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Holding onto a high note

In 20 years, Los Angeles Opera has seen struggles against all odds, triumph and overwhelming passion. And that's just behind the scenes.

October 08, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

ON its 20th anniversary, how old is Los Angeles Opera?

According to some longtime supporters of the Music Center's resident opera company, this is sort of a trick question.

The company's official story starts on Oct. 7, 1986, with its first performance -- Verdi's "Otello," starring Placido Domingo -- on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

But talk with those involved at the beginning, and you'll discover that the company may not be the dewy ingenue its official age suggests.

Its roots go back to 1948, when an Italian-born furniture maker named Francesco Pace formed Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera Assn. and began presenting opera on a shoestring, sometimes with only a piano as accompaniment, at a church in Beverly Hills. He made armchairs and cabinets, they say, only to support his opera habit.

Along the way, dozens of local opera enthusiasts have played a role in developing what is now, budgetwise, among the top five opera companies in America. On the company's 20th anniversary, a handful of veteran board members, most of whom can recall the days when the opera was, in the words of one, "just a desk and a telephone," talked about what it took for Los Angeles Opera to finally earn its place as a resident producing company of downtown's Music Center.

It would be hard to call it a grass-roots effort, since the opera's volunteer leadership and major donors have included business leaders, entertainment executives, financiers and billionaires. But getting the arias to the stage required a persistence rooted in a devotion to the art that Francesco Pace would no doubt understand. It's been reported that there have been as many as 20 attempts to start an opera company in Los Angeles since World War II, and theirs was a rare success.


Far-reaching roots

A local opera factoid: On Oct. 14, 1897, downtown's Los Angeles Theatre was the site of the American premiere of Puccini's "La Boheme," performed by the Del Conte Italian Opera Company. Beverly Hills attorney Bernard Greenberg, 75 -- who has variously served as opera board chairman and president and now chairs the executive committee -- doesn't go back that far, but he was among the first board members of Pace's company, and he's the only one active after 46 years. "The others have either moved on, or died," he says matter-of-factly.

Greenberg's father loved opera and passed on the passion to his son. "He was not well and somewhat reclusive, but when San Francisco Opera would come to Los Angeles, he would go every night," the attorney recalls. "Opera isn't something that you are ambivalent about -- you are passionate about it, or you're not."

In 1960, Greenberg was a 29-year-old graduate of UCLA Law School, just returning to Los Angeles with his wife, Lenore, after a belated European honeymoon and a teaching stint at Harvard, when friends and colleagues talked him into joining the board of Pace's opera company, which was by then performing at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. Pace left the company in the mid-'60s when the board decided to make a go of it at downtown's new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which opened in 1964 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its primary tenant.

Opera board president Carol F. Henry, who began her association with the company in 1981 as a member of the Opera League support group, is not the only one to point out that opera remained the stepchild of the Music Center for many years. The founder of the performing arts complex, the late Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of former Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, was more interested in nurturing the Philharmonic.

"The Phil was her baby -- I think that's pretty general knowledge," says Henry, 67, who is married to businessman Warner Henry, chair of the Founding Angels, a circle of million-dollar donors. "The Phil has always been the favorite child of the Music Center."

In its new location, the company Pace founded staged only three operas before Chandler reorganized it to present solely work by other companies, believing that the fledgling arts center could not afford to launch an opera company and build a world-class orchestra at the same time. So from 1967 to 1982, the Los Angeles Opera Assn. presented the New York City Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

For a time, the arrangement worked, but by the early 1980s, the company's biggest stars, including Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle and Domingo, were no longer performing regularly, and dissatisfaction set in.

"The handwriting was on the wall," says Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer Don Franzen, a Los Angeles Opera board member. "Ticket sales were down; nobody could pretend that the quality of New York City Opera was what it had been." The relationship with the New York company was dissolved in 1982.

Almost immediately, the opera's supporters began holding informal meetings about reviving a producing opera company at the Music Center -- and talking to Domingo about becoming part of it.

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