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Opera Maverick At Music Center

September 01, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

Despite elaborate campaign pretenses, opera has never played a very important part in the fortunes of our vaunted Music Center.

In the bad old days, the powers-that-were thought Los Angeles neither wanted nor needed more than a couple of weeks a year of glamorous, costly San Francisco Opera repertory, warmed over lightly. Then another circle of civic leaders decided we should survive on three or four weeks a year of not-so-glamorous fare courtesy of the New York City Opera.

Then came a bizarre interim regime that decreed nothing was better than something. Now, after 20 years of false promises, fitful starts and shameful stops, the Music Center has finally hired--from Great Britain, of course--its first full-time, resident operatic chieftain.

Peter Hemmings' calling-card effort, a series of performances of "The Beggar's Opera" by a St. Louis company at the ill-suited Embassy Theatre, was, to put it kindly, a miscalculation. Some of his future plans look a bit odd, too.

A British-oriented "Salome" in 1987, for instance, is likely to enlist Sir Charles Mackerras on the podium (he isn't exactly cherished worldwide as a Strauss specialist), Sir Peter Hall as stage director (he comes not-so-fresh from a disastrous "Ring" in Bayreuth), and Lady Hall--a.k.a. Maria Ewing--as the necrophiliac virgin of the title (she is a captivating lyric mezzo, but Strauss happened to write this opera for a dramatic tigress with the voice of an Isolde).

Later this month, Hemmings promises, at last, to announce some of his professional intentions. At that time, he may at least confirm the widespread rumor involving a homemade "Wozzeck" in 1986, to be staged in conjunction with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The impatient, long-deprived opera-maniacs among us, however, will be able to get some idea of his standards during the week beginning Sept. 9. That is when Hemmings and the Music Center Opera Assn. will introduce to Los Angeles the Deutsche Oper--that is, the German Opera--of West Berlin.

The visit was rather hastily planned. The Berliners must continue to carry out business as usual at home while a segment of their company comes here. The Deutsche Oper will send us solo singers, conductors, sets, costumes, a skeletal stage staff and production schemes for three operas. Los Angeles will provide the chorus, the orchestra, a lot of money and, it is hoped, an audience willing to fill the 3,200-seat Pavilion for 10 performances, with tickets ranging from $15 to $100.

Under the circumstances, logic might have preferred some really echt Wagner or Strauss or Beethoven. But such importations apparently proved either unimportant to the local sponsors or unfeasible.

For the gala opening bill, our German benefactors will delve in ultra-conventional Italian verismo . The anachronistic vehicle is to be an Italian "Tosca" enlisting the Polish soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara, the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and the Swedish baritone Ingvar Wixell.

This will be followed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's macabre exercise in decaying romanticism, anno 1920, "Die Tote Stadt." The virtually all-American cast will be led by a former Los Angeles soprano, Karan Armstrong.

Then come five performances of Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," ironically featuring two singers who performed the same roles during the last, ill-fated New York City Opera season here. Hemmings added three extra "Figaros" to the agenda when he abandoned his original plan to present a trio of Prussian operetta concerts.

He blithely jumps on the Hollywood-ballyhoo bandwagon, incidentally, in his brochure blurb: "We were recently reminded by the Oscar-winning 'Amadeus' how enormous was Mozart's power and influence."

The wisdom of the repertory and casting choices remains open to question, as does the expenditure involved. But the mini-season of Berlin Opera must be significant for at least one major reason. It introduces to Los Angeles one of the most controversial, most inventive and most sought-after stage directors in Europe today: Goetz Friedrich.

Friedrich calls himself "a stupid idealist." He may not be an easy man to have around a company.

He makes heavy demands regarding scenic values, rehearsal time and casting policies. He belongs to a stubborn postwar school that takes opera seriously as modern theater. He feels no need to follow any tradition blindly. He often likes to expose--or, perhaps, to impose--controversial sociological, political and psychological elements in his productions.

In most opera companies, he might cause problems for the beleaguered general director. In West Berlin, however, he causes no problems at all. After all, he is the beleaguered general director, and has been since 1981.

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