L.A. Opera at home with ‘Golden West’

Dancing girls, water tank among props that transformed plaza for bow

HOLLYWOOD — The Old West depicted onstage in the Los Angeles Opera’s season opener, Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West,” was extended across the Music Center’s plaza for the company’s annual gala.

About 500 opening-night patrons were greeted by dancing girls and a fiddle ‘n’ piano duo in the center of a rebuilt gold-mining town, complete with saloon, little red schoolhouse and a water tank. An enormous, well-stocked bar served as a backdrop for band that supplied pop hits of the last 50 years for dancing.

“What opera could be more appropriate for California?” L.A. Opera artistic director Placido Domingo queried before thanking the evening’s benefactors, the Milan Panics, corporate sponsors and the cast that included Domingo’s leading lady, Catherine Malfitano. She was making her debut as Minnie against Domingo’s Dick Johnson.

On hand for opening night was Garry Marshall, who will helm an opera in the 2004-05 season, most likely Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” with Federica Van Stade starring. Marshall said his taste leans more toward operetta because “my pace is a little faster.”

“There are two things I have always wanted to do — direct an opera and emcee a parade,” Marshall said. “I’m glad I’m taking the high road.”

Marshall joins a growing list of Hollywood directors who have ventured to downtown L.A. to direct opera. William Friedkin did a double bill of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Gianni Schicci,” Bruce Beresford helmed “Rigoletto,” John Schlesinger did “Billy Budd,” Herb Ross shepherded “La Boheme” and Julie Taymor directed “Flying Dutchman.”

“Opera music moves people like no other music,” Marshall, a former drummer, noted. “I have a lot to learn, and I’ll have a few years to study how to do this.”

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