Thawing New Opera in Long Beach

Members of the Nannette Brodie Dance Theater - Violence in the Border | Photo: Doris C. Koplik.
Photograph by Doris C. Koplik.

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"Living composers need to find places to present our work. If we don't have that, then a score is like frozen information," says composer Gabriela Ortiz. "We need performers to bring the music to life. It's so important that there are companies taking the journey to present new things." Ortiz lives and works in Mexico City, but it was in Long Beach that her narco-opera "Camelia La Tejana: Only the Truth" got its U.S. premiere. The presenting company, Long Beach Opera (LBO), has made a name for itself in the eclectic arts landscape of Southern California by thawing the scores of living opera composers and challenging audiences' presumptions about how opera must look or sound.

Austrian conductor Andreas Mitisek has been the LBO's artistic director since 2004, after Michael Milenski, who founded the company, retired. Milenski built LBO over 25 seasons on a foundation of unconventional works often neglected by larger or more mainstream companies. It's a philosophy that Mitisek fell easily into and LBO has cemented its reputation as a risk-taker under his leadership.

"Camelia la Tejana," Long Beach Opera | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff.
"Camelia la Tejana," Long Beach Opera | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff.

"Long Beach Opera stimulates the curiosity that we all have -- through the things we do, how we do them and where we do them. We make people go further than what they might have chosen originally," he says.

When Mitisek looks out into his audiences, he says he sees the faces of people who are ready for adventure and discovery, whose minds are open and who are willing to let their imagination be engaged.

"I think a great performance benefits from an exchange between audience and performers. That's what I see our audience bring. These are the people who are attracted to what we do."

LBO mounts works even avid opera fans probably haven't seen, and often in locations no one else would peg as an opera venue. Every season, LBO stages at least one production in a non-traditional space. This month, they'll present Ernest Bloch's "MacBeth" at the Port of Los Angeles. Three seasons ago, they brought audiences to the Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach for a production of Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Euridice" starring Elizabeth Futral.

Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral in "Orpheus & Euridice" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff.
Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral in "Orpheus & Euridice" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff.

"I like to relate everyday spaces to who we are and how we are," says Mitisek. "When people go back to the swimming pool, they'll relate it not just to swimming, but to art, to an experience that's different. People see works of art, opera, whatever you want to call it, in a space that's not necessarily connected to art and then a connection develops: everything around us can be art of some sort."

Mitisek says that over time, the definition of opera and its boundaries have expanded. Even so, today's composers are tasked with making a classic art form relatable to modern audiences.

"Opera sounds pretty fancy," says composer Michael Gordon, whose "Van Gogh" was produced by LBO this season, "but if you think of it as a bunch of people singing, maybe it's less intimidating and more inviting."

Being relevant and not intimidating are key concepts in Mitisek's approach to programming. He says he doesn't discriminate based on an opera's age -- "I've done things from Vivaldi and Handel" -- but he's attracted to contemporary pieces because they often hold the most meaning for contemporary audiences living contemporary lives.

Gabriela Ortiz' "Camelia La Tejana: Only the Truth" is a good example of this. Performers wearing jeans and cowboy hats run, dance, love and fight along a raised platform meant to evoke a border crossing. They sing about the opera's namesake, a murderous drug-runner made famous by a popular 1970s song by the Norteño band Los Tigres de Norte. The musicians, nestled under the wood and metal structure, use orchestral instruments to perform a score that borrows from classical and Mexican regional music styles. Behind the musicians and singers, giant screens show the audience artful footage of the locations named in the opera... a train track, a computer screen, a street in Ciudad Juarez.

Anyone sitting in the audience expecting a robust soprano in a Viking helmut to shatter a glass with her high notes would have had their notion of opera immediately challenged. In the place of that opera stereotype, were characters from modern day, portraying real-life drama, but still wrapped in the artistry, discipline and elegance of opera.

"Camelia" Opening Set | Photo: Chadd Chambers.
"Camelia" Opening Set | Photo: Chadd Chambers.

"Camelia La Tejana" is one of five productions in Long Beach Opera's current season. Mitisek calls it their "Borderline" season, since all five operas take as a subject the line between reality and illusion. All but one of the "Borderline" operas are written by a living composer. Philip Glass' "The Fall of the House of Usher" opened the season. Ortiz' "Camelia La Tejana" was next. In May, LBO presented a double bill of Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon's "Van Gogh" and "The Tell Tale Heart" by Stewart Copeland, founder and drummer of The Police.

The 2013 season concludes in June with Ernest Bloch's "MacBeth." Bloch may not be a living composer, but staging his version of Shakespeare's tale of witches and blood-soaked royals still qualifies as adventurous. Bloch finished the opera in 1906. In 1938, he saw it banned in Italy by the Fascist government then in power. Apparently, they weren't fans of Bloch's operatic exploration of how power influences human behavior. By 1953, the ban had been lifted and "MacBeth" was produced in Rome and subsequently in Trieste, Italy. It's been staged only once in the US -- at the Juilliard School of Music in 1973. LBO's production will be the opera's West Coast Premiere.

"Camelia la Tejana," Long Beach Opera | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff.
"Camelia la Tejana," Long Beach Opera | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff.

New operas. Novel locations. There's one more crucial ingredient in Long Beach Opera's approach. Before each performance, Mitisek takes the stage and reads a letter "written" by a figure, real or imagined, associated with the opera. Edgar Allen Poe wrote the LBO about "Fall of the House of Usher." Camelia La Tejana herself asked Mitisek to address the audience on her behalf. The letters usually end with a subtle fund-raising message, but they also provide context for what the audience is about to see and hear. The idea is to break down barriers between audience and artwork however that might be possible.

In any conversation about Long Beach Opera, one word is bound to come up: risk. It's a company that delights in taking risk, even when that means embracing another concept human nature is usually tempted to avoid.

Says Mitisek, "we need to take risks and also we need to accept the opportunity and possibility of failure, otherwise we would only do the same ten old operas that everyone knows will be good. It's a thrilling adventure."


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