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Obituaries

Peter Hemmings, 67; L.A. Opera Founding Chief

January 04, 2002|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Peter Hemmings--the first general director of Los Angeles Opera and the man who assured a lasting place for the art form here--died early this morning at home in Dorset, England. He was 67. The cause of death was cancer.

When the dapper and eloquent British impresario took charge in 1984, Los Angeles was the only major Western city that could not maintain its own opera company.

With a budget of just $6.4 million, Hemmings launched Music Center Opera (later renamed Los Angeles Opera), mounting five productions in a first season that immediately made the operatic world take notice.

By the time he retired in 2000 to return to his native England, Hemmings had left behind a company with a $22-million budget and an eight-opera season of more than 50 performances, most of them selling out.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 9, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Hemmings obituary--The obituary for Peter Hemmings on Friday incorrectly identified the composer of "Kullervo" as Joonas Kokkonen; the opera was written by Aulis Sallinen. It also incorrectly reported that Music Center Opera produced "The Fiery Angel" in America for the first time; in fact, Prokofiev's opera was performed earlier in New York and Chicago.

In the process, he masterminded several productions that became part of Los Angeles' cultural iconography--including a celebrated version of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" designed by a fellow Briton-turned-Angeleno, artist David Hockney--and lent a new sophisticated image to the city's cultural life.

Hemmings was also responsible for bringing Placido Domingo to the company at the outset as artistic advisor, realizing that the popular tenor's presence assured L.A. Opera a necessary celebrity factor. That also paved the way for Domingo to become the company's artistic director after Hemmings retired.

"Since the first day Peter was here," Domingo said Thursday, "we were together. I learned a lot from him about how to make things happen.

"It was not easy to have an opera company in Los Angeles, but he knew that the only way to go was up," Domingo said. "And with his wit, devotion and that straightforward and serene manner he had, he seemed to know just how to approach the board, the audiences and the artists. It is a challenge for me to continue what he began."

Personally, Hemmings never seemed the sort to court celebrity. His own modest manner and politeness were more reminiscent of a conservative British banker than a flamboyant American opera impresario.

But that apparent conventionality served him well. It lent respectability to what had, for a century in Los Angeles, seemed a financially fly-by-night art form. His understated style also proved a useful tool in convincing operagoers to take risks. A sensation the first season was a daring production of Richard Strauss' "Salome" that included nudity.

But Hemmings' manner was not altogether deceptive. He did firmly believe in tradition. He was a devoted family man with five children. And he built the opera company as he might a family, scouting local talent whom he would nurture over the years, creating a strong ensemble company.

One such discovery, baritone Rodney Gilfry, sang a single line in the company's first production, Verdi's "Otello." By the time of Hemmings' retirement, Gilfry had become an international star, and he performed the title role in Hemmings' final Los Angeles Opera production, Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," in June 2000.

"His legacy--an opera company of true international stature--can't be appreciated in terms of numbers of performances and dollars," Gilfry said. "It takes tenacity to permanently change the depth and richness of a city's culture, and that's what he did."

A Brief Career as a Singer

Peter William Hemmings was born in the Middlesex town of Enfield on April 10, 1934. Although he graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in classics, his college life was closely associated with vocal music: He was a choral scholar and served as president of the University Opera Group. After graduation, he briefly pursued a career as a singer, performing with the Camden Festival and Chelsea Opera Group.

In 1958 he joined Harold Holt Ltd., a London music management firm, and a year later he became personal assistant to the manager of Sadler's Wells Opera. No longer intent upon a singing career, Hemmings became repertory and planning manager for the company. In 1962, the newly formed Scottish National Opera invited him to become its first administrator.

He built the company, where he remained 15 years, into one of the most respected in Britain, mounting ambitious productions of epic works such as Wagner's "Ring" cycle and Berlioz's "The Trojans," as well as providing a mix of classics and 20th century operas. By 1975, Hemmings was able to find the company a permanent theater in Glasgow, thus giving Scotland its first national opera house.

In 1977, he moved to Australian Opera, where his mandate was to provide the company with a national and international profile to match its new hall in Sydney. There, however, Hemmings was hindered by political infighting, and he returned to Britain in 1979 to manage the London Symphony Orchestra.

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