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A delight at the opera

Times Staff Writer

For a few hours every month, Jennifer Chun slips into the musical sanctuary of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where luxurious stage sets and arias offer escape.

“With all of the other things that have been going on in our lives, [my daughter] and I have found the opera to be an oasis,” Chun, 42, wrote in an e-mail message. The nights out are “a time when both of us can be together and drink in something we both love so much.”

Thanks to an educational outreach program offered by Los Angeles Opera, Chun’s 17-year-old daughter, Kathryn, scored orchestra seats eye-poppingly close to the stage -- free.

The little-known L.A. Opera 90012 program sponsors an essay contest each year for high schoolers to explain why they want to see opera. The 50 or so teenagers selected are rewarded with tickets to four performances for them and a parent or guardian. They also get backstage tours and pre-show talks about the art form from instrumentalists, singers or others involved in the productions.

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And for Kathryn -- probably headed to UC Davis this fall -- it’s a chance to spend time with her mother, a cellist and music teacher, before leaving home.

“There’s no way I’d be able to connect with my mom like this,” said Kathryn, who lives with her family in Lomita and surprised her mother with the tickets as a birthday gift. “We’re so busy, it’s just the one time we really get to talk with each other and share something cultured. It’s really magnificent.”

The tickets, worth about $155 apiece, are available through an anonymous donor, who recalls nights out with his mother at New York City plays and musicals as his lone happy childhood memories of her.

“The opportunity to participate in something and share something with her was enormous to me,” said the 80-year-old donor, a film and television industry veteran.

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His mother was a magazine drama critic, and the two related to each other best when discussing the shows they saw together.

He decided to fund the L.A. Opera program about seven years ago “to replicate the experience I had” growing up. And with ticket prices prohibitively steep for most families, the outreach effort offers parents and teenagers a cultural experience alien to most.

“I didn’t have enough money to go to the opera, and I always wanted to go,” said Hazel Kasusky, 15, a high school sophomore from San Fernando. Opera is “awful different from what you hear, like rock and pop. You like things when you get used to it.”

Although only about 90 students applied for this year’s program, the participants are a diverse group from all over Southern California. High schooler Fabiola Olivas, who speaks mainly Spanish, drives 50 miles or so from Bloomington in San Bernardino County to experience the music she loves. Other students fight midweek gridlock to get to the Pavilion from as far away as Santa Paula and Palmdale.

“We really kind of crack open these operas,” making them accessible to a wider audience, said Stacy Brightman, the opera’s director of education and community programs.

But the outreach effort is “not just a ticket giveaway,” said Veronica Lopez, L.A. Opera’s community programs coordinator. “We’re introducing them to this world and the music, what it’s all about.

“Seeing their enthusiasm,” she said, “it just uplifts you so much.”

One night last month, the L.A. Opera 90012 crowd stood out from the sea of gray heads milling under the Pavilion’s blazing chandeliers. The teenagers, decked out in sport coats or colorful wraps, were there for a performance of “Otello” -- on a school night, no less. As the lights dimmed, the high schoolers pocketed cellphones and settled into their seats, many of them rapt with the show’s pageantry and striking sets.

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The work wasn’t as daunting as the first opera in the program’s season, the 4 1/2 -hour “Tristan und Isolde,” said Teresa Ingram, 46, a library assistant at a law firm who attended the performances with her 17-year-old daughter, Breeana. During that marathon Wagner opera, the pair desperately searched for a sandwich at intermission and fought the urge to doze during the later acts.

But, Ingram said, although she’s an opera newcomer who usually favors jazz or R&B;, she was still excited about “Otello.”

“Since we don’t know really what to expect, it makes it kind of interesting, being unknown,” said Ingram, who lives in Gardena.

An hour before the curtain went up, parents and children munched carrot sticks and pita bread while David H. Young, principal bassist with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, walked the students through Shakespeare’s tragedy translated into music by Giuseppe Verdi.

He explained how the violins would make a “glowing halo” around innocent Desdemona and how the low notes of the string bass gave Iago an evil edge, demonstrating on his 300-year-old instrument.

“I think it’s really important that we publicize this one art form because it’s not outdated whatsoever,” said Young, who also teaches at the Colburn School downtown. “It’s vibrant and really alive right now.”

“I have never seen any kid be disinterested in anything good.”

Jennifer Chun didn’t need any convincing. She had tried for years to persuade her husband to take her to the opera. “It became this big joke,” Chun said.

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Now the mother and daughter can’t wait for their monthly date, squeezing in time together before Kathryn leaves for school. “During intermission we’d always talk about which singer had the most powerful voice and which character added their own little twist,” Kathryn said. “We can just go on and on and on.”

And that is exactly the hope of the program’s anonymous benefactor -- providing a new experience for a parent and child to share.

“I have no idea who the donor is,” said Jennifer Chun, who has a debilitating chronic illness. “I would just love to let whoever that person is know what a wonderful, wonderful thing they’ve done.”

For more information about L.A. Opera 90012, visit --

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com


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