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Los Angeles Opera faces a modern-day dilemma

Los Angeles Opera's quandary: How to stay fresh and creative without turning off its core fans? 'The Turk in Italy' is just such a challenge.

February 13, 2011|By James C. Taylor, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Denyce Graves and Paul Groves in Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" by Los Angeles Opera.
Denyce Graves and Paul Groves in Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust"… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The first time the word "Regietheater" appeared in these pages was in 1985. The German term, which means "director's theater," was described a year later by a Times critic as a trend that "consigned the 'outdated' wishes of composer and librettist to a stupid oblivion."

Twenty-five years later, "Regietheater" is no longer just a German trend but a significant part of operatic life in America — especially on the West Coast. When Los Angeles Opera presents the company premiere of Gioacchino Rossini's "The Turk in Italy" on Saturday, it will not be seen in costumes or sets reflecting the period in which the opera was originally set (18th century) or written (19th century) but rather in contemporary dress, complete with espresso machines and televisions. Does director Christof Loy's mid-20th century update of an opera buffa from 1814 go against the wishes of the creators or is it simply a way to view an old work with new eyes?

This is a question that often divides the opera world — and creates headaches for opera administrators. Making things more difficult, says Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera's chief operating officer, are the terms used to describe productions, such as "modern" or "traditional," which can be misleading.

"Any new production is going to reflect modern mores," he says. "It's unavoidable. Even a detailed period set of the Elizabethan era that was designed in the 1960s will ultimately say more about the '60s than the late 16th century," he says.

This season at L.A. Opera, the only work to see a mostly "naturalistic" staging was the fall staging of its newest opera, the world premiere of "Il Postino." Even the Metropolitan Opera, long considered one of opera's most conservative houses, is seeing old, period stagings replaced with modern, more interpretive versions of the classics. The result is that booing, once a rarity at American houses (and almost never heard at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), has in recent years become almost expected when a director steps on stage for his or her bows on opening night.

Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, has witnessed a number of these opening nights and he admits: "Yes, there are segments of the audience that wants to see no new productions." But he is adamant that opera must be always pushing forward. "Just as movie studios rely on what they call 'tentpole events,' new opera productions provide the excitement, the buzz for a whole season," he says. "A new production is what gets the juices flowing."

A generation after "Regietheater" arrived in America, why are audiences still shocked when a classic is given a new spin? Ian Campbell, one of the longest-serving opera administrators in the country (he's been San Diego Opera's general manager since 1983) says that one of the problems is, of course, money: "We've locked audiences into a kind of canon, because we keep repeating productions — they're just too expensive to use and then just throw away." He says this tradition made fiscal sense, "but American audiences got used to revivals of massive sets, in part thanks to the Met, and now many people still go to the opera to hear with their eyes."

Campbell also stresses that unlike in Europe, where opera has been a tradition for hundreds of years, it's still relatively new on the West Coast.

"When we did 'Maria Stuarda,' it was a traditional set and went over well in San Diego," he recalls, "but I saw a production in Berlin that interpreted it as 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' It worked, but we didn't bring it here because you had to know the original to really know what was going on. Since we don't have a lot of opera here, audiences don't get a chance to know them as well."

This is a problem L.A. Opera faced with last season's "Ring" cycle. Many people complained that for their first time seeing Wagner's epic, they wanted it to be more realistic. "L.A.'s 'Ring' made as many enemies as fans," Campbell says.

Koelsch admits that Achim Freyer's "Ring" caused controversy, but argues that it was very faithful to Wagner's libretto. "Whereas our 'Roméo et Juliette' [first seen in 2005] is set in Victorian era, which is not when the source material is set," he notes, "but there weren't complaints.... Where is the tipping point?" (That Ian Judge production is being revived by L.A. Opera next season.)

This year the Met is in the midst of presenting its own new, more modern "Ring" (directed by Canadian Robert Lepage) and Gelb admits, "It's an obstacle: the fear of what some in our audience refer to as 'Eurotrash.'"

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