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Fear of a false note

As she prepares to co-host broadcasts of L.A. Opera's season openers, a KUSC personality still shudders thinking of the gaffes in her past.

September 02, 2007|Gail Eichenthal | Special to The Times

Next weekend, KUSC-FM (91.5) is scheduled to air live the two opening productions of Los Angeles Opera's 2007-08 season: Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio," led by company music director James Conlon at 6 p.m. Saturday, and Verdi's heaven-storming Requiem, conducted by general director Plácido Domingo, at 2 p.m. Sunday. I'm honored to be producing and co-hosting these broadcasts with KUSC's Duff Murphy. I'm also a little terrified.

The plans to present this operatic doubleheader came together quickly and have caused elation around the KUSC studios. After all, it's been 21 years since our last live L.A. Opera broadcast.

But you'll pardon me if I remain off to the side, throwing up into my office wastebasket.

Please don't get me wrong. I couldn't be prouder of the station's partnership with L.A. Opera, which has already brought to a national radio audience the company's entire last season. It's just that I still shudder to think about my performance as opera co-host for that last live broadcast, in October 1986, the very night L.A. Opera raised its recalcitrant curtain for the first time. That was the night I committed the unforgivable sin of live classical radio: I talked over the music.

Not that I hadn't experienced other traumatic live broadcasts. Only weeks before the debut of L.A. Opera, I had hosted KUSC's broadcast of the inaugural concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and, before Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Zubin Mehta, heard along with our listeners something not on the official program: a rather intense conversation between a pair of stagehands, aired because of a malfunctioning two-way radio.

Two years earlier, I had sat atop one of those tall green light towers at the Hollywood Bowl, announcing over National Public Radio a live L.A. Philharmonic concert from the Olympic Arts Festival. That night, orchestra management had assured us there would be no speeches from the stage, but as we went on the air, I began to describe the first piece of music we were going to hear -- only to have festival director Robert Fitzpatrick drown me out with a windy thank-you speech from the stage. Fitzpatrick finished; I resumed talking about the music, only to have Fitzpatrick interrupt me again, tossing off the same speech in French.

And that was by no means my most excruciating experience announcing a broadcast from the Bowl. For that, we must jump ahead to the final concert of the Philharmonic's 1990 summer season. For the third consecutive year, I was to co-host a Channel 13 telecast of the annual fireworks finale with a prominent TV game show host. As we awaited the initial downbeat, I stalled with a brisk, "We're expecting the appearance onstage momentarily of our guest conductor, Hugh Wolff, to open this gala Hollywood Bowl concert with our first scheduled work, 'An Outdoor Overture' by Aaron Copland."

To which my co-host countered with dripping condescension, "Wrong, Gail. We're starting with the national anthem." My heart sank. My face reddened.

That broadcast ended badly too. For the first time in memory, rain drenched the post-concert fireworks. The less than amiable co-hosts were soaked. My midnight blue velvet gown was toast.

Still, in terms of sheer humiliation on air, the frazzled nerves and fizzled fireworks of summer 1990 didn't compare to my grand opera gaffe of '86. The inaugural production of Los Angeles Opera was Verdi's "Otello," starring Domingo in the title role. Gene Parrish, a friend and colleague to this day, was my co-host.

The cultural significance of the event is hard to overstate.

A few days before the opening, then-Times music critic Martin Bernheimer had written, "Los Angeles may just be the last major city in the civilized Western world to acquire a large-scale opera company of its own."

And so on the very night Los Angeles exulted in joining the opera big leagues, imagine the gasps in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when the curtain got stuck a few feet off the ground as the opera began. Bernheimer wrote later, "Somehow, to any self-respecting resident pessimist, it had to bode ill."

After a few moments of forced cheer on the part of your trusty radio hosts, however, stagehands rectified the problem, and the curtain rose -- "haltingly," as Bernheimer put it -- on a new era in the city's music history.

But for me, the curtain refusing to budge was simply misery loving company. I had just talked over some of the greatest music ever written.

How could this happen? For starters, I had never announced a live opera before. I was used to conductors onstage. From our vantage point in a glass-enclosed booth in back of the orchestra section, I couldn't see Lawrence Foster enter the pit.

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