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Chari Shanker, 55; directed L.A., O.C. operas

August 27, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Chari Shanker, who was the production director of the Los Angeles Opera and more recently of Opera Pacific in Orange County, has died. She was 55.

Shanker had a severe allergic reaction at her home Aug. 19 and was taken to Sherman Oaks Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, her partner, Carl Baird, said.

As a production manager, Shanker coordinated the dozens of pieces that make up a major opera production.

"In layman's terms, the job of production manager consists of finding out the ambition of the creative people and communicating it to the administrative and technical people," said Jerome Sherk, production director of the Pittsburgh Opera, who first worked with Shanker early in her career. "Chari was incredibly good at it."

The job demands "a capacity to multi-task, and people skills," said John DeMain, artistic director of Opera Pacific, where Shanker had worked since February. "Chari made it fun. We adored working with her."

She joined the Los Angeles Opera as production stage manager in 1989, three years after the company's first season. She rose to become production director before she left in 2005.

During that time the company attracted wide attention with productions of "Nixon in China" by John Adams in the 1990 season, "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" by Richard Strauss with sets by David Hockney in the 1993 season, among others. There were a record eight new productions in the 2001 season, when Placido Domingo became artistic director.

Crisis management was a major part of Shanker's job. "A production falls apart, a performer gets sick, a director backs out," said Lyla Forlani, Shanker's assistant at Los Angeles Opera for several years and now the production stage manager. "All kinds of things go wrong. Every day we do something different.

"Chari saw production management as a service industry," Forlani said. "She would say that our job is to help people get where they need to go. Sometimes that means bringing a person a cup of coffee. No job was too big or too small for Chari."

She cut through tensions and stuffy air with her "wry and sometimes irreverent sense of humor," said Beckie Kravetz, who was assistant wig master of Los Angeles Opera for some years.

Shanker began meetings with, "Hi, opera pals," and handed out lollipops to everyone she talked to. She put her favorite slogan, "Life is Short, Opera is Long," on T-shirts that she gave to visiting performers. Eventually the shirts turned up in opera houses across the country.

Her networking skills were legendary in the business. "Chari could pick up a phone and be on speaking terms with 30 opera houses," said Rupert Hemmings, who worked with her in Los Angeles during the 1990s and is now the production director of Opera Colorado in Denver. "To rule with an iron fist wasn't her way. Working with divas, directors, designers, she made things gel."

She was born Charlene Shanker in Cleveland on Feb. 29, 1952. A leap-year baby, she calculated her age in "Chari years," which meant she aged at the rate of one year for every four.

She earned a bachelor's degree and a master of fine arts degree in theater from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She worked at Wolf Trap center for the performing arts in Virginia, the Pittsburgh Opera, the Houston Grand Opera and several others before she joined the Los Angeles Opera.

Along with Baird, she is survived by her mother, Brondy Shanker.

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