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Determined to Be Daring

Fall Preview | Opera

Conductor Kent Nagano lends his bold vision and resolute manner to L.A. Opera's ambitious plan.

September 16, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Putting an opera on stage is always tense; putting on new and unusual opera especially so. The Los Angeles Opera plans at least one such new work a season from now on. It intends to create the most ambitious production ever of that most ambitious cycle of operas ever--Wagner's "Ring." And the company also wants to become everybody's opera company, alert to its Hollywood home base and the Southland's Latino and Asian populations as well.

The potential for jittery chaos in all this is tremendous. But however audacious Placido Domingo's expectations are for opera in L.A., he has added a crucial safety net.

One of his first orders of business, when he was appointed artistic director of the company in 1999, was to persuade Kent Nagano--a bold visionary as well as a cautious, conscientious, meticulously elegant musician--to become its principal conductor. He now becomes the key player in Domingo's efforts to increase the stature and solidify the identity of Los Angeles Opera.

But he is also more than that. It is he who has brought to the table many of the company's most far-reaching ideas.

As principal conductor, he plays a significant role in determining programming, from the glitzy "action-adventure" "Ring" cycle to the new operas. To a large degree, it will also fall on his shoulders to make such ideas work, with his first test being the company's new production of Wagner's "Lohengrin."

In conversation, Nagano projects a curious mix of informal friendliness and a formal, respectful manner. He eschews colloquial expressions, peppers his remarks with foreign words pronounced with expert flourish and gives little away. While everyone else refers to the artistic director as Placido, Nagano in an interview calls him Mr. Domingo.

"My big goal," says Nagano, summing up why he came to Los Angeles Opera, "is to help realize Mr. Domingo's dream of an opera company you could only find here in Los Angeles."

Sitting in an office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion following his first full orchestra rehearsal, Nagano appears comfortable with his new position, if slightly lost (we did not attempt to meet in his office, which is somewhere deep in the basement).

Born in 1951 in Morro Bay (midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco), Nagano attended UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco State in the early '70s. His flowing hair and oversized glasses recall the era. He is casual, in jeans and stocking feet. He is friendly, soft-spoken and easy to laugh. He was once even known as the conductor who surfs.

But nothing about Nagano is laid back. In 1999, when Domingo took over the company from retiring founding director Peter Hemmings, it was leaked that the tenor wanted Nagano as music director. Hearing that, I had asked a colleague of the conductor what he knew about the situation. Nothing, he said, and neither will anybody else for a long time.

"Kent doesn't make quick decisions, he goes over everything in unbelievably close detail," the colleague continued.

An official announcement did not come for nearly a year. During that time, the German Opera prematurely announced Nagano's appointment as its music director. Nagano says he agonized over the offer, but felt he couldn't take that job and still properly serve the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin, where he was already music director-designate.

Nor was Nagano willing to go all the way and accept the post of music director for Los Angeles Opera. Instead, he asked to be named principal conductor, which carries less responsibility and keeps the door open to expanding his role with the company later.

Nagano measures his words carefully. There is no drawing him into discussing delicate subjects, such as his situation in Germany. It was just last year that he began his duties as music director in Berlin, and he has already threatened to resign. The orchestra, which relies on support from the city of Berlin, has been placed under the authority of an umbrella city organization as part of an effort to bring down costs at arts institutions that the united Berlin is finding increasing difficult to support.

He is reluctant to say much. "It is really important to me that things aren't somehow misconstrued and inflame a situation I am trying to keep really cool," he explains. But he admits that "if we don't come to an agreement by the middle of September, there will be pretty colorful consequences."

Those consequences would be felt in Los Angeles; Nagano plans to bring his Berlin orchestra to the Music Center in December for the first local performance of Schoenberg's "Moses and Aron." Ultimately, Nagano is confident that the crisis will be resolved--Daniel Barenboim, who leads the German State Opera, and Simon Rattle, music-director designate at the Berlin Philharmonic, have recently resorted to similar threats and prevailed.

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