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OPERA : Taking a Fresh Eye to 'La Boheme' : Film director Herbert Ross enjoys nothing so much as a new challenge, and he's got a big one in the new L.A. production

August 29, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. Times librarian Maloy Moore contributed to the research in this article

Herbert Ross was ready to start, his sleeves rolled up, his body poised at the edge of a high black stool. The veteran director had been through opening days before, plenty of them, after turning out 24 films in as many years. But this was something new, he told his assembled cast and crew: "We are embarked, I hope, on an adventure."

They certainly are. The man who brought us the movies "Steel Magnolias," "The Turning Point," "Footloose" and "The Goodbye Girl" is directing Puccini's "La Boheme" for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. Ross' production of the popular romantic tragedy opens Sept. 9 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for seven performances.

Stage directors frequently direct opera as well, but film directors are less frequent crossovers to that more rarefied world. Ross is the first major filmmaker to work for the opera here, and, at 66, he is making his own opera debut as well.

For a man whose career spans everything from the "Coral Gables Swim Show" and early TV to Broadway choreography and film production, opera was one of the very few artistic arenas yet to tackle.

"It doesn't surprise me that he would take it on," says playwright Neil Simon, whose work Ross has directed twice on Broadway and in five films. "And I do believe he'll bring it off."

So, apparently, did Peter Hemmings, general director of the Los Angeles Opera. When New York-based Ross was here last year working on MGM's "Undercover Blues," a comedy action film starring Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid that opens Sept. 10, Hemmings gave him a call. Puccini's fourth opera was a classic, the Los Angeles Opera needed a new production of it, and, Hemmings says, "it was the sort of piece that he would enjoy doing and do well."

Ross had been asked to direct operas before, he says, and this time the timing was right. He was between projects, and he relished the idea of directing an opera as familiar to him as "La Boheme." He knew the score and felt at home with it.

"I direct in theater, and because of my background in ballet, I think musically," says onetime dancer Ross. "The challenge is to meet this fusion of drama and music that the opera represents."

Ross likes challenges. A high school dropout, he is always in school, whether it's learning a new craft or immersing himself in a new world. He studied ballet, modern and ethnic dance concurrently as a teen-ager, and he set about his opera assignment with similar fervor.

This is a man who once spent two weeks with Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign to learn politics for a film project that fell through, then recycled the experience in his last film, "True Colors." More recently, he haunted martial arts studios studying movement and Louisiana streets listening to music for "Undercover Blues."

In the case of "Boheme," his focus was 19th-Century Paris, Puccini and opera. He saw more operas than usual, working them into his schedule here and in New York, London and Paris, wherever he happened to be. He watched half a dozen videos of "La Boheme"--"including one Pavarotti did in China," he notes--and listened to every recording of the opera he could find.

Ross enlisted friend and opera maven Marit Gentele Gruson to suggest operas, attend them with him, then even accompany him to Los Angeles, where she serves as associate director on this production. Gruson, the widow of Swedish opera impresario Goran Gentele, is close by during rehearsals and on hand at Ross' rented Beverly Hills home just in case he needs her expertise during a press interview.

"I doubt there's anything new you can do with 'La Boheme,' conductor Randall Behr says a few days into rehearsals, "but Herb's eye for detail and concern for characterization make these people leap to life in ways that I have seldom seen. If he didn't tell us regularly that this was his first opera, you'd have no idea."

The fresh take, of course, is why opera impresarios call people like Ross. David Hockney, for instance, has designed for the Los Angeles Opera and other opera houses here and abroad, following in the tradition of such artists as Chagall and Picasso. Stage directors working here and elsewhere have included English directors Sir Peter Hall and Elijah Moshinsky, as well as American directors Harold Prince and Gordon Davidson.

Although Franco Zeffirelli directed theater and opera before turning to film, the number of prominent film directors crossing over to opera is still fairly small. Ken Russell and Bruce Beresford have both directed opera abroad, and Robert Altman directed the world premiere of composer William Bolcom's "McTeague" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last year.

"Hollywood likes to call itself the entertainment capital of the world, and we are all here to provide entertainment for the public," impresario Hemmings says. "I'm very anxious that people who come to work with films in Hollywood should work with us from time to time."

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