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OPERA : Facing the Music : A decade ago, Peter Hemmings took on the task of making major-league opera work in Los Angeles. So what if the money is scarce and there isn't even a full-time opera house to call home?

October 29, 1995|Martin Bernheimer | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic

Peter Hemmings sees the 10th-anniversary season of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera--the company he has headed from the start nine years ago--as "an opportunity to look back, look forward and celebrate in between."

The actual 10th-anniversary performance won't take place until next October. But everybody loves a festive occasion in this town, and who's counting? Not the general director.

He brushes aside an invitation to assess his past achievements and failures. "Looking forward is more important," he insists.

There have, of course, been triumphs worth recalling. Those willing to look backward recall with special pleasure the revelations of the Music Center "Salome," the poignancy of the first "Figaro," the elegance of the first "Cosi fan Tutte" and the charm of the recent "Don Pasquale." Aficionados can point with pride to the modernist bravado of Prokofiev's "Fiery Angel" and the probing force of Britten's "Turn of the Screw," not to mention the joy of discovery engendered by Handel's "Xerxes." One could go on.

Hemmings' brow furrows a bit, however, as he confronts the possibility of an unhappy memory. Could it involve the comic-Kabuki "Macbeth" or the "Lucia di Lammermoor" played on a petrified dung heap? The all-too-mod distortion of "Les Troyens" or the hopelessly dull reheating of "Carmen"? Could it be the fairly long list of vital productions compromised by mediocre conducting?

"I try to remember the nice things," he says.

Opera, as everyone since Chorley knows, is the most irrational of art forms. Also the most costly. Anyone daring--or foolhardy--enough to dabble in it must command an encyclopedic mind, a will of iron and nerves of titanium. A sense of the ridiculous helps too.

Pity the person who takes on this sprawling task anywhere. Pity especially the person who takes it on in Los Angeles, where the tradition is still young, where money is still scarce and where there isn't even a full-time opera house to call home.

Hemmings doesn't look like a frenzied managerial acrobat from Central Casting. Dauntlessly affable at a youthful 61, he exudes British politesse. A family man (father of five) with a suave, no-nonsense affect, he could easily pass as an international banker or corporate attorney.

He wears the sternly optimistic face of an impresario on guard. Most of the time, he wears it well.


The Music Center Opera, which opens its first "Entfuhrung aus dem Serail" (The Abduction From the Seraglio) on Saturday afternoon, isn't a company noted for star-studded casts. It would seem to be a matter of policy as well as a matter of finances.

Placido Domingo is, of course, a continuing stellar presence. He appears in at least one opera a season (this year serving as raison d'e^tre for the splendid "Stiffelio"). Sometimes he offers less imposing leadership in the pit (next season's vehicle: "Norma"). He also functions behind the scenes as official artistic adviser.

"Placido has given us an international cachet," Hemmings observes. "One cannot underestimate that."

In general, it would seem that the Music Center Opera is more interested in discovering and nurturing relatively obscure talent, both native and foreign, than in importing big, expensive names. Hemmings bristles a bit when asked specifically why Los Angeles has never seen Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus, Roberto Alagna, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Cecilia Bartoli or Kathleen Battle, for starters, in opera.

"Kiri hardly sings in opera houses these days," he claims. "Freni we would absolutely like to have. . . ."

He waxes rhetorical when asked if the two other tenorissimos might join the roster.

"I don't think so. Do you?"

Given the hoopla surrounding the tenorial trio in Los Angeles, and the key role played by Domingo, one might expect Hemmings to climb on the promotional bandwagon. Domingo recently told The Times that special events such as the musical circus at Dodger Stadium brought huge new audiences to the opera house.

"I haven't seen much impact either way," Hemmings says.

His smile turns rueful when he is asked about the extraordinarily popular Thomas Hampson, not engaged here since a modest "Boheme" back in 1987. "We've asked several times and had talks," Hemmings says, "but it hasn't worked out." He denies reports of a serious rift with Hampson; he acknowledges, however, that one artist's loss has been another's gain. "Of course, when we have someone like Rodney Gilfry, we don't need Hampson."

"Our goal," Hemmings explains, "is to find emerging stars, establish relationships with them at just the right moment, rather than get them after they've arrived. The older singers have loyalties with other companies. It makes them hard to book."

Be that as it may, other companies do indeed book them. It may be instructive, for instance, to contrast Los Angeles with Chicago.

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