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Scaled-down La Scala

With small houses and budgets to match, local companies fill a niche for singers and fans.

December 03, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

FORGET about actors. Los Angeles is a town full of opera singers looking for work. They're your waiters, computer programmers, kindergarten teachers, even your letter carriers. Small companies have been springing up all over town and around the country, some even started by the singers themselves, to give them opportunities -- not to mention offering budget-minded audiences an affordable way to see opera.

"This is absolutely a trend we are observing in many citites," said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national service organization. "If not four or five as in Los Angeles, it's one or two in cities that have a major opera company. Los Angeles is a bigger city than most, so the numbers there are bigger."

Even if these small companies don't offer much -- or sometimes anything -- in the way of salaries, they give singers a chance to get onstage, perform with small orchestras and, perhaps most important, add job experience to their resumes.

"It's very hard to get established," said Eylse Cook, a just-turned-40 soprano who has sung for Opera Pasadena and Duarte-based Intimate Opera Company, among others, and who works in a corporate legal department.

"When I graduated from college, I went through a series of auditions. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. Then almost by accident, I got asked to do a chorus part in 'Madame Butterfly' with the Bel Canto Opera Company, which doesn't do anything any more.

"Then I got a bit part, understudied Mimi in their 'La Boheme' and slowly began to get known around town. Very seldom do I audition any more. People call and ask if I'm available to do this or that role. Most don't pay. Intimate Opera does pay."

Telling a similar story is Begona Bilbao, a 37-year-old Venezuela-born soprano who moved here from New York in 1996 when her husband, a doctor, got a job at UCLA.

"When I started singing in Manhattan, I auditioned for the big roles, but I didn't get them," Bilbao said. "I sang at Brooklyn College, where I did my master's, and in opera workshops."

Moving here meant starting over. "It was not easy," she said. "You need good references and nobody knows you until you have a chance to prove yourself. I've auditioned for so many companies, a lot of times, and still do that."

Only Mario Leonetti's Casa Italiana dinner-theater opera company in downtown Los Angeles gave her a break, and even that took a while.

"At the beginning, Mario didn't have anything for me," said Bilbao, a former voice teacher and now stay-at-home mother of two. "I stayed in the chorus for a long, long time. It was hard. But Mario has been the only one who has given me the chance to sing. I really want to thank him. He dreams for me to be in L.A. Opera. I know the way things have been going -- I'm not singing in Europe, I don't have a big career -- but without him, there would be no way even to have a hope."


Filling a niche

CASA ITALIANA, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last month, does three productions a year, each costing $3,000 to $6,000, according to Leonetti. The singers don't get paid, although the musicians do. Still, Bilbao is grateful.

"You don't have too many chances to sing with an orchestra," she said. "Everything is so competitive. But you need to sing to grow."

Other troupes have sprung up recently to answer that need, including Valley-based El Dorado Opera, Intimate Opera Company, Lyric Opera of Los Angeles, Opera Pasadena and Los Angeles-based Repertory Opera Company.

All are low-budget operations with productions costing $5,000 to $60,000. Singers include amateurs, recent grads, community members and local professionals. Most don't get paid. Choruses are small and notable more for zest than polish. Sets, costumes and stage directions are minimal.

Still, ticket prices are low and venues are small and less intimidating than some find the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In most cases you get what you pay for, but any one of these troupes might showcase a young talent on the way up and give the audience members -- who are often friends, family, other singers and local opera lovers -- the chance to say they heard them when. And the companies all serve a need.

Take Intimate Opera Company, founded in 1996 by Wendy Kikkert, a 49-year-old mezzo-soprano and a Beverly Hills Outlook music reviewer.

"When I started this, when I was in my 30s, part of it was, I get to put on productions, perform and include other singers," she said. "But it got bigger than that. Now I see us as filling a gap. Singers in college get some experience, but young artists' programs are disappearing. To get stage experience with an orchestra so that a regional house would consider you, it's very hard. We help young singers build their resumes and get that experience. It is a lot of work. I do it because, for me personally, it's a call on my life."

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