Andreas Mitisek has plenty of reasons to be nervous: It's just a few minutes before he'll vault onstage to talk about "Medea," the bloody, extreme opera he's distilled and remade. And it's only an hour before the boyish 47-year-old will conduct the orchestra during a performance of the piece. Mitisek also designed the production's stark lighting — emitted eerily from below — that had been sharply criticized in a review a few days before.
But instead of composing himself in a green room, trying to control his anxiety while memorizing his speech or conducting, Mitisek is relaxing on an audience seat, discussing his love of putting on shows.
"It excites me and doesn't make me nervous," says Mitisek, who also runs Long Beach Opera, the company behind the production. As for his speech and the opera's music: "If I don't know it by now..."
Dressed in black, with soft blue eyes and choppy dark hair, the Austrian looks like he could be running a Viennese club that plays brooding, bass-heavy electronica.
But Mitisek is trying to make opera — and Long Beach Opera in particular — more approachable. "I'm out there talking to people before every performance. It's not an institution that's a temple: We're all together on a journey."
Before this Sunday afternoon performance in February, Mitisek is not inside an opera house or even a dedicated theater space but rather a former furniture showroom on a Long Beach street that could be Anywhere U.S.A.: An orthodontist, shoe store and dentist are nearby.
Inside the building, however, is definitely Somewhere. Part of the space is comfortable — a makeshift lobby has been filled with couches on which audience members lounge before curtain time — while other aspects are austere: The industrial stage is as stripped down as the production itself, and these opera-goers will queue up outside to use portable toilets. In some ways the company is a West Coast parallel to Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, N.Y., or Chicago Opera Theater, but neither offer such informal accommodations.
A few minutes later, Mitisek climbs onto the stage and begins to talk to several hundred audience members about chopping more than an hour out of Cherubini's 1797 opera of revenge and shifting it to English. He calls it "a story that makes 'Fatal Attraction' look like a lover's tiff."
And his production, he says — his cheery, open manner at odds with the grim subject matter — should be "sort of an opera espresso: condensed, strong, leave you wanting more. And make your heart beat."
When Mitisek talks about what he does at Long Beach Opera he always comes back to the idea of winning over people. "When I came here," he says of taking over leadership in 2004, "the word was, 'Here are the people who are interested in what we do — that's it.' I just couldn't believe that."
Mitisek grew up in Vienna and at 25 founded a small avant-garde, contemporary-minded opera company there in 1990. A few years later he visited LBO founder Michael Milenski during a U.S. visit to generate conducting work.
Milenski's company, which he founded as Long Beach Grand Opera in 1979, five years before Los Angeles Opera's birth, often struggled for funds. But it was known for edgy productions and imaginative programming. In 1998, Mitisek began conducting for the company and the next year became principal conductor.
When Milenski stepped down, he passed the reins to the younger man, in whom he recognized a similar strain of iconoclasm. The opera then had a budget of about $430,000, accumulated debt, and a full-time staff of two.
For all their differences of generation and nationality, the men's visions coincided. "I do believe that the theatrical effect of the opera we do is as important as the music," Mitisek says. "There are a lot of pretty operas out there, but it's difficult to make a hard, dramatic statement out of them."
His view of sets and costumes followed similar lines. "This is a story between people," he says of his operas. "Not a story between set pieces."
Institutions that lose their founders, especially founders with strong visions, often struggle. "I immediately thought, "Who could possibly do this?'" Sue Bienkowski, now president of the LBO board, says of Milenski's resignation. "When he mentioned Andreas, I thought, 'Who is this guy?' I'd seen him conducting, but I knew there was a lot more to it than that."
At the time, Long Beach typically offered two productions a year, squeezed into a "festival" of two weekends.
"I thought it needed more stability, and visibility," Mitisek says. "The festival format made it hard to keep visible for the rest of the year. To be a part of the community here, we needed to be more present."
Mitisek also wanted to connect to other groups in the region: He's taken performances to museums, put on events at a local cinema and is collaborating with Orange County's Pacific Symphony for a Philip Glass festival tied to LBO's production of the composer's "Akhnaten" this month. He sees these as steps to expanding his audience.
A lot of what Mitisek says about reaching new audiences, engaging the community, forming partnerships and so on is standard talk for 21st century arts organizations. But he's actually made it work.
The group has run a deficit for much of its existence — "financial trouble has been part of the whole Long Beach Opera history," he says — but by 2009 he put the company in the black by increasing donations and selling more tickets.
The annual budget is now $1.2 million, more than double what it was when he took over, and the LBO is putting up four operas a season instead of two. Its staff is now six full-time and three part-time workers.
Many Southland opera fans revere the company's risk-taking. Los Angeles Opera bassist David Young, who sometimes plays with LBO, calls the music-making there "not complacent but intense and committed." L.A. Opera's Plácido Domingo credits the group with "some of the most eclectic and exciting performances in the United States," praising especially its operas in nontraditional spaces.
Most impressively, amid an economic downturn that has hit arts groups especially hard, the LBO has increased subscribers sevenfold since 2008. (Huge discounts have not hurt.)
Mitisek credits part of this with working harder to reach more people and the way the Internet has spread the word. "If the word doesn't get out," he says, "it doesn't matter what you do."
The furniture showroom where LBO put on "Medea" was not an isolated incident: In 2008 the group staged Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus & Euridice" inside an Olympic-size swimming pool; it was so popular the company repeated it last year.
The unconventional settings are challenging, Mitisek says, but they're important because they disorient opera-goers. "I want the audience to be more sensitive in a performance," Mitisek say. Walking into an unfamiliar space, he says, is the opposite of a conventional opera experience where "you sit in the same seats for 10 years."
"The very first time I suggested doing opera in parking garage, there was eyebrow-raising," he says of Grigori Frid's "The Diary of Anne Frank," staged in 2007 and '08. "But the response shows it was the right place for the right piece."
"Medea" closed in February, after three sold-out performances. Next up this season is the West Coast premiere of "Akhnaten," a 1983 Glass opera about the rise to power and overthrow of the Egyptian pharaoh; Mitisek calls the piece "a sensual experience, visually and musically" with an unexpected resonance with today's news.
"Don't expect 'Aida' costumes," he says; the opera's visuals will come from a video projection in the Terrace Theater. "It's not about re-creating Egypt onstage, with pyramids and so on. It's about the struggle of his vision."
Shostakovich's uncharacteristically playful "Moscow, Cherry Town" will be staged in May in Long Beach, Santa Monica and Irvine. (The 2008 closing of Orange County's Opera Pacific likely has helped LBO's reach; its audience comes mostly from Los Angeles and Orange counties.)
The season concludes with "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" by David Lang. Mitisek calls the piece — a sort-of allegory about slavery inspired by a story by Ambrose Bierce — "a fascinating cross between opera and theater." The opera will be performed at the Terrace, with audiences seated onstage.
More broadly, Mitisek would like to stage six operas a year and use more unusual spaces. "And I'd like to create a series of smaller, more adventurous pieces, in a more underground, off-limits way, where we can push the boundaries even more."
As exciting as this sounds — especially when many arts groups are retreating — it makes you wonder if Mitisek can continue to do it all. ("Mitisek wore one hat too many," Times critic Mark Swed wrote in a review of a "Medea" marred by a faulty light.) Can he oversee the company as artistic and general director and make sure the lights don't blind opera-goers?
Mitisek says a stage light was accidentally kicked out of position during the performance. "That's the trouble with live theater," he says. "It didn't happen because I was spread thin."
Mitisek is excited by what the future might bring.
"We are not bound by one location," he says. "We can go wherever we want to with just about everything."
Ironically, the Austrian Mitisek, raised in a culture with copious government arts funding, has a much more expansively American attitude toward arts audiences and financing than the Colorado-reared Milenski, who was dedicated more to the integrity of the group than to reaching out.
Even more than his predecessor, Mitisek hopes he can engage people by moving away from opera's accumulate clichés — its big gowns and sumptuous productions of Puccini. "I like breaking the boundaries of what opera is."