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Obituaries

Edgar Baitzel, 51; L.A. Opera chief helped company achieve growth

March 13, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Edgar Baitzel, chief operating officer of Los Angeles Opera, who contributed mightily to the artistic and financial success of the company, died Sunday of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 51.

"I've known him for over 30 years, and I always appreciated his knowledge, culture and preparation," L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo said Monday. "When I was offered the position here, I immediately knew he was the right person to be a great help to me. We have been really very happily working together."

"It's a profound tragedy for all of us," conductor Kent Nagano said from Munich, Germany. Nagano was L.A. Opera music director from 2001 until he left in 2006 to become music director of the Bavarian State Opera and the Montreal Symphony.

"He was one of the most inventive, creative and imaginative artistic advisors that one can find in the field today," Nagano said.

"He was a brilliant and dedicated man who loved opera, loved art -- a highly imaginative, stimulating colleague," said Nagano's successor, James Conlon.

Domingo, who had previously worked with Baitzel in Bonn, wooed him to Los Angeles in 2001, first as director of operations at the company. In 2003, Baitzel was named artistic director, and three years later he was appointed chief operating officer.

"This company still has a huge potential for growth," he told The Times after the latter promotion. His goal, he said, would be "aiming for the right size of the company" and figuring out "how aggressively we should grow."

During his six-year tenure, the company went from 66 scheduled performances in the 2001-02 season to 77 in the current one. He presided over the creation of four to five new productions in each of those seasons, including the world premieres of Puccini's "Turandot" with a new ending by Luciano Berio in 2002, Deborah Drattell's "Nicholas and Alexandra" in 2003 and Elliot Goldenthal's "Grendel" in 2006.

In addition, he helped bring about collaborations with Hollywood and Broadway directors including Maximilian Schell, Julie Taymor, William Friedkin, Garry Marshall and Vincent Patterson.

Baitzel also fostered a long-term artistic relationship with German director Achim Freyer, who made his U.S. debut staging Bach's Mass in B minor for L.A. Opera in 2002 and returned to direct Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" a year later. Over the 2008-10 seasons, Freyer is scheduled to stage a Wagner "Ring" cycle.

"Part of the task of the arts is to extend and overcome borders and to risk something," Baitzel told The Times in 2002, speaking of Freyer's sometimes controversial stagings. In scheduling the B-minor Mass, he said, "We were very well aware that this piece might be the most daring piece in our entire program.

"It's an artistic risk, but it's not a financial risk," he added. "Nevertheless, we have to look for a new audience that will appreciate this kind of work."

Baitzel also presided over some difficult times for the company. Plans to mount a "Ring" cycle staged by German director Peter Mussbach in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' special-effects team, were announced in 2000, but the post-Sept. 11 economic slowdown derailed the plans.

In 2003, the company canceled Kirov Opera performances of Prokofiev's "War and Peace," also because of financial difficulties.

Three years later, computer glitches made an imposing 48-foot-long, 28-foot-tall, 20-ton rotating wall known as the "ice-earth unit" that was used in Taymor's staging of "Grendel" inoperable just days before the opening. Nonetheless, the opera ended up turning a profit. Financial problems also led to the cancellation that season of the anticipated world premiere of Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland," a work championed by Nagano.

"That was one of the most painful decisions Placido, Kent and I have had to make since we've been with the company," Baitzel said at the time. "We couldn't continue going forward without fixing the sins of the past."

For all the problems, Baitzel remained upbeat. "We have board members saying there is no reason Los Angeles shouldn't have the second-largest opera company in the country," he said last year. (It currently ranks fourth.) The company, he said, "is working on business strategies that we need to translate into artistry."

Born in Koblenz, Germany, in 1955, Baitzel studied musicology, literature and art history at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt. He began his stage career while still a student, working as an assistant under famed directors Gotz Friedrich and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

He served as assistant manager of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich from 1978 to 1982, then a year later was promoted to head dramaturge, a post in which he oversaw landmark productions of the complete works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss in 1983 and 1984, respectively, the latter for the Munich Opera Festival.

Subsequently, Baitzel held the posts of assistant general manager and artistic director at the Karlsruhe Opera in Germany. For five years after that, he was artistic director of the Bonn Opera, after which he served as artistic consultant for the Opera de Nice in France and also worked as a freelance opera stage director.

Baitzel's survivors include his wife of more than 20 years, Christina, and their three children, Sarah, 23, Philipp, 21, and Sophia, 4, all of Los Angeles. Funeral arrangements will be private. L.A. Opera will hold a memorial in April. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to a charity to be announced. Contributions can be sent to Kate McCallum of L.A. Opera.

chris.pasles@latimes.com

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