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The Architect of L.A. Opera

Peter Hemmings built a world-class company in L.A. But now, after 14 years, he's moving on.

May 21, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

After nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, Peter Hemmings still seems a quintessentially proper Englishman. The founding general director of Los Angeles Opera, who will retire next month, doesn't publicly shirk blame or boast. Over lunch recently, he ended many thoughts about his 14 seasons here with the question, "Do you think I was right?" or the doubt, "Perhaps I was wrong."

Opera is an unreasonable art form, and its fans are passionate; it would be hard to find one who did not think Hemmings went wrong somewhere along the line. Yet every operatically inclined Angeleno owes Hemmings a profound debt of gratitude. Opera flourishes in Los Angeles because Hemmings made it flourish.

Don't expect many wrongs to be pointed out in these last days of Hemmings' reign. On Monday night he receives the company's tribute, a gala that features some of the stars who have shown loyalty to the company over the years. At the head of the list, of course, is Placido Domingo, who has been a continual presence since the company's first opening night in 1986 and who becomes its new artistic director in July.

Just as telling will be the presence of the up-and-coming stars Hemmings has developed--especially baritone Rodney Gilfry and mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman.

Then on June 3, the Los Angeles Opera unveils, as the final production of Hemmings' last season, Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," and that also serves as a valedictory. Not only is it one of the greatest operas of Hemmings' native country, but it also stars Gilfry in his signature role.

The simple fact is that Hemmings has built a world-class permanent opera company where there was none, in the last great Western city to be without one. For more than a century, an assortment of local visionaries, dreamers and hustlers put on opera in Los Angeles one way or another, but all of it was either transitory, provincial or imported. Why did Hemmings succeed where others failed?

"I went into a situation where there was a latent demand just waiting to be filled," Hemmings, 66, modestly answers. "And as soon as we began to provide opera on a regular basis, we brought those people to us. Whereas before, Los Angeles had always been dependent upon visiting companies who weren't woven into the fabric of the city, a [local] company begins to be supported properly by the city.

"I think we've gotten to that stage now, and I think that we can build upon that," he says optimistically, then suddenly tempers it. "But I keep on wondering why it is that the Philharmonic, which certainly had that relationship, seems to have lost it."

Los Angeles Opera, which this season is presenting 55 performances of eight operas, has succeeded this season in filling about three-quarters of the seats in the 3,000-seat Chandler Pavilion. The Philharmonic, which once also did a pretty good job of filling the auditorium night after night, now sometimes plays to noticeably empty houses.

"I don't understand why that should be. Do you?"


"Operatic" is an adjective that can mean flamboyant, and opera houses are sometimes run by appropriately colorful characters. Hemmings, Cambridge-educated in the classics and with the formal manner of a member of Parliament, is not one.

But his sober realism appears to be just what the Music Center (which changed its name to the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County last year) wanted when it hired Hemmings in 1984 to create a company.

That, and a track record. Hemmings was born in England in 1934 ("the year in which Elgar, Holst and Delius died," he notes). A chorister in college, he got his first administrative job at Sadler's Wells Opera in London in 1959. In 1962, Hemmings was invited to create the Scottish Opera in Glasgow. He ran the company for 15 years, turning it into one of the most imaginative and important in Britain. He also spent two years managing the Australian Opera and five with the London Symphony Orchestra.

When he arrived in L.A., he had an advantage over all the would-be impresarios who had gone before him: the infrastructure for a company. Opera at the Music Center may not have been a priority for Dorothy Chandler, who raised the money to build the complex and was a symphony partisan. But the multipurpose Chandler Pavilion was always intended for opera as well, and by 1966, two years after it opened, the Music Center Opera Assn. was formed to find a way to produce opera. For several years its solution was to bring in the New York City Opera for an annual residency.

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