Clad in a red carpet-worthy scarlet gown and glinting diamonds, a devastated 17th-century nun mourned the death of her estranged child, weeping as she produced a perfectly controlled pianissimo high-A note for an extended 5½ beats.
It is the sort of improbable, ridiculous scene that can play out only in an opera house, where audiences are in the habit of suspending disbelief for the chance to connect with vocal music that unapologetically emotes.
That nun, two fisherman, a magic queen and an assortment of other characters enlivened the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night, all dressed in formal concert attire instead of costumes and backed by an onstage orchestra in place of elaborate sets. The occasion was a concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, which provides two- or three-year residencies for performers aiming for careers in opera.
Already internationally respected, the program positioned itself for more success on Friday, when L.A. Opera announced that famed soprano Susan Graham had signed on as an artistic advisor. She will be in residence for at least 10 weeks every season.
“I’ve had such joy in my career,” Graham said. “I just want to impart to these young, fabulous singers the ability to infuse their journeys with the same kind of joy that I’ve had.”
That joy comes from freedom and finding one’s distinct voice, Graham said. She sees her role less as another teacher offering technical advice and more as a mentor who helps them to find expressive freedom.
Graham was mentored by soprano Christa Ludwig and remembered the ways Ludwig pushed her to explore the psychological, dramatic, philosophical and expressive depths of her characters.
“That really is one of my priorities,” Graham said. “To help them find their voice, and not just their musical one, but their expressive one, and to discover who they are as artists. Young singers often want to be perfect, to do everything right. I want them to get past that, to decide that they have something to say as artists and figure out how to say it.”
For Graham, the appointment came at an auspicious time. At 56, she is at a point in her prolific career where she is choosing to be more selective about her performance schedule. Graham also recently married for the first time. Her husband, producer Clay Brakeley, is a longtime Angeleno, and the two recently purchased a home in Burbank.
If she could go back in time and give herself advice as a young artist, Graham would suggest keeping ears open and mouth closed, joking that the latter was never her forte.
“When you are at that age, if you are lucky, you find yourself in the company of experienced and established veteran artists,” she said. “You can always learn something from them.”
Not bad advice for future L.A. Opera program participants who will find themselves in the encouraging company of not only Graham but also of General Director Plácido Domingo.
If Saturday night’s concert was any indication, singers lucky enough to win a spot in the Young Artists Program should also plan on having a little fun along the way.
The concert was to have featured four veteran stars –– Domingo, Sondra Radvanovsky, Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé –– and a mix of Young Artist Program alumni and current participants. But Damrau and Testé were unable to perform Saturday, still plagued by the illnesses that have forced them to limit their appearances in L.A. Opera’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
With the headliners diminished by half and Domingo manning the orchestra for the majority of the evening, the company’s young artists were given ample stage time, showcasing the program’s talented, diverse bench.
Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee boomed in a dramatic excerpt from Ruperto Chapi’s “La Tempestad.” In a duet from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” soprano Summer Hassan produced an impressively pristine and liquid tone. Tenor Brenton Ryan was suave, sinister and seductive singing “Long live the worm,” a provocative excerpt from John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles.”
In a moving juxtaposition of youthful and mature artistry, tenor Joshua Guerrero melded his sound with Domingo’s during the famously pleasing “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” And it was fascinating to compare the fresh sound of soprano Liv Redpath and the meticulously controlled, developed talent of Radvanovsky, who’s in her vocal prime.
Beaming with pride, Domingo was at the center of the group for the concert’s finale. He tra-la-la-ed his way through the “Champagne Song” from Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” drinking a flute of bubbly and, turning his back to the crowd, offering a cheeky flip of his coattails.
Before they left the stage, the party for these young and not-so-young artists had already begun.
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