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L.A. Opera receives $5-million gift to jump-start pandemic recovery

Dove Cameron and Renée Fleming, in costume, perform on stage.
Dove Cameron, left, and Renée Fleming perform in “The Light in the Piazza” before the pandemic stopped L.A. Opera’s season.
(Dewynters, London)

An outdoor performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” is coming this summer in what is poised to be Los Angeles Opera’s first live, in-person show since March of last year — an event that has been made possible in part by the largest gift the company has received in the COVID-19 era.

Philanthropists Terri and Jerry Kohl are giving $5 million to the company to jump-start its pandemic recovery after more than 13 months of crippling closure.

L.A. Opera is expected to announce the gift and the summer production Wednesday along with a continued commitment to return to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a new season in September. The restart of indoor performances became a real possibility with Tuesday’s announcement by California officials that the state hoped to reopen the economy fully — including the resumption of gatherings indoors — by June 15.

The gift from the Kohls came with the promise of a challenge grant — funds that are unlocked after the company raises an undisclosed amount for its endowment. The endowment will help to support the L.A. Opera orchestra’s 62 core musicians.

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Long-shuttered theater companies, music groups and others were shocked Tuesday by plans for full reopening by mid-June. How realistic is the timeline?

The gift, said L.A. Opera President and Chief Executive Christopher Koelsch, “has an immediate effect on confidence to rebuild our audiences and artists in the wake of such an extensive closure.” He said the Kohls were aware of the extraordinary challenges the organization had faced and acted with great empathy.

Those challenges include the cancellation and postponement of much of the 2019-20 season, and 10% to 25% pay cuts for senior management. Thanks to Paycheck Protection Program loans and the company’s Opera Relief Fund, the organization largely managed to avoid the layoffs and furloughs that affected other arts groups including Center Theatre Group and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, although six full-time administrative employees were eventually laid off.

More than 300 orchestra musicians and artists were under contract for the postponed productions. The artists are paid per production and get no compensation when a show is canceled or postponed, so the company worked with the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists to channel support to them during the pandemic.

In July, L.A. Opera postponed all four productions planned for fall 2020 and projected losses of up to $31 million. It pivoted to virtual programming and directed energy toward an anticipated return to live shows in the fall when it announced five mainstage productions, including Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in L.A. says building construction will run into 2022. Exhibitions and landscaping will follow.

“The joy and challenge of opera is that it always requires a collective act of faith on the part of hundreds of artists and audience members,” said Koelsch, adding that his company had announced its intentions for fall long before there was any guarantee that the state would allow them.

Another leap of faith? A newly commissioned opera by composer and librettist Carla Lucero titled “The Three Women of Jerusalem (Las Tres Mujeres de Jerusalén),” to be performed in 2022 by a cast of hundreds inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

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While Disney Hall remains dark in L.A., Gustavo Dudamel conducts the opera ‘Otello’ in Barcelona, where reopening is not what you might expect.


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