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He had Valkyrie by the horns

The late Edgar Baitzel, CEO of L.A. Opera, wielded power behind the scenes more than the public knew.

March 14, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Edgar Baitzel, who died Sunday of cancer, was the chief operating officer of Los Angeles Opera. Placido Domingo is the Eli and Edythe Broad general director. The titles reveal a lot. Domingo is L.A. Opera's public face, a celebrity able to woo other celebrities and major donors to the cause of the company. But Baitzel was L.A. Opera.

If he had a reputation for being known as Placido's man on the Coast, Baitzel didn't seem to mind. As crafty politicians will tell you, wielding power behind the scenes has its special pleasures. You can get away with more that way.

That is not to say that Baitzel was Domingo's Cheney. The restless tenor is the most active man in opera today. But because he is also an opera conductor continually increasing his repertory and the head of Washington National Opera as well as L.A. Opera, Domingo obviously can't take care of day-to-day business in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Baitzel was the administrator on the scene. And he was much more. To get an idea of how much more, you need only look at the artistic profiles of Domingo's companies in D.C. and L.A. The former is conventional. L.A. Opera is anything but. In the six years that Domingo and Baitzel managed things, it grew faster than any other company in the country.

L.A. Opera is also the nation's most unpredictable company, and that, I suspect, is one of Baitzel's gifts to us. He was born in Koblenz, Germany, and educated in Frankfurt. That made him a product of cosmopolitan German culture, which treats opera, be it new work or standard repertory, as a challenging, daring art form meant to incorporate the latest developments in the visual and theater arts and to address pressing concerns of society.

Baitzel's mission was to bring a large dose of that daring to L.A.. His further mission was to influence and realize the visions of Domingo and the company's music directors. His way of operating was by pulling rabbits out of a hat.

My view of Baitzel was that he was an artist as well as an administrator with a well-developed sense of irony and the ability to withstand chaos. A couple of years ago, he began inviting me to breakfast every month or two in a coffee shop near the ocean to talk about opera. He felt that the more I knew what was going on with the company, the better. He believed in transparency, and he was remarkably candid.

The gossip was interesting. But more illuminating was Baitzel's analytical intelligence. He had worked, early in his career, as a dramaturg at the Frankfurt Opera and at the Bavarian Opera in Munich. Thanks to that training, he brought an invaluable critical eye to L.A. Opera.

Baitzel was open to innovation and pragmatic. He was always looking for new ideas, and most of our breakfast conversation was talk about the world of opera at large, and not L.A. He wanted to know what I had seen in my travels, and, an active traveler himself, was eager to discuss his latest trip to Europe or Asia.

He did not hesitate to find fault with L.A. Opera but always explained the practical side of balancing hope and reality. He insisted on fiscal responsibility. His cellphone rang a lot. Usually, he would glance at it and not answer. Once he answered and walked away from the table to talk. But I could hear him angrily address the director of a production that was so seriously over budget that the whole show was about to collapse. "If you want another $500,000," he shouted, "write a check!"

But he made things work. He browbeat the board into accepting visions of sophisticated grandeur. He went to bat time and again for Kent Nagano, who was music director from 2001 until 2006, raising money for extra rehearsals and special projects because Baitzel insisted the results were of value.

Sometimes he had to be especially creative. Last summer, when plans for a new production of "Tannhauser" didn't pan out, Baitzel simply went shopping at the Salzburg Festival. He found a set used for a Mozart opera that he thought would work and brought in Ian Judge to direct, and that is the production currently running.

It turned out to be highly inconsistent. And a much-ballyhooed recent new production of "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," with a Broadway production team and stars, proved a disappointment. Both of those shows were mounted while Baitzel, who fell ill in the fall, was hospitalized. I have little doubt that had he been more involved, both would have been edgier and stronger in every way.

Baitzel was only 51. Patrick Smith, the former editor of Opera News and one of our most astute opera critics, recently described him to me as a diamond in the rough. The diamond was meant to shine longer than it did. The world of opera will not be the same without him.


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