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Los Angeles Festival : Robert Stack And The 'La Boheme' Connection

September 11, 1987|LIBBY SLATE

When Robert Stack attended the opening-night performance of "La Boheme" Tuesday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, the 68-year-old actor was more than just another of the opening-night glitterati.

Stack and his family are historically connected to the popular Puccini work that launched the second home-grown season of Los Angeles Music Center Opera: It was Stack's grandfather who was responsible for the United States premiere of "Boheme" 90 years ago next month in Los Angeles.

" 'La Boheme's' being performed here first only happened, in a sense, by mistake," said Stack the other morning at his Bel-Air home.

"It was all due to the salesmanship of my mother's father, Charles Modini-Wood. He was a tenor who had toured with Nellie Melba and who in 1897 was manager of the Los Angeles Theater on Spring Street, which my great-grandfather owned.

"The company touring the production, the Del Conti Italian Opera Company of Milan, had been appearing in Mexico and was supposed to go from there to San Francisco.

"But my grandfather, being an opera singer himself, went to Mexico City and spoke to them--in Italian, as they couldn't speak any English--and talked them into appearing in Los Angeles on the way north. They came here by train and brought their own chickens and everything else."

The arrival of the contingent of 91 singers and their 19-member orchestra was delayed a day by a railroad washout in Arizona--perhaps a portent of things to come. Their weeklong run was marred by unseasonably heavy rains.

Besides getting wet, the Del Conti troupe had to contend with the public's apathy towards opera.

Unlike San Francisco residents, who had supported grand opera for almost 50 years, Angelenos of the era were less than ardent about the medium. They were preoccupied instead with the new oil strikes on the city's outskirts and the development of electric railways; for recreation, men turned to golf, women to afternoon teas and musicales. Even local musicians might have preferred a repertory more familiar than "Boheme," "Otello" and "Un Ballo In Maschera."

The first of three performances of "La Boheme" was given Oct. 14, 1897, with Linda Montanari as Mimi. Only 532 people, mostly native Italians and Mexicans, none of them society figures, showed up at the lavish 1,200-seat theater. The company garnered an enthusiastic response and favorable reviews, but only $327.70 in box-office receipts.

"How ironic," Stack said. "Here my grandfather tried so hard to get the company to come, and nobody gave a damn."

Beyond the historical connection, "La Boheme" has particular meaning for Stack's family for other reasons. Stack's aunt, lyricist Mona Wood Bonelli, is the widow of Metropolitan Opera baritone Richard Bonelli, who sang the opera many times.

Indeed, if family history is any indication, by rights Stack should himself have been an opera singer, instead of an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning actor who for several years has served by Presidential appointment on the National Council for the Arts.

His maternal grandmother, soprano Mamie Perry, had studied opera in Europe and at 18 had made a successful debut in Milan. Her father, William H. Perry, persuaded her to return to Los Angeles to visit her mother, then forbade her to pursue a career in Europe or elsewhere.

"At that time," Stack said, "appearing on the professional stage was like opening a cathouse.

"Mamie met Charles Modini-Wood, who'd come to L.A. for his health, and they got married. He went into the lumber business and then became manager of the Los Angeles Theater after my great-grandfather Perry bought it."

(The Moorish-style theater at 227 S. Spring St. later became the Lyceum motion picture house. The location is now a parking lot.)

Stack's mother, Elizabeth Wood, also had a professional-quality voice, Stack said. But her father in turn dissuaded her from joining the San Carlo Opera Company in favor of marriage to James Langford Stack.

"My father was an Irishman and had no voice, and that's why I have no voice," Stack said, ruefully. "With my maturation I should have been in music, but I listened to myself and decided to save the audience a tremendous amount of grief."

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