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Long Beach Opera names pandemic go-to director James Darrah as its next leader

James Darrah, the new artistic director of Long Beach Opera
James Darrah, the new artistic director and chief creative officer of Long Beach Opera.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Long Beach Opera is expected to announce Monday that the company’s new artistic director and chief creative officer will be James Darrah, a Los Angeles director known for producing digital classical concerts and streaming operas during a near-year of COVID-19 closures.

The new contract begins immediately and will continue “until at least the end of 2024,” Executive Director and Chief Executive Jennifer Rivera said, making Darrah just the third artistic director in the company’s nearly 42-year history.

Darrah, 36, is scheduled to make his Long Beach Opera directorial debut this May with a production of Philip Glass’ “Les Enfants Terribles,” part of a diverse and imaginative season curated by Interim Artistic Director Yuval Sharon. Sharon’s interim position began after Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek departed in 2020.

The operas Sharon programmed for 2021 had been scheduled to run from January to June, but the pandemic has forced the first to open no sooner than May. The company is still determining if, when and how all four operas will be staged and is considering reimagining one or two as digital presentations — a change that Darrah is well equipped to handle.

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A graduate of and current faculty member at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, Darrah has long brought a cinephile’s eye to staged opera productions. He directed the dynamic 2018 world premiere production of Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’ “prism” at Los Angeles Opera and staged a plethora of Baroque and contemporary new operas for Opera Omaha, Opera Philadelphia, Beth Morrison Projects’ Prototype Festival and others.

During the pandemic, Darrah’s affinity for film allowed him to pivot to digital content with ease. Over the last six months, the director has worked with LA Opera, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Opera Philadelphia, Boston Lyric Opera and others to produce visually compelling screen experiences hailed by the New Yorker as “arresting” and by the Boston Globe as “ambitious and spectacular.”

As LACO’s creative director of digital content, Darrah is helping the chamber orchestra try to achieve what so many orchestras have struggled to do: a digital season that, while certainly no replacement for live concerts, is musically and artistically compelling.

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LACO’s 14-episode series, Close Quarters, has thus far featured music by Bach, Copland, Jessie Montgomery and Derrick Spiva Jr., among others. Imagined, directed and produced by Darrah, the series incorporates such elements as poetry by trans activist, actress and television producer Zackary Drucker and an abstract live-action “film” by screenwriter Christopher Oscar Peña (“Jane the Virgin,” “Insecure”).

“James was one of the first directors I thought of for LBO’s 2021 season,” Sharon said. “I am so excited that he’s going to have this platform to embed digital or cinematic approaches into LBO’s offerings. I think what he is going to do there will be on a level any company would envy.”

To witness how adept Darrah is at creating cinematic opera, Sharon suggested checking out the live action film of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs” that Darrah produced for Opera Philadelphia, which features scenes framed as sensitively by the camera as baritone Johnathan McCullough conveys the melodies and emotions. Or, Sharon said, watch Darrah’s mesmerizing, emotionally layered stop-motion animated version of Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher,” produced for Boston Lyric Opera.

James Darrah
James Darrah’s appointment in Long Beach follows a string of projects in which he was tasked with creating visual screen experiences for classical music companies.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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Born in San Antonio in 1984, Darrah spent his childhood in St. Louis. He traces his affection for cinema to his maternal grandmother, who introduced him to the work of Vincent Price and old horror movies, including “The Invisible Man,” during visits to her in Des Moines.

Darrah said his grandmother excelled at “letting cinema and the experience of a film bleed into real life,” recalling the day she showed him Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and followed it up with a lunch themed in the mode of the movie.

“I have no doubt my grandmother made me want to be a director,” he said. “My childhood was full of vivid, creative, cinematic experiences.”

As a teenager Darrah moved with his parents to Rancho Cucamonga. At Etiwanda High School he studied Latin and fell in love with Shakespeare. As an undergraduate student at the University of La Verne, he was active as an actor and director.

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Once he was introduced to the music of Handel, Darrah became obsessed with opera. As a graduate student at UCLA, he toggled between the film and music schools and honed in on opera directing as a career. He spent his last year in the program at Juilliard producing operas with singers he collaborates with to this day.

Darrah, who identifies as bisexual and lives with his partner and their dog, in Echo Park, embodies intersectionality in art and life. An artistic omnivore, he surrounds himself with diverse collaborators — screenwriters, singers, actors, designers, cinematographers and composers from a variety of backgrounds. He devours music by FKA twigs, Robyn and Lizzo with the same ravenous curiosity he brings to operatic repertoire. Prince, he said via text, “is the greatest songwriter of the last century imho.”

Since the early 1980s, Long Beach Opera has made a name for itself as a producer of the niche and the new, bringing obscure Baroque and 20th century works as well as world premieres to adventurous Southern California opera lovers. Chief Executive Rivera sees Darrah as a forward-looking innovator to carry on that tradition. She also is quick to point out that while Darrah’s digital innovations are impressive, he is equally skilled at producing compelling live theater. He also is a strong fundraiser who knows how to produce art on a shoestring budget, she said.

Darrah and Rivera met seven years ago in Nebraska when Rivera, then an active opera singer, was performing the role of Nerone in an Opera Omaha production of Handel’s “Agrippina” directed by Darrah. Having sung the role at major companies in the U.S. and Europe, Rivera said she was slightly wary of working with “a 29-year-old director in Omaha.”

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“But it was obvious almost immediately that [Darrah’s] production was at the same level musically and aesthetically as the one I’d done at the Berlin Staatsoper with Christian Lacroix-designed costumes,” she said. “It was clear he had a deep understanding and care for the music. He was also just a really nice and good human being to work with and a sensitive director. I knew then that he was clearly some kind of visionary.”

If Rivera had any hesitation in hiring Darrah at LBO, it was that he, like almost every other director in opera, is white and male.

“The work of equity, diversity, inclusion and representation is something that has become a core value for me and something I now consider in every decision I make,” she said, pointing out how hard the organization worked to attract a diverse pool of applicants.

Gail Samuel, president of the Hollywood Bowl and chief operating officer of the L.A. Phil, will be the first female leader of the 140-year-old BSO.

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“I really did not want to hire a white man for this job, and I told James that,” she said. Rivera said there are “very, very, very few opera directors of color, and only a few women.” She said she wants to work with Darrah to change that reality by providing opportunities for artists from underrepresented communities.

“James has a very unique combination of skills, talent, expertise and experience, along with a sincere passion and commitment to equity and inclusivity,” she said. She points to his humble spirit, collaborative approach to creating, and ability to hold space for others as qualities that make him “exactly the right person in exactly the right moment to figure out what’s next.”

“He is a good person with a good heart who happens to be brilliant and talented,” she said. “He’s not an over-the-top personality. But when you hear him speak about opera and his passion for the arts, it is clear it comes from such a genuine, right and inclusive space.”


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