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L.A. Opera's Vision for the 21st Century

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A scene from "Dido and Aeneas," with John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress. Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera

At 28 years old, Los Angeles Opera is relatively young. It is also the fourth largest opera organization in the country. No easy feat when one considers the state of American arts institutions today, with major companies folding (the 70-year old New York City Opera sadly closed its doors in 2013, while San Diego Opera went to the brink and back this year), and funding a constant challenge. But LAO, with megatenor/baritone Plácido Domingo, a huge international drawing card as its general director, and maestro James Conlon its esteemed music director, also has a great mind at the helm: CEO and President of LAO, Christopher Koelsch.

This triumvirate seems to be riding a visionary wave, one that's establishing LAO as an opera company for the 21st century, with Massachusetts-born Koelsch, who speaks eloquently and with conviction, leading the charge. The CEO and President of LAO, a post he's held since 2012, Koelsch, tall, lean and bespectacled, is the go-to guy who oversees every aspect of daily operations, including ticket sales, season planning, and, yes, the bottom line. The 43-year old has also supervised the creation of more than 32 new productions, including five world premieres, working with each creative team to manage every phase of development from initial conception to opening night.

A tall order for anyone, but for Koelsch, who has been with LAO for 17 years, it's as much a passion as it is a job, his tenure having begun as assistant to the late Peter Hemmings, who was the company's inaugural director in 1986 before he stepped down in 2000 because of health reasons.

A scene from "Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera
A scene from "Bluebeard's Castle." Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera
Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of Dido and Aeneas. Photo: Craig Mathew / LA Opera
Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of "Dido and Aeneas." Photo: Craig Mathew / LA Opera   

"We are a more flexible, facile institution that we used to be," explained Koelsch matter-of-factly. "The world around us has changed a lot and we need to change with it."

As for working hand in glove with Domingo and Conlon, he added: "From an artistic programmatic point of view, we don't always share the same taste, but my job is to implement the company they want. Because I'm here day to day -- and it's important that we remember that opera is an international art form -- each individual opera company needs to be reflective of the city and the moment in which it exists.

"That's what we're striving for and to some degree have achieved."

Christopher Koelsch.
Christopher Koelsch.

Violin-trained, Koelsch, a Colgate University theater graduate with a Master's in dramaturgy from the University of Michigan, began his career at the Spoleto Festival USA, where he was rehearsal administrator. Relocating to the West Coast to become company manager for the now-defunct Opera Pacific before landing with Hemmings, Koelsch hadn't given a thought to one day having his boss's job.

"It was nothing I'd ever imagined," he says. "In fact, my first experience with the company [was when] I was out here visiting a friend and someone was supposed to arrange tickets for us to see "Traviata." The tickets weren't at Will Call and we couldn't get in, so we ate dinner on the Plaza and my friend accidentally threw her car keys away with dinner -- and we got run out by security."

"That being said," added Koelsch, "when I got the job I understood the mechanics of the company and its missions, values and priorities. We had a couple of very different models of how it might function internally, and externally, I never felt to the manor born, but felt extremely prepared when I took the reins."

Koelsch, who now oversees an annual operating budget of $43 million and is looking to expand the number of main stage productions, also has several commissions for new operas in the "pipeline." Indeed, in a bold move last year, the CEO visibly raised the company's profile by scrapping an older production of Mozart's "Magic Flute" and brought, in its stead, a live-action cartoon version directed by Komische Oper Berlin's intendant (director), the outspoken rebel, Barrie Kosky. This U.S. premiere proved such a hit that additional performances were added, something almost unheard of in opera houses.

John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress in "Dido and Aeneas," with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera
John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress in "Dido and Aeneas," with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera

Was this an act of bravado, insanity or sheer daring? "I try to be impulsive," said the always impeccably dressed Koelsch, "but I think that daring is built into the DNA of the institution that Peter built."

Fair enough, but what did Domingo think?

"We have been working together for 17 years, so we've built a trust. It's the only way that, frankly, I would have gotten the job, and not being too sentimental, it's the great gift of my life to work with him. His knowledge, his musicality, his generosity as a human being and artist are kind of the perfect qualities you want to model yourself as a person on and an opera company on.

"With "Flute," I brought the suggestion to him and mounted the argument why we should do it. He pushed back a little but then trusted it. It's a negotiation like any other. I've had ideas he hasn't liked and he's said why. To my mind, it's a perfect dance. I have so much to learn from his experience - that's one of the huge benefits of his being in the company."

Koelsch added that because LAO is fairly young, it's unencumbered by a tradition. "But we are stewards of a great tradition. You get into dangerous territory if you try to chase the cool."

Chasing the cool in opera usually means contemporizing settings, making use of modern dress and the like, with international theater director Peter Sellars having done precisely that some 30 years ago with his re-imagining of the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy. (Sellars' "Così fan tutte" was set in a diner on Cape Cod, "The Marriage of Figaro" in Manhattan's luxe Trump Tower and "Don Giovanni" in New York's Spanish Harlem, cast and clad as a blaxploitation film).

Today we have Kosky, whose contract with Komische has been extended through 2022, with his latest production for LAO opening October 25 and running through November 15. Two one-acts not generally paired, Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas" (Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner, respectively, in the title roles), and Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" are separated by 222 years. The former explores the fine line between devotion and obsession, with a queen falling prey to the machinations of a formidable enemy, ultimately losing her heart to a man who abruptly abandons her. Bartók's suspenseful orchestral showpiece features an impulsive young bride (Claudia Mahnke) turning her back on her family, only to uncover increasingly dark truths about her new husband, Bluebeard (Robert Hayward).

Kateryna Kasper as Belinda in "Dido and Aeneas" Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera
Kateryna Kasper as Belinda in "Dido and Aeneas" Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera

Kosky's pairing shines new light on the unbearable consequences of unconditional love, with the radical director likening "Bluebeard's Castle" to Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" -- in Hungarian.

Is Kosky, one wonders, the future of opera?

Koelsch paused, measuring his words: "Barrie is part of a vanguard of incredibly exciting directors. He also has the benefit of running an opera house and is able to achieve that vision as an independent producer on his own and architect of the Komische. He isn't the future of opera," Koelsch countered, "but he represents a vanguard of revolution of opera that is extremely reverent towards music, but is not so reverent as to be afraid of breaking it.

"There are times in which the Purcell just stops. In the middle of the piece, the show stops for a theatrical effect. But for a performance to stop midstream is a revolutionary idea -- and this happens twice during the evening. The show doesn't break but is made stronger by the arresting element of confidence in helming it. Barrie is not the future but does represent a new wave of confidence."

Koelsch went on to say that the future of opera has been in question for 400 years, reiterating the fragility of the art form. "But I do think it's important for people of both sides of the stage to have utter confidence in its viability and strength. This goes back to my evangelism - I believe in my very core in opera's power. The structural issues, the money issues, are extremely pressing, particularly in America, but in the end, you can't have people in the vanguard who don't believe in its future. Barrie believes 100 percent in its future."

Koelsch waiting a beat, added, "As do I, as does Plácido, as does James."

Koelsch and Kosky could be the Nichols and May of opera, the duo having had an exuberant conversation that was recently live-streamed, another first for LA Opera, as they traded observations, quips and musings on the state of the art form.

One particularly insightful, if wild assessment, was Kosky referring to what he called, the "Opera Taliban," in which certain opera devotees believes it is a fixed art form. "It always has been and always will be to them, but," he added, "it cannot exist without interpretation.

"Opera when it's right, is the greatest art form," exclaimed Kosky. "It combines music, theater, visual arts, sculpture, lights, performers. What other form of art does that - and tells stories, too? It's an amazingly complex art form [in which you] take complex ideas and present something to the audience that is so emotionally intense. I want to be taken somewhere, I want to be taken outside my emotional comfort zone. I want to be seduced."

Koelsch acknowledged that although some of Kosky's notions are outrageous, he is not a provocateur. "He's an honest person and these are genuine observations he has."

Koelsch, too, craves seduction, for him and his audiences - even if they are unable to experience LA Opera live at the Music Center. Koelsch's solution? He's helping bring the art form to the people. Last month, he inaugurated a biannual series of free live video broadcasts sponsored by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, with the first screening Verdi's beloved, "La Traviata." The series, dubbed "Opera at the Beach," was filmed opening night of the 14-15 season, then broadcast live a few days later in high-definition from the Pavilion to the big screen at the Santa Monica Pier.

Other operatic bon bons also on tap this season: John Corigliano's grand opera buffa, "The Ghosts of Versailles," is slated for February 7 through March 1. The first full-scale production in this century, it's extravagant and tuneful, touching and entertaining -- an opera that turns history on its head as love attempts to alter the course of destiny.

Left to right: Kateryna Kasper as Belinda, Paula Murrihy as Dido and Summer Hassan as the Second Woman in "Dido and Aeneas" Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera
Left to right: Kateryna Kasper as Belinda, Paula Murrihy as Dido and Summer Hassan as the Second Woman in "Dido and Aeneas" Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera

Then there's "Hercules vs. Vampires," a 1961 sword-and-sandal cult fantasy film synchronized to a live 26-piece orchestra and cast of singers. It's slated for four performances in late April.

Inquiring minds want to know: What's up with that?

Koelsch explained: "We started a kind of wing of the company, Off Grand, meant to encompass some of the work we were doing and pushing ourselves to be more experimental and cheekier. With the notion that opera should be for all people, it's our collective desire to traffic in work that feels idiomatic in the city. And the relationship between film and opera is interesting to me."

To that end, when the onscreen actors in "Hercules vs. Vampires" open their mouths to speak, the audience will instead hear their lines sung by LAO's cast of singers from the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, accompanied by the orchestra. It's in the tradition of "Les Enfants Terribles," in which Philip Glass wrote an opera triptych (1991-1996), that he described as an homage to writer and film director Jean Cocteau, based on his prose and cinematic work.

"When I was at Spoleto," recalled Koelsch, "I worked on "Les Enfants Terribles," and have always been attracted to that idea where you would compose an opera, dropping out the soundtrack and substituting an opera composition. Our Young Artist program is in its seventh year and keeps producing incredible talent. We've been doing fully-staged operas with The Colburn School, but I was looking for an additional forum for people to be exposed to these young singers."

Baroque instruments are prominent in the orchestra for "Dido and Aeneas" Photo: Craig Mathew
Baroque instruments are prominent in the orchestra for "Dido and Aeneas" Photo: Craig Mathew,

Closing the season in June is the West Coast premiere of "Dog Days," part of an initiative to present new operas at REDCAT. The unsettling 2012 work, composed by David T. Little with a libretto by Royce Vavrek (after a short story by Judy Budnitz), blends classical vocalism with, well, dark heavy metal influences.

"By directly engaging with a group of composers that I think are the next wave of main stage opera composers, but in a way that has a lighter financial footprint and gets those voices heard on a regular basis," explained Koelsch, "incentivizes people to look at the company in a slightly different way."

And so they are. With Koelsch a key to unlocking the sometimes mysterious, but always intriguing high art form, this CEO always ponders the future, but is living in the moment.

He's also living downtown. "I have a six-minute commute," he declared gleefully. "My neighborhood is currently a war zone of construction, but I'm watching this as an urban experiment -- how you maintain the character of a neighborhood while allowing for gentrification. It's also exciting because I've never lived in a place that's in the process of reinventing itself."

Much like Los Angeles Opera itself.

Added Koelsch: "Opera wrestles with the big questions of humanity. We're at a moment in our history where people need to wrestle with those questions. Opera is a secular religion. People don't want to go to church, but people want to get an emotionally exhaustive evening in the theater -- in the best possible way. It is wildly entertaining - and I don't want to take that out -- but it does feel profound as you reflect on the nature of things.

"If you can be daring in a way that feels authentic and legitimate to the place and time in which this company exists," said Koelsch, a fervency in his voice, "then I think that is a way forward for us. For me as a human being, that's more interesting than playing Angry Birds on my iPhone."

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