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'New' Opera Pacific Is Awaiting Its Cue

Orange County Performing Arts Center Amid high hopes--and uncertainties--the Orange County Performing Arts Center is slated to open in the fall of 1986. Following is the second in a series examining the impact of the Center on the local arts community.

May 07, 1985|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Talk about a great leap forward. Orange County's Opera Pacific is trying to change--practically overnight--from modest local impresario to big-time Southern California producer of opera and musicals.

In just the past few months, the Costa Mesa-based organization has:

- Hired its first general director, David DiChiera, the highly regarded general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit and past president of Opera America, the national service organization.

- Unveiled proposals for its first production, in the spring of 1987, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and for future joint ventures with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Assn. and San Diego Opera.

- Started a drive to raise $1.5 million by 1987 to underwrite initial productions, and to attract additional monies for expanding educational and talent-development projects.

"It's a quantum jump for us, organizationally and artistically," said Opera Pacific chairman Hugh Saddington. "It's audacious on our part, and we know it. But we have only two years to get ready."

What's the big hurry?

The reason is the Orange County Center's 3,000-seat theater, now under construction in Costa Mesa and set to open in fall, 1986. Like the other local organizations that seek to perform or stage productions at the Center, Opera Pacific is very busy these days, gearing up and lobbying for a spot in the opening season.

The Center so far is negotiating only with the big-name, touring attractions that it believes can fill the house--such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Opera Co. (The opera company, banished from the Los Angeles Music Center in 1982 after 16 seasons there, has been considering a six-week engagement at the Orange County Center in early 1987.)

From the New York City Opera to Opera Pacific may seem a wide gap, but then, backers of the Orange County organization have never been short on confidence.

True, until 1984, the organization had changed little since its founding in 1962.

With an annual budget that never exceeded $15,000, its ventures were small scale. It presented productions (from Verdi and Puccini to Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan) at local theaters, and helped conduct the Metropolitan Opera's annual regional auditions. Since 1979, it has sponsored "Fun With Opera," an introductory project organized by board member Niles Gates, that tours local high schools.

When the organizational leap was first planned last year, the premise was that Opera Pacific would be a Center impresario only. "We had already changed our name (from Lyric Opera Assn. of Orange County) to sound more regional. But we figured our role should be to import the big-name companies," recalled chairman Saddington.

But the opera's search for a general director resulted in a dramatic change of heart.

"We had interviews with like 20 (opera) experts--some candidates, others on a consulting basis. We came away with this advice, 'Don't import; form your own company,' " said Saddington. "They told us people prefer local resident companies--companies that lived and breathed in that community, not some group that is here one week and gone the next."

When DiChiera, 49, arrived in Orange County after his appointment last January, he sounded the same theme.

"I'm here to help build a community for opera and musical theater from scratch. I'm here to build from the inside, not from the outside," he said in an interview.

"Oh, I'm not knocking the superstar kind of productions. This community needs both kinds at the Center; one is supportive of the other. We're talking balance," DiChiera added.

"To me, the big box-office stars are just the cream on the top. There are other considerations for opera and musical theater here. We need programs that provide training for singers and other artists, that develop new and innovative works, that reach nontraditional audiences."

He was not ready to be specific about the initial productions, DiChiera said, except to suggest the choices would be similar to the Michigan Opera Theatre repertoire, which has included "Porgy and Bess," "Sweeney Todd," "The Merry Widow," "The Magic Flute," "Tosca" and "Aida."

Collaborations with other area organizations, such as the Orange County Pacific Symphony, are "more than possible," he said. Productions at the Orange County Center might include "chamber works" in the 300-seat "black box" facility--also to be built by late 1986--as well as the "full-sized works" for the 3,000-seat house.

As DiChiera and the organization's board officers tell it, the "new" Opera Pacific is off to a rousing start. The revamped organization, which now claims a membership of 3,000, has boosted its annual budget to $250,000 and in recent months, more than $140,000 has been raised in private donations.

But what remains uncertain is the organization's role as a producer at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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