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New stage for young artists

L.A. Opera program and the Colburn School team on two one-act operas.

January 20, 2012|David Mermelstein
  • L.A. OPERA music director James Conlon, right, will conduct at Zipper Hall.
L.A. OPERA music director James Conlon, right, will conduct at Zipper Hall. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

"It's a completely new experience," said Matthew Zuber, a 21-year-old bassoonist studying at the Colburn School. "I've never done an opera before." He was referring to his participation -- along with 21 other young musicians at the downtown conservatory -- in a new collaboration between Colburn and Los Angeles Opera's Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program. That union gets its first showcase this weekend, when the combined forces present two one-act operas: Ernst Krenek's "The Secret Kingdom" and Viktor Ullmann's "The Emperor of Atlantis." L.A. Opera music director James Conlon conducts both works, at Colburn's Zipper Hall.

The idea for joining forces in this fashion arose more than a year ago, during discussions between Conlon and Sel Kardan, Colburn's president and chief executive. "I saw a very natural connection," Kardan said. "There's the opportunity for the Domingo-Thornton singers to have leading roles and at the same time give our players exposure to vocalists, which they don't usually have. My dream down the road is that we do have a vocal program, but for now we are solely instrumental. And because of that, Colburn students don't have regular opportunities to work with vocalists."

Conlon and Kardan originally considered presenting a chamber opera by Benjamin Britten, but that idea was shelved after L.A. Opera announced that Conlon would conduct the composer's "Albert Herring" next month. So Conlon countered with the present bill, which features works once suppressed by the Nazis and later more benignly neglected.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 27, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Young musicians: In the Jan. 20 Calendar section, an article about the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program misidentified a bassoonist studying at the Colburn School. He is Michael Zuber, not Matthew.

The conductor has championed such scores for more than 15 years, having first learned of them during a two-decade long sojourn in Europe. And on assuming the music directorship of L.A. Opera in 2006, he insisted that the company present some of them. That venture, titled Recovered Voices and largely underwritten by local philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, brought operas by Walter Braunfels, Franz Schreker, Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- most never before performed in North America.

Recovered Voices stalled in spring 2010, a victim of the recession. This new collaboration is by no means a full-fledged revival of the project but rather a more economically viable reimagining of it. Enthusiasts of such music should temper their joy, however, for while future pairings of Colburn musicians and L.A. Opera young artists are already being discussed, it's unlikely that such collaborations will focus solely on this repertory.

"We wouldn't want to do something from Recovered Voices every year," Kardan said. "That's not the idea. But the forces made sense, and it's always great for students to do repertoire they're unfamiliar with."

It is that last point that so animates Conlon. "One of the most important things I have to do is work with young people, because they will bring this to the next generation," he said while multitasking in his L.A. Opera office last week. "And that's why I'm delighted to see young orchestras playing this music. They're like sponges. And now every one of these young artists is going to know what it's like to be in one of these operas. They will know there's a lot of great music to be discovered."

"The Secret Kingdom," which Conlon conducts for the first time here, and "The Emperor of Atlantis," which he has presented several times in synagogues since 1998, make a novel combination. Though Krenek's opera was written in the mid-1920s as part of a trilogy and Ullmann's is a stand-alone work composed in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, both are fantasies centered on rulers who abdicate.

The eight singers in the present crop of Domingo-Thornton artists are all in their mid-20s, and some have already appeared in the company's regular productions. But this project gives them a significant showcase simultaneously. "For a lot of them, this will be the largest role they have done so far," said Joshua Winograde, the program's artistic administrator. "This is an apprenticeship in the antique sense of the word -- an opportunity for singers to continue their training on a professional level."

That training consists of more than just technical instruction. In this case, it also means working closely with perhaps the world's leading exponent of music from this period. "Hearing the stories that Conlon has and how these works fit into history and why they are musically significant and worth every attempt to revive them is inspiring," Winograde said. "It's an experience these singers will never forget, nor will the orchestra at Colburn."

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