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The rising sensibility: Latino

L.A. arts institutions are poised for shifts as a clutch of new leaders takes the helm.

September 09, 2007|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

The beauty and emotionality of opera sometimes bring tears to the eyes of Plácido Domingo, but never more so than when it's a family affair. In June, when Los Angeles Opera presented the zarzuela, or Spanish operetta, "Luisa Fernanda," the tenor performed a role originally created by his father, who was a zarzuela singer, as was his mother. Joining him onstage in a supernumerary role was his 5-year-old granddaughter, Nicole Domingo. And watching from the wings every night was much of the Domingo clan.
Surrounded in both the literal and figurative senses by loved ones, singing in his native language, Domingo was particularly moved. "It was like seeing the true Plácido," says mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán, a fellow "Luisa Fernanda" cast member who has appeared onstage with him many times during the last 20 years. "He sang from the earth through his feet up through his mouth and poured it out. He was crying in the last act."

This was the fulfillment of a dream for Domingo, who had wanted to bring zarzuela to L.A. for more than a decade. And it might have taken even longer if his only role in the sold-out production had been as a singer. But he also happens to be the company's general director.

Domingo has been affiliated with L.A. Opera since it started in 1986; he formally took over in 2000. Recently, however, he has been joined by a new group of arts leaders on Grand Avenue and nearby. They include Gustavo Dudamel, set to take the baton at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009; Miguel Angel Corzo, in the newly created post of president and chief executive at the Colburn School; and Olga Garay, recently named general manager of the municipal Department of Cultural Affairs. Although each of them hails from a distinct background and differs from the others in culture, age and more, they have one thing in common: They all identify themselves as Latino.

Indeed, these appointments mark an important moment for some of California's most powerful arts institutions. And in a city with a Latino population at 46% and rising, it should come as no surprise. "It shows how the world is really full of different talent, that they are very well prepared and that the community would like to have them," says Domingo, speaking by phone from Madrid, the city of his birth. Similarly, the Mexican-born Corzo sees the appointments as "a recognition that we are in a global society."

The ascension of these arts leaders puts L.A. in a unique position. "There is a huge potential for L.A. to model leadership behavior in how artists and arts administrators of Latino descent can take their rightful place," says the Cuban-born Garay.

The experience of "Luisa Fernanda" suggests that one change might well be in local arts programming. Domingo, for one, says, "We are looking for dates to do another zarzuela, Spanish opera or something. It's no doubt that will be our inclination, to offer something to the Latin audience, to do something that will call the attention of our people."

Garay, for her part, was most recently involved with bringing Spanish-language theater to New York's Lincoln Center Festival. She previously worked at the Doris Duke Foundation, one of the country's largest arts donors.

But seated in a meeting room at the Department of Cultural Affairs, in a mid-rise office building just blocks from the Music Center, she says that in her many years in the field, she has run across few Latino arts administrators. "If you look at the number of nationally recognized Latino artists in the nonprofit sector -- artists and arts administrators -- it's pretty small," she observes. "Certainly the arts have not been a place where Latinos generally enter into the American dialogue at the highest echelon."

Networking at work

Garay first learned of the Cultural Affairs opening through director- actor Diane Rodriguez, currently associate producer and director of new play production at the Center Theatre Group. Rodriguez later served on a panel that interviewed her.

"I totally think we're entering a new chapter for Latino artists in L.A.," says Rodriguez, formerly co-director, with playwright Luis Alfaro, of the Mark Taper Forum's now-disbanded Latino Theatre Initiative. "I do feel these new leaders will be more open to a diversity of aesthetic."

Another of Garay's interviewers was Richard Montoya of the comedy group Culture Clash. "Every member on our panel had come into contact with Olga at one point in their artistic lives," says Montoya. "That spoke volumes about the range of Olga Garay's knowledge and development of artists and arts administrators. Her hands were in all the important arts/theater/music movements of the last 10 years."

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