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Action : Los Angeles, Opera Become Kissing Cousins

October 09, 1986|MARYLOUISE OATES | Times Staff Writer

Un bacio, un bacio, ancora un bacio. . . . --"Otello"

A kiss, a kiss, and yet another kiss, to steal a line from Verdi's tragic Moor.

The gala inaugural of the L.A. Music Center Opera on Tuesday night was a great kiss to culture--but, in the clinch, what could have been a passionate smooch became a demure peck. Glamour was present, but only in carefully measured amounts and many of the heavy-hitter names connected with cultural philanthropy were missing from the guest list.

Eschewing the extravagance and bejeweled splendor expected at such events, the $1,000-a-series black-tie audience nevertheless reveled in the success that L.A. was a home to opera--at last.

"This night was a long time in coming," proclaimed Thomas Wachtell, president of the L.A. Music Center Opera and the person described by one cognoscente as "really the person who made this all happen. He bit the bullet and he went out and found Peter Hemmings."

After the performance, the crowd gathered in the Great Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Before they bit down on the rack of lamb with red currant glaze, there was a minute to mingle and spot folks like Maggie and Harry Wetzel, Emmy-winning Nick Vanoff with wife Felisa, Terry and Dennis Stanfill, Peggy Parker, executive vice president for the Music Center (and wife of Thomas) Esther Wachtell, Bernie and Lennie Greenberg, Dee and Dick Sherwood, Olive Behrendt, Joanne and Roger Kozberg, Tony and Beadle Duquette, and Doug Cramer with a table full of elegant women, including Shirlee Fonda, Ames Cushing and Stephanie Beacham, who pointed out that on "The Colbys" she manages a ballet company so she knows about culture, at least Hollywood style.

"I'm so thrilled," Maggie Wetzel told Felisa Vanoff--just about the best way to put what people agreed was the general feeling.

Executive director Peter Hemmings--leaving the table he shared with dinner chairman Hannah Carter and husband Edward, and Philip and Mary Hawley--let the excitement crack his English aplomb, telling the benefit audience that this was indeed "an exciting, stimulating and foolhardy venture."

The first-nighters had greeted the arrival of the evening's Otello, Placido Domingo, with loud applause, some standing at the gold-and-red tables that crowded the Great Hall. Domingo was then hailed by Hemmings as "a singer who cannot be called a guest . . . a friend for the future." And the opera executive also thanked his wife, Jane--now here, but who stayed in London with their children while Hemmings and she were apart "332 nights in the past two years." He also thanked the L.A. Master Chorale and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, which performed.

Bob Fitzpatrick, who headed the Olympic Arts Festival, said that establishment of opera in L.A.--perhaps stimulated by the performances by Covent Garden here that summer of 1984--meant that "I feel at home. For the first time, I can live in L.A. and be happy," said Fitzpatrick, who has resided here for more than a decade.

Even though Domingo didn't venture outside, the arrivals of a handful of stars kept the paparazzi perky. Some staid devotees of high-brow entertainment bolted and ran, shoving cameramen out of their way at the arrival of Esther Williams.

"That's right. It is Esther Williams," one woman insisted, dragging her husband over the red carpet and doing some powerful body-blocking to get a better view.

Great performances inspire great pronouncements. "It is a great cultural event," Susan Anton proclaimed to a cabal of cameramen and TV newsmen.

Joan Hotchkis, complimented on her purple Chanel, said that she and husband John were off to Paris again this week "to do some shopping." Dr. Hal Milstone arrived wearing crutches--from a broken leg, his wife, Roz said, but "he wasn't missing opening night."

The ubiquitous Dr. Armand Hammer was alone. He explained that his wife, Frances, was at home, trying to get over a cold before they leave for the Soviet Union again on Saturday.

Richard Dreyfuss arrived with a great blitz of attention. An opera buff? "Just beginning," he said, and his wife Jeremy added that their neighbors, Doc and Emily Severinsen, were getting them interested.

Stars were on hand--but noticeable by their absence were studio heads, major network execs, the members of the Kitchen Cabinet, and a significant number of the heavy contributors whose gold-lettered names crowd the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's walls. Only half of the 10-woman dinner committee was present at the opening and gala. A number of those who had intermission drinks in The Founders--the private room for major contributors--were not in tux, and had obviously decided to attend on a regular-price ticket for the opening and forgo the gala afterward.

The balmy night may have persuaded benefitgoers to leave the heavy jewels at home--but the absence of established heavy-hitters at such a well-promoted kick-off was not a spur-of-the-moment occurrence.

And should not be lightly kissed off.

See opera review in Calendar.

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