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'Noah's Flood' is about community for L.A. Opera's James Conlon

At Our Lady of the Angels, the conductor will lead 400 mostly amateur musicians in Britten's work.

March 18, 2011|By David Mermelstein, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Opera will present "Noah's Flood" at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels.
L.A. Opera will present "Noah's Flood" at the Cathedral… (Robert Millard, L.A. Opera )

Among James Conlon's least heralded achievements as L.A. Opera's music director is a biannual community-outreach effort that began shortly after his appointment in 2006: the production of a little-known work by Benjamin Britten titled "Noah's Flood" (Noye's Fludde). The 1958 work, which Conlon will conduct in two performances Saturday, is the composer's take on a medieval miracle play and was written specifically for community performance.

Beyond its single-day run, several things make "Noah's Flood" unusual for L.A. Opera. Rather than presenting the work at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where virtually all of the company's productions are staged, it will be performed in the main sanctuary of the nearby Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. And its cast is comprised primarily of children.

Conlon first explored "Noah's Flood" in depth in 2003, when he conducted it at the Cincinnati May Festival. And it seemed a perfect way to expand outreach after he got to L.A. "I saw what it does to have the children running up the aisles, the bugles, the hand-bells, the recorders," Conlon said from his office at the opera late last month. "Kids of all ages are playing string instruments right next to the professionals. It's a great way for the opera to get outside our building and interact with the community at large."

"Noah's Flood": An article in the March 18 Calendar section about L.A. Opera's presentation of "Noah's Flood" referred to it as a biannual community-outreach effort. It should have said biennial: It is produced every two years, not twice a year. —

Most arts organizations have made community outreach a major goal in recent years, but "Noah's Flood" goes well beyond that, because it requires community involvement — something much rarer. (Performances of "Noah's Flood" worldwide have increased markedly in recent years, as the centenary of the composer's birth approaches in 2013. According to Boosey & Hawkes, Britten's publisher, there were around 40 productions last year.)

And so with Conlon newly installed at L.A. Opera, the company began to search for an appropriate venue in which to stage the work. Stacy Brightman, L.A. Opera's education and community programs director, thought the nearby Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels seemed an obvious choice.

"When Stacy mentioned Britten, my ears pricked up," recalled Frank Brownstead, director of music at the cathedral. "I thought we, as their neighbor, should cooperate. They had the vision, but they needed a place. And we had the place."

Working around the cathedral's busy schedule hasn't always been convenient for the opera or the various community music groups that have joined the project, but the sold-out performance in 2007 encouraged a remounting in 2009, this time with two performances, which also sold out. The present staging hints at the start of a tradition. (The performances are always free but require advance tickets.)

Save for three professionals — two singers from recent L.A. Opera productions playing Noah, his wife and an unseen actor intoning the voice of God — all the vocal soloists are student performers. And so are most of the instrumental players — who come primarily from Hamilton High School in West L.A. and the Colburn School downtown. This year a new group joins their ranks: youngsters from Celebration Ringers, a hand-bell ensemble based at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena.

The large chorus is an amalgam of several choirs from churches throughout Southern California, including the cathedral, St. John Eudes in Chatsworth, Padre Serra in Camarillo and St. Mel in Woodland Hills. Also participating are two Catholic choirs not affiliated with a parish: Jubilate Korean Catholic Choir and Pueri Cantores. In total, L.A. Opera's production of "Noah's Flood" uses more than 400 musicians, nearly all of them amateurs.

(Besides Conlon, L.A. Opera contributes 10 professional musicians from its ranks: five string players, two pianists, one recorder player, a percussionist and a trumpeter.)

For Conlon, much of the appeal comes from resurrecting an increasingly imperiled pastime. "Amateur music is very important, and it gets no respect on the radar of modern life, to our great detriment," he said. "We have learned to consume music through CDs and whatever else. People no longer make their own music, and they should."

Richard Rodriguez, a carpenter who lives with his wife and three children in Chatsworth, shares the conductor's view. As choristers at St. John Eudes, he and two of his daughters have participated in every performance of "Noah's Flood" at the cathedral.

"Two years ago, I was lucky enough to be one of the guardian angels," he said. "My girls have been numerous animals. One is a camel now, and the other is a lion, which is new this year."

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