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Waxing Rhapsodic : Spirit Of Saint Louis: Bringing Opera To L.a.

April 23, 1985|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Staff Writer

Opera in Los Angeles? Ask Richard Gaddes, founder of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, who has brought that organization from infancy to adolescence in less than a decade.

According to Gaddes, one of two formal consultants to the Music Center Opera Assn.--the other is tenor/conductor Placido Domingo--the failed operatic hopes and unfulfilled promises of the last 50 years in Los Angeles are about to end.

"You are going to have opera now," the 42-year-old impresario from England says, unequivocally. "It was inevitable."

The reasons are many, the sandy-haired opera administrator revealed over coffee last week. "But mostly, it's Peter (Hemmings, executive director of Music Center Opera), who is the right person at the right time to put it all together."

Admitting that he sounds like "Peter's press agent," Gaddes waxed rhapsodic over the direction Music Center Opera is now taking--first, in its presentation, beginning Thursday, of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' production of "The Beggar's Opera" at the downtown Embassy Theatre; second, in its bringing of Deutsche Oper of West Berlin to the Pavilion of the Music Center in September. Gaddes believes these two engagements signal the arrival of Music Center Opera as a viable force in the musical life of Southern California.

"It's going to happen--you are going to have resident opera here," the enthusiastic opera administrator averred. Then he spoke briefly about his own changing situation, as regards the company he founded nine years ago.

"This is my last year as general director. I'm not stepping down, I'm stepping away.

"There are reasons--personal reasons and family reasons. But, basically, at this point in the life of the company I'm more interested in doing something else--and I have no idea what that might turn out to be--than in advancing Opera Theatre into the next phase."

He makes clear that the Missouri company is still at an early stage in its eventual development.

"What comes next is the plateau where we begin to draw into our audience the Italian element, the German element--can you imagine the response in the huge St. Louis German community when we finally put on 'Lohengrin'? We've only scratched the surface of our potential audience. But that's work for the next administrator."

The present administrator, who will spend six months a year in St. Louis until 1987, says he is much more interested "in working with a young company, or one just starting up, than in taking over an existing dinosaur. Fledgling artists have always interested me more than superstars."

Gaddes' role as consultant to Music Center Opera Assn. began serendipitously. "Peter would call me up and ask questions about casting, or technicians or whatever, and I would help as best I could. Then, one day, he said, 'I'd like to use your input in a more formal way.' So I became a consultant.

"But, really, my influence has not been very obvious. Nor will it be. Peter can make his own decisions. He has great instincts, not only in artistic matters, but as a businessman and an administrator.

"Besides, we have no arrangement for me to continue to serve in this capacity beyond 1985. In any case, I doubt that I will be needed anymore after this year."

Having brought Opera Theatre of St. Louis from its first, 10-performance, small-budget ($139,000) season of 1976 to its present position--25 performances in downtown St. Louis, a national tour and a budget of $2.6 million--Gaddes is the first to admit that it took "an incredible amount of my time and my energy" to achieve that position.

After two spring seasons which proved artistically successful but commercially modest, "The turning point was the 1978 season, when the BBC filmed our revival of the 'Albert Herring' production we had presented in our first season. That made all the difference. It gave us an international perspective and caused the local audience to take us seriously."

What makes Gaddes most proud, however, is that despite the byproducts of the company's poverty--the tight budgets and the lack of large endowments under which the young company has always labored--"we have never had a deficit. Ever.

"Perhaps that reflects a lack of imagination on our part, but it is something very positive, nonetheless," he said. "Our supporters never thought in terms of spending more than they could raise, so we have always operated within strict guidelines.

"I suppose, as time passes, the company will change its fiscal procedures. Still, a large part of what we have been able to achieve we can trace back to our financial limitations and the creativity such limitations forced us to draw upon."

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