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L.A. Opera's new CEO works to keep stage lights on, audiences coming

Christopher Koelsch has worked his way up the ladder, assuming his new post in September. As the company turns 25, he is focused on getting it out of debt, satisfying current audiences and creating opportunities for new patrons.

October 20, 2012|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times

Domingo said that dynamic ticket pricing was introduced in part to address the unique challenges of opera-going in L.A. "In New York, it's a walking city. [The Metropolitan Opera] puts cheap tickets on sale the same day and people can just walk to the Met," he said. In L.A., it's more difficult for people to take advantage of deals. "We have to use a strategy to sell tickets at a good price at the last moment."

L.A. Opera is also introducing an initiative that will provide 250 seats at minimal cost, or free in certain cases, to select community members for every performance.

Running an opera company is a high-stress job. Domingo described Koelsch as "relaxed" in the face of pressure. "There's no panic, there's no tension. In an opera house, there is something to be solved every day. But you don't have anything to gain if people are nervous."

Koelsch joined L.A. Opera 15 years ago as an assistant to Peter Hemmings, the company's first general director. He has since worked in several capacities at the company, most recently as chief operating officer and senior vice president, overseeing the company's artistic planning, marketing and other responsibilities.

His appointment marks the first time in five years — since former Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel died in 2007 — that L.A. Opera has had a solely dedicated individual overseeing both the company's artistic efforts and finances daily.

"Christopher knows that job from the bottom up," said James Conlon, the company's music director. "He knows every aspect, not from a pseudo-executive perch of someone who has come into the company from above. He knows everything from below up."

Koelsch originally hails from the Boston area. By his own account, he used to have an accent so thick that when he went away to school, some of his classmates thought he was a foreign student. (He has since lost most traces of it.) He studied at Colgate University and the University of Michigan and worked at the Spoleto Festival USA and Opera Pacific before coming to L.A. Opera.

A Long Beach resident for many years, Koelsch moved to downtown L.A. in July, cutting his commute from one hour to six minutes, he said. He lives with his partner, Todd Bentjen, vice president of marketing and communications at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

Like many major companies, L.A. Opera has a tradition of producing new works by major composers. But new operas have been noticeably absent on L.A. Opera's main stage in recent years. The company has not produced a new opera since "Il Postino" by Daniel Catan in 2010. The opera, starring Domingo, was a popular success for the company and was seen by about 17,000 at the Dorothy Chandler, said the company. It also aired on PBS and has been released on DVD.

But other new operas have been less successful for the company — "Nicholas and Alexandra" by Deborah Drattell in 2003 and "The Fly" by Howard Shore in 2008 met with negative reviews.

"We've had mixed success with [new operas]," said Koelsch. "Part of the struggle of opera companies at the moment is the amount of investment that is required, and the risks are so enormous." L.A. Opera is exploring new operas, Koelsch said, but he declined to elaborate.

He said recent audience feedback shows some people are more interested in experiencing opera in a more traditional, historical manner; others are more interested in adventure and new experiences, but the majority of audiences want a mixture of both, which is what we try to provide over the long term."

For the time being, the company is looking to create a nimbler, more agile public image. Its new Off-Grand series, announced this year, will supplement its main stage season by bringing small-scaled performances to venues around the county.

"We want to be able to introduce people to opera in ways that will seem less intimidating," said Koelsch.

"Opera is an acquired taste — and it requires sustained exposure."

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