Folks, I’m generally an optimistic, positive-thinking kinda guy. I try to find the bright side of things and give people the benefit of the doubt, even when most others wouldn’t dream of it.
So leave it to our good friends at Los Angeles Opera to test my ability to maintain a stiff upper lip and keep from screaming “Really? What the F***?!!!” at my computer when, a couple of weeks ago, they released the details of their 2017/18 season.
Because it blows. Like the wind Maria blows the stars around and sets the clouds a-flyin’. Like a toothless [CENSORED] [CENSORED] trying to [CENSORED] [CENSORED] [CENSORED]. It blows hard.
How to put this more delicately: most everything about the upcoming LA Opera season is sad and disappointing. I give it a solid “D,” and that’s even when grading on a curve to account for the company’s relatively staid recent history. Let’s look at the three primary reasons which make it so:
- Small size of the season: For starters, there are only 36 total performances on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion mainstage (six different operas, with six shows each), down from a still-pitiful 38 performances from the current season. Even a crowd pleaser like Carmen is absent extra show dates.
- To put that in perspective, there were a total of 75 performances of ten different mainstage operas in the 2006/07 season, James Conlon’s first as Music Director.
- Even the “Off Grand” productions are fewer in number: fourteen in the current season (not counting an additional three semi-staged performances of Wonderful Town), and only ten next season.
- The timid line-up of main stage operas: This grouping of six productions — two by Bizet, two by Verdi, an operetta by Bernstein, and a Gluck rarity — is thoroughly unimaginative. Sure, you expect some, perhaps even the majority of the productions to be populist filler. But where’s the spice? Where’s the variety of composers and/or any artistic depth? It’s like getting six friends together for a pot-luck, only to find that everyone brought a potato dish; sure, you’ll put with, even enjoy, one serving of mashed potatoes; but maybe not the scalloped potatoes and potato salad too, and certainly not an entire meal of variations on the same tuber.
- Let’s be generous and grant them a pass for offering Carmen yet again; every season typically needs one bona fide warhorse to help pay the bills.
- After kicking off with Carmen, we get The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), a decidedly less popular work by Bizet. LA Opera notes that this will be the first time the company will produce it, and if one were trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, you’d appreciate them plugging this hole and allowing the audience to compare and contrast between the two operas by the same composer. That said, The Pearl Fishers isn’t exactly new to Southern California; both San Diego Opera and the long-lost Opera Pacific performed it multiple times, so its absence from LA Opera’s stage is more of an indictment of their past scheduling missteps than any favor they’re doing for us now.
- The most noteworthy season offering is Orpheus and Eurydice sung in (gasp!) French; this is kinda nice, but when a Gluck opera done in an alternate language is your biggest splash, you’re reaching. Besides that, we get Nabucco, Rigoletto, and Candide. Don’t get me wrong: I like those shows and won’t entirely mind seeing them again; but if you’re already locked into doing the two Bizet operas, how about mixing it up a little? As I wrote when the 2016/17 season was announced,
We haven’t seen Wozzeck, The Fiery Angel, or Queen of Spades in a long time also, why not bring one of them back? The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky is still nowhere to be seen. Ditto Janácek’s From the House of the Dead. . . . I’m not a Wagner fan per se, but a major company like this one should be doing more of his works, shouldn’t they? Even if they’re not yet ready to bring back the Ring cycle, how about some Parsifal or Tannhäuser? Or a little Lohengrin? Or to be really crazy, perhaps some Rienzi?”
- It’s particularly sad when comparing the 2017/18 schedule to that of the 2013/14 season, the most recent one which also opened with Carmen: it included two productions by living composers (Einstein on the Beach by Glass and A Streetcar Named Desire by Previn), one written in the 20th Century (Britten’s Billy Budd), and one uncommon French opera (Massenet’s Thaïs), to go along with more populist shows and composers like Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), The Magic Flute (Mozart), and Falstaff (Verdi). Some might say that this comparison is unfair since Einstein was a one-off traveling production and Streetcar was a late add; fine then, remove them, and the other operas that year still offer more balance than the coming season.
- You wanna get really depressed remembering what LA Opera seasons used to look like? Here’s the line-up for Mr. Conlon’s first year, the aforementioned 2006/07 season:
- La Traviata (Verdi) starring Renee Fleming, Rolando Villazon, and Renato Bruson (replacing an originally announced Dmitri Hvorostovsky);
- Don Carlo (Verdi) with Salvatore Licitra and Dolora Zajick, among others;
- Wagner’s Tannhauser featuring Peter Seiffert;
- Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, and Anthony Dean Griffey in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill), the DVD of which won two Grammy awards for “Best Classical Album” and “Best Opera Recording;”
- Massenet’s Manon with the megawatt pairing of Anna Netrebko and Mr. Villazon;
- L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Monteverdi) featuring Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham and David Daniels;
- Luisa Fernanda, the zarzuela by Federico Moreno Torroba starring Plácido Domingo;
- Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel conducted by Alan Gilbert;
- The Merry Widow (Lehar) starring Ms. Graham;
- and the finale, Porgy and Bess (Gershwin) conducted by John DeMain.
Now THAT is what a typical season should look like; it might not have been perfect, but compared to the 2017/18 season, it’s a dream.
- Lack of star power: Reading that 2006/07 season is a reminder of not only the breadth of productions, but also the number of established singers that used to appear at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion over the course of one year, and by comparison, the absolute dearth of big names this season.
- Let’s see: we’ve got Mr. Domingo in the title role of Nabucco (though judging by past reviews in London and New York, we may be well served by keeping our expectations low), the formidable but aging Leo Nucci making his company debut in only three of the Rigoletto productions, and . . . um . . . that’s about it.
- Soprano Nino Machaidze is a solid singer and we’re mostly glad that she’s one of the few regulars to appear at DCP year in and year out; however, let’s be honest, she’s no Fleming, or Netrebko, or Sondra Radvanovsky (star of this year’s Tosca), or Diana Damrau (the standout soprano making her company debut as all four of the heroines in this year’s Hoffman).
- Ditto the likeable Ana María Martínez. Not only isn’t she one of those more famous sopranos, she also happens to NOT be a mezzo-soprano, a notable point given that her 2017/18 appearance is in the title role of Carmen, a mezzo-soprano staple (BTW: I’m not sure what’s worse, the hamfisted photoshopping of Ms. Martínez’s visage onto the tired and frequently recycled artwork used for the website and season announcement brochure, or the misguided decision to approve said amateurism for publication).
Taken together, those three factors make for a thoroughly underwhelming 2017/18 collection of operas — and frankly, I would’ve much preferred to have been merely “whelmed” (not even overwhelmed) by a new LA Opera season as I have been the past few years (see 2013/14 above, or 2014/15, or 2016/17).
Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t outright give the season a big fat “F” on the report card. A couple of things:
- For starters, I offer two words: James Conlon. Mr. Conlon’s continued presence on LA Opera’s podium is the one thing for which we can all be grateful. Most organizations would kill to have him on the podium for one production, let alone serve as Music Director. In fact, many opera companies — including The Met and San Francisco Opera, to name just two — would probably be better off with him as their Music Director, so the fact that he chooses to make music in DCP’s pit should never be taken for granted.
- The company’s collaboration with Joffrey Ballet’s and noted director and choreographer John Neumeier for Orpheus and Eurydice is a welcome bit of artistic big-thinking, representing a rare bright spot in an otherwise pedestrian season.
Still, this is a city where the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra all show how you can program diverse, even eclectic and challenging, seasons and still draw strong audiences. It’s a region where avant garde companies such as Long Beach Opera and The Industry garner popular as well as critical acclaim. We deserve better.
The really head-scratching part of all of this is that the economic depths of the Great Recession are well behind us now. Similarly, the debt burden from the company’s ambitious Ring cycle is nearly a decade in the past. As noted previously, the company had seemed to be clawing its way from the oblivion– only to roll out this lipsticked pig.
Why? Is the LA Opera artistic triumvirate of Mr. Domingo, Mr. Conlon, and Christopher Koelsch (President and CEO) lacking the vision of, say, the company’s late lamented former COO, Edgar Baitzel? Are they saving up for a truly splashy 2018/19 season or beyond? These are smart, dedicated people who are deeply passionate about their art form — they’ve gotta know that this season is pretty much a dog, right?!?!?!?
I tried to get some answers. Multiple requests for an interview with the amiable Mr. Koelsch were largely ignored; however, I was able to have a brief conversation with Mr. Conlon with regards to his guest conducting appearance with Pittance Chamber Orchestra, the moniker used by some LA Opera musicians who have their own separate concert season.
Towards the end of that chat, I asked Mr. Conlon why the 2017/18 LA Opera season is the way it is, and if/when we can ever expect a return to the relative glories of his inaugural 2006/07 season. His reply was rather direct — and telling:
“First of all, this is not a decision that lies in my domain, nor can I prognosticate. It is absolutely one of our goals to be there. It is, bluntly put, nothing other than a financial issue. . . . We have a fantastic development department, they’ve done a great job, and they’re continuing to. I’m confident that, eventually, we’re going to get back up there.”
There’s good news and bad news in that statement. Unfortunately, the use of that word “eventually” seems to indicate no concrete timetable for the good ol’ days to reappear; it would’ve been much nicer if he’d said something like “soon” or “in the next couple of years” instead.
But there’s still some reason for optimism in that he/they want to and are “confident” that they’ll return to said good ol’ days. And I think his recent contract extension is reflection of that confidence. I asked him why he’s decided to stay at LA Opera despite the financial challenges he mentioned and the strain that puts on the his artistic ambitions for the company. His response was immediate and animated.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision. I love this, I love LA Opera.
Ten years have gone by in a flash. I love the people I’m working with. Aside from the artistic standards which we try to uphold and we often succeed, it’s the nicest opera company I’ve ever worked in: from top to bottom, that means everybody — the orchestra, the chorus, the stage management, the people in the office, the volunteers, everybody – it’s one fantastic opera company. I enjoy that. I like making music with people who like making music. There is a very fresh, creative, willing spirit at LA Opera that makes it easy and rewarding to work. That’s the reason right there.
I do what I want at this point in my life. I don’t make career decisions anymore, I do what I want. As you get older, you hopefully get wiser, but you also realize that every day is precious. You might as well enjoy every day because there’s nothing much else. Enjoyment is what it’s all about.
I have goals for the opera house, yes, and I enjoy trying to make those goals happen. I have enormous latitude here. Think about the whole Britten celebration. Okay, a lot of it was outside LA Opera, but [the company] was also at the center of a lot of it and made it possible.
Also, I love LA. I should say that something like the Britten Project or the Ring Festival: these things are not possible in all cities. LA is a wonderful city from that point of view, open and willing to try, willing to hear things.
As you know, I enjoy public speaking. I’ve had an extraordinary latitude of when and how I can contact and speak with people: I speak at LACMA, at the Hammer, at Colburn, at the Huntington, etc. Most of all, I am able to speak before every performance. I don’t know many other opera companies where I could do that. I have half the audience coming to those talks now. That is unthinkable in many other opera houses. There are pre-performance talks, of course, but not at this scale.
There is Los Angeles and there is Los Angeles Opera. It was not a difficult decision.”
Well, there you go — at least we know that Mr. Conlon should be around for a while. Let’s hope that as utterly disappointing as the 2017/18 Los Angeles Opera season looks on paper, that the individual productions at least turn out to be good. More importantly, let’s hope that the money that is undoubtedly NOT being spent for next season is being saved and invested into a bigger, more artistically rich season soon after that. Because, folks, I’m an optimist. At least I’m still trying to be one for as long as possible.
- Will Farrell as Ron Burgundy from the movie Anchorman: found on giphy.com
- James Conlon: photo by CK Dexter Haven