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Long Beach Opera's Andreas Mitisek thinks outside the house

The Austrian-born director, who has staged shows in garages and swimming pools, wants to bring opera to the masses.

March 13, 2011|By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera, looks for gritty locations where they can stage productions along alleyways on Broadway in Long Beach.
Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera,… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Andreas Mitisek has plenty of reasons to be nervous: It's just a few minutes before he'll vault onstage to talk about "Medea," the bloody, extreme opera he's distilled and remade. And it's only an hour before the boyish 47-year-old will conduct the orchestra during a performance of the piece. Mitisek also designed the production's stark lighting — emitted eerily from below — that had been sharply criticized in a review a few days before.

But instead of composing himself in a green room, trying to control his anxiety while memorizing his speech or conducting, Mitisek is relaxing on an audience seat, discussing his love of putting on shows.

"It excites me and doesn't make me nervous," says Mitisek, who also runs Long Beach Opera, the company behind the production. As for his speech and the opera's music: "If I don't know it by now..."

Dressed in black, with soft blue eyes and choppy dark hair, the Austrian looks like he could be running a Viennese club that plays brooding, bass-heavy electronica.

But Mitisek is trying to make opera — and Long Beach Opera in particular — more approachable. "I'm out there talking to people before every performance. It's not an institution that's a temple: We're all together on a journey."

Before this Sunday afternoon performance in February, Mitisek is not inside an opera house or even a dedicated theater space but rather a former furniture showroom on a Long Beach street that could be Anywhere U.S.A.: An orthodontist, shoe store and dentist are nearby.

Inside the building, however, is definitely Somewhere. Part of the space is comfortable — a makeshift lobby has been filled with couches on which audience members lounge before curtain time — while other aspects are austere: The industrial stage is as stripped down as the production itself, and these opera-goers will queue up outside to use portable toilets. In some ways the company is a West Coast parallel to Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, N.Y., or Chicago Opera Theater, but neither offer such informal accommodations.

A few minutes later, Mitisek climbs onto the stage and begins to talk to several hundred audience members about chopping more than an hour out of Cherubini's 1797 opera of revenge and shifting it to English. He calls it "a story that makes 'Fatal Attraction' look like a lover's tiff."

And his production, he says — his cheery, open manner at odds with the grim subject matter — should be "sort of an opera espresso: condensed, strong, leave you wanting more. And make your heart beat."

When Mitisek talks about what he does at Long Beach Opera he always comes back to the idea of winning over people. "When I came here," he says of taking over leadership in 2004, "the word was, 'Here are the people who are interested in what we do — that's it.' I just couldn't believe that."

Mitisek grew up in Vienna and at 25 founded a small avant-garde, contemporary-minded opera company there in 1990. A few years later he visited LBO founder Michael Milenski during a U.S. visit to generate conducting work.

Milenski's company, which he founded as Long Beach Grand Opera in 1979, five years before Los Angeles Opera's birth, often struggled for funds. But it was known for edgy productions and imaginative programming. In 1998, Mitisek began conducting for the company and the next year became principal conductor.

When Milenski stepped down, he passed the reins to the younger man, in whom he recognized a similar strain of iconoclasm. The opera then had a budget of about $430,000, accumulated debt, and a full-time staff of two.

For all their differences of generation and nationality, the men's visions coincided. "I do believe that the theatrical effect of the opera we do is as important as the music," Mitisek says. "There are a lot of pretty operas out there, but it's difficult to make a hard, dramatic statement out of them."

His view of sets and costumes followed similar lines. "This is a story between people," he says of his operas. "Not a story between set pieces."

Institutions that lose their founders, especially founders with strong visions, often struggle. "I immediately thought, "Who could possibly do this?'" Sue Bienkowski, now president of the LBO board, says of Milenski's resignation. "When he mentioned Andreas, I thought, 'Who is this guy?' I'd seen him conducting, but I knew there was a lot more to it than that."

At the time, Long Beach typically offered two productions a year, squeezed into a "festival" of two weekends.

"I thought it needed more stability, and visibility," Mitisek says. "The festival format made it hard to keep visible for the rest of the year. To be a part of the community here, we needed to be more present."

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