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Beach Bold

Conductor Andreas Mitisek's innovation meshes with Long Beach Opera's venturesome fare, including Janacek's distinctive 'Jenufa'

June 08, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talk about a splashy entrance. Conductor Andreas Mitisek made his American debut with Long Beach Opera's 1998 wild and crazy staging of Henry Purcell's "The Indian Queen." He was dressed for the part--decked out in skintight leather in lieu of the traditional tux and tails.

Conceived by performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena and director David Schweizer, that production was pronounced "a dazzling mess" by Times music critic Mark Swed. The creators took John Dryden's nonsensical Restoration play about Peruvian Incas and Mexican Aztecs, along with Purcell's luminous Baroque interludes, and gave it a Chicano politicizing once-over.

The result mixed rappers and drug lords with Aztec gods and a dominatrix queen. At the same time, according to Swed, "The Indian Queen" turned in some "sparkling" music making--thanks to Mitisek's leadership of the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra.

The key to that success, says the conductor, is shared priorities at the top. Mitisek and Long Beach Opera general director Michael Milenski place a premium on innovation and theatricality. "I do music-theater because I'm interested in what's going on on the other side of the orchestra pit," says Mitisek, seated in the Carpenter Center greenroom during a recent afternoon's rehearsal break. "I like to be challenged, that's part of the game."

Which helps explain why Mitisek has become a welcome fixture at Long Beach Opera. Now the company's principal conductor, he returns for the fifth time, leading Leos Janacek's "Jenufa" Sunday and next Saturday.

"As a conductor, I'm there to take care of what the composer wants," he says, "but I'm also there to maybe give the stage director some ideas about what this music is about."

Difficult Music for Any Size Company

Milenski is definitely a Mitisek cheerleader.

"His ability to communicate with the pit musicians has brought superb orchestral performances, and we are talking about some of the most difficult music in the operatic repertory," LBO's founder says. The list of composers includes Bela Bartok, Richard Strauss and Luigi Dallapiccola.

"Andreas has a deep sense of the orchestra--he is Viennese after all. This has contributed enormously to LBO's ability to pull off repertory ordinarily left untouched by small--and large--companies. His artistic input will increase over the next several years, both as a conductor and as a collaborator."

"Jenufa," written in 1903, is a good example of what Milenski refers to as "repertory ordinarily left untouched"--the kind of fare that is ever-venturesome Long Beach Opera's forte. Janacek's first major success and his best-known work, "Jenufa" tells the story of a pregnant girl who gets caught between two men who desire her and the strong-willed foster mother who tries to control her fate.

The most distinctive quality of the opera, in Mitisek's view, is an aural vocabulary that will probably be unfamiliar to American audiences. "Janacek was very interested in folk music and he collected lots of Bohemian folk tunes," he says. "That's a kind of music that you don't know over here.

"You find it in phrases, in tone colors, in little melodies and, of course, the language itself, which mostly is emphasized on the first syllable. He was very distinctive about giving the character of the language to his melodies, so they had a certain rhythmic quality."

Janacek's methods included a kind of documentary approach, collecting the "music" of everyday life. "He made all these notes about how people would say things," says Mitisek. "He listened to people on the street, young girls yelling after someone, and he would write down the intervals, how it sounded when the wind went through the leaves. Those colors came into his scores."

At Age 25, Launched Vienna Opera Theater

The bulging biceps and cargo pants make him look the part of a California guy, but the accent betrays him. Mitisek, now 37, was born and raised in Vienna, and is still based there.

"I fulfill the cliche, I have to say," he says, as though to apologize for the lack of a more exotic biography. "I grew up there and I studied at the conservatory at the music university in Vienna." His studies emphasized Baroque music, with majors in organ, harpsichord and piano.

Initially, he didn't have a particular interest in opera. But while pursuing instrumental studies, he also held a part-time job at the conservatory as a vocal coach. That's what got him started.

In particular, Mitisek developed an affinity for 20th century works. At age 25, he and a friend launched the Vienna Opera Theater.

"We had this crazy idea about contemporary music," he says. "It's something that was not there in Vienna. There was all the traditional repertoire, operetta, everything else."

Mitisek spent six years as music director of the company. "It can be just a little bit compared to what Long Beach Opera does," he says. "We did only contemporary works, pieces like 'Nixon in China' for example, which Michael had come to see. And it was quite successful."

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