Opera is often pigeonholed with imagery of powdered wigs and Valkyrie helmets, not to mention the legendary “fat lady.” With classical music on the decline, it’s easy to become pessimistic for what the future holds for the art, especially in a society that prefers Swift to Strauss. Many opera houses have declared bankruptcy or are on the brink, a grim reality that keeps artists on their toes.
However, in a city where the classical arts often simmer on the backburner, Los Angeles Opera is keen on keeping it alive.
Based in Downtown L.A. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Opera is relatively new for a first-tier company — it was only founded in 1986, as compared to the many centuries of history boasted by opera houses in Europe. And though the art form has seen many changes through its multi-century existence, it’s no secret that opera’s popularity has diminished. In fact, during the economic downturn in the late 2000s, it was the classical arts that took the biggest blow.
Acclaimed tenor-virtuoso Plácido Domingo, who has served as the company’s general director since its 2001-02 season, says many of the changes were related to the Great Recession.
“We had a crisis in 2007,” says Domingo. “The recession seemed like it was endless. The company has grown tremendously since 1986, but it was during this time that the company had to scale back. We went from doing eight or nine productions, to five or six per season. We are now back up to around seven shows, and it is my hope that by the new decade, we will go back to our original schedule.”
Other changes were related to logistics. Once construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall was complete in 2003, L.A. Opera became the primary occupant of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Because of this, L.A. Opera was given greater rein to create not only a full season, but to expand beyond the stage of the Dorothy Chandler. L.A. Opera’s president and CEO Christopher Koelsch says these changes gave the company more artistic freedom and control of the production schedule.
“Since we became principal tenant at the Dorothy Chandler, we’ve pivoted to becoming internationally focused,” says Koelsch. “But we’re also a lot more entrepreneurial, and focused both on foundations of the art form on the main stage and also really putting a lot of effort and interest in the experimental wing of the company.”
In order to keep opera alive in L.A., the company focuses its efforts in keeping it accessible. In 2012, L.A. Opera launched L.A. Opera Off Grand, aimed at increasing the diversity of its audience as well as expanding the experiences for its patrons. Events include avant-garde performances around Los Angeles (including The Theater at the Ace Hotel downtown), and a new program called Opera at the Beach, a live broadcast of its main stage productions aired in high definition on a big screen at the Santa Monica Pier. The initiatives keep James Conlon, music director of L.A. Opera, optimistic.
“We have an audience that is very open,” says Conlon. “This is not a stale audience. Part of that is related to the fact that the opera company is not that old — we don’t have generations of patrons, so it is a young company in that sense. It gives us the opportunity to choose not only interesting repertoire, but to approach standard repertoire in a similar way.”
L.A. Opera also dedicates itself to fostering the futures of its singers, specifically through a residency that gives exceptional talents the opportunity to perform on-stage and coach with some of the best voice teachers in the world. Created by Domingo himself, the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program will also celebrate its 10-year anniversary in the upcoming season.
“L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program will help ensure the highest standards of performance not only at L.A. Opera, but at opera companies around the world,” says Domingo.
Summer Hassan, a third-year participant in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein program, says the program has provided her with opportunities she might have not had access to, had it not been for the supportive nature of L.A. Opera.
“L.A. Opera has incredible connections,” Hassan says. “Most basically, it provides us with an ‘in’ to a lot of auditions at other opera companies that I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to get auditions at, had I not have been in the program. They provide us with language tutors in whatever language we want, and different assets that allow us to refine our artistry, stress-free without the worry of having to pay for these assets ourselves.”
On the brink of the company’s 30th anniversary, changes and new initiatives have been implemented to help make the company more well-rounded. Of all the new initiatives, perhaps the most significant is the establishment of its Artist-in-Residence program that was implemented this season. The program is aimed at developing artistic talent at the maestro’s podium. The program is somewhat unique to L.A. Opera, as most opera houses in the United States primarily promote talent on stage.
The first participant in the program is 26-year-old conductor-composer Matthew Aucoin, who is already on the brink of international success. His residency will include conducting numerous performances with the company over three years, as well as commissioning his own opera in the 2018-19 season. This season, he will also conduct his own new score for F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” for the Opera’s Off Grand series.
“In most operas, there isn’t a role or program for performers who both compose and conduct,” says Aucoin. “What I so admire and appreciate about my colleagues at L.A. Opera is that they are willing to think outside of the box.”
L.A. Opera is keen on keeping the art alive and well on the West Coast. Though the future of opera is directly related to the interest of its audiences, Conlon says L.A. Opera is sustained by the supportive nature of the company.
“I know of no opera company where everybody is so nice and dedicated,” says Conlon. “I realize that ‘nice’ isn’t a profession, but L.A. Opera is remarkably free from pettiness. I think this, along with the new programs we’ve started and have planned for the future, is what is keeping L.A. Opera thriving.”