to the art form. “It’s definitely a different kind of board member,” she says.

One notable indication that this board is a little unusual: Businessman Richard Seaver, an opera founding director and chairman emeritus, has actually turned up onstage. He had the nonsinging role of the Cardinal in L.A. Opera’s “Tosca” in 2001 and 2005; no news is available on upcoming appearances.

“It’s not socially the ‘place to be’ in Los Angeles. Some boards are, but this isn’t,” Henry says. “But we have always been very successful at raising funds, because opera stirs more passion than any art form that I can think of.

“I’ve always liked music, and I’ve always liked theater,” she adds. “This is the best of both.”