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The Party

Arias of Praise for the Departing Peter Hemmings

May 24, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quite a statement, observed Los Angeles Opera Board President Leonard Green, that more than 3,000 people turned out Monday night to honor the company's founding general director Peter Hemmings instead of watching the Lakers-Trail Blazers basketball game.

And turn out they did to see the man who made opera a world-class reality in this city pass the baton to Placido Domingo, who takes over as artistic director in July.

The 600 guests who continued on to the black-tie, $1,000-a-ticket dinner afterward feasted on artichoke and rock shrimp salad, and filet of beef in Napa red wine sauce, prepared by Patina's Joachim Splichal. Event chair Mary Hayley decorated the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion room to resemble a baronial hall, in which Hemmings and wife Jane were royalty.

"So fabulous to see someone so modest take center stage," said Michael York, the evening's emcee.

Hemmings was bowled over by the hoopla--and by leaving Los Angeles, his home for the last 14 years. He's moving back to London, where he's lived for most of his life. "I don't make a habit of this sort of thing," the starched Englishman said in response to the cheers. "The attention is a bit worrisome. In the end, it wasn't me or the board but the public that made this work."

Who Was There: Lee Iacocca; Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan; Priscilla Presley; Placido and Marta Domingo; John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum; philanthropist Richard Colburn; Andrea Van de Kamp, chair of the Music Center Board; French Consul General Guy Yelda. Hollywood celebs were in short supply because the "comp" tickets that lure them downtown were unavailable for this opera fund-raiser.

In the Blood: Iacocca recalled that his father, a fan of Enrico Caruso, took him to the opera as a child. "I asked him what he loved about it and he said, 'As an Italian, that's what we are: Our whole lives are operas--dramatic, over the top.' "

Kudos: Baritone Rodney Gilfry praised Hemmings for nurturing local talent. "In '86, I sang one line as the herald in 'Otello,' " he said. "Fourteen years--and 23 roles later--I'm playing the lead in [the upcoming] 'Billy Budd.' It's been a tremendous showcase."

Reality Check: Folks hailed the success of the opera as part of the cultural maturation of the town. Still, there's a ways to go, maintains Ginny Mancini, a member of the Music Center Board: "I'm jealous, comparing our operation to New York's Met, with its zillions of dollars of support. But, then, look how long they've been around--it can happen in time."

Closure: With little notice, Suzanna Guzman sang arias from "Carmen" in place of Jennifer Larmore, who bowed out because of laryngitis. "In 1984, I performed 'Carmen' in Santa Monica's Verdi Restaurant at an event Placido organized for disabled children," she said. "He wrote in my book that he hoped we'd sing it onstage someday. 'Finalmente!' he said to me tonight. 'At last.' "

Domingo, who conducted and sang in his 100th performance with the company, called it the end of an era. "By opening with 'Otello,' my 1986 Los Angeles Opera debut, and closing with my last, 'Samson and Dalila,' we wanted to establish that it was full circle," he explained.

Full Plate: The tenor is biting off a lot, said the Pomona-raised Carol Vaness. But no one is betting against him. "Placido sings, conducts, heads up the Washington Opera, produced his son's film--and now this," observed the soprano. "Though it's hard to know how things will turn out, he's someone who thrives on activity--a man who can't sit still."

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