Does Opera Have a Future in Orange County?

Photo courtesy of Opera Pacific

Opera Pacific’s 2004 production of Puccini’s "Turandot."

Philip Henslowe : Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman : So what do we do?

Philip Henslowe : Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman : How?

Philip Henslowe : I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

– Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, “Shakespeare in Love”

Opera is an impossible art form even in the best of circumstances. Marshalling the combined forces of conductor, stage director, set designer, costume designer, lighting designer, soloists, chorus members, orchestra, stagehands, marketers, accountants, etc., etc., etc (let alone addressing the price tag for said forces) requires a staggering amount of coordination and cooperation. And that’s for any production.

For mounting a successful production, add surpassing artistic skill, imaginative staging, audience interest, and the inexplicable serendipity that characterizes an unforgettable moment in the theater. Any time a curtain goes up on an opera, “How did that happen?” is an entirely legitimate question. How does it ever happen?

Yet happen it does, somehow.

Despite the exorbitant costs and the heavy lifting, it happens. And for 22 glorious, dismal, nail-biting seasons starting in 1985, Orange County laid claim to its own opera company. At its peak, Opera Pacific staged four to six productions a year, operating with the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now Segerstrom Center for the Arts) as its home base.

With a name brand artistic director in John DeMain, and seasoned administrators at the helm like Bob Jones and David DiChiera, it drew consistent audiences and attracted a few top stars like Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Deborah Voigt. It provided plenty of local musicians with added performance opportunities. It added to the county’s civic pride. Production quality varied, but that’s so with every company. One never doubted the company’s intent or commitment to build a long-term home for the art form.

An Ignoble Death (or Was It….Murder!)

And then, in November 2008, it either died or was murdered depending on who you talk to. Regardless of why (sudden absence of deep-pocketed donors, lack of a wider audience base, the subprime mortgage collapse, Mercury in retrograde, pick your poison), O.C.’s opera goers have seen more than a decade without a home-based professional company.

To the casual observer, it’s a little curious that no one has picked up the gauntlet, that there isn’t a fat-walleted Don Quixote somewhere in the county dreaming an impossible dream.

Orange County opera buffs, and there are plenty, have had their itches scratched by a few professional appearances per year. Pacific Symphony produces one semi-staged opera annually; this upcoming April, it’s Verdi’s Otello (full disclosure, a decade ago I was part of that program’s launch team), and for several years LA Opera has made an annual voyage south to Chapman University’s Musco Center for the Arts to present one of its productions in concert form. This upcoming February 25 it’s Donizetti’s Roberto Devereaux. But not even a hint of another homegrown professional production company.

Photo courtesy of Mike Goulding/Pacific Symphony

Pacific Symphony’s 2018 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

Speaking about LA Opera, hmmm …. I remember reading something about LA Opera recently…

Oh yes. Placido Domingo.

Domingo, grand opera’s grandest name and LA Opera’s now ex-general director. Domingo, suddenly rendered an unperson. Domingo, who’d performed four times at the Musco Center and was planning on a fifth in February. That is, until sexual harassment charges were leveled against him this past August, followed by his rapid and well-publicized fall from grace, his resignation as LA Opera’s general director, and his withdrawal from all future performances with the company.

Leaving commentary on the causes and conditions of his departure to others, and at the risk of seeming myopic, there is mop-up work to be done in gauging the impact of his departure on the Orange County opera landscape. Without speaking to the accusations, thousands in the performing arts business, from the Metropolitan Opera to San Francisco Opera to points across the globe, must all now face a post-Domingo landscape. On a smaller but still significant level, Orange County faces it too.

With opera’s solitary international celebrity in professional exile, is there any damage to audience interest? How hard would it be it to build an opera company from the ground up? Are there enough audience members and donors in Orange County to support another company over the long run? Could an Opera Pacific happen again? Or, properly, should it?

Is the art form in Orange County moving forward or backward, or is it frozen in place?

If anything is going to happen here, it’s not going to happen with Domingo. His pariah status and withdrawal from the company has had him out of Roberto Devereaux since October (Quinn Kelsey steps into the vacated role at the Musco Center’s February performance).

Does that make a difference?

According to Richard Bryant, the Musco Center’s executive director: no, not really. Going to press, as they used to say (going to pixels?), LA Opera administrators did not make themselves available for comment, but while LA Opera is currently in the planning stages for next season, and no decision has been made yet on an Orange County appearance in 2021, Bryant says it’s premature to start reading the tea leaves.

“We don’t make those decisions until the time comes, so there’s nothing to read into it,” he says. “Next year’s plans are unknown, but our relationship with LA Opera is a solid and important relationship, and we’re looking forward to continuing to work with them every year. Placido Domingo has been a giant, and our engagement through LA Opera included him, and so he’ll be missed as the bright light that he’s been here over the past few years. But the basic relationship is with LA Opera, and we look forward to a continuation of that.”

Bryant has a long history with O.C., having served for many years as the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ first director of communications and marketing. He left to take a position at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, followed by a stint at Washington DC’s Arena Stage. Now that he’s back, he has an unusually informed perspective on the County’s artistic vibrancy.

Failure of Will?

“Opera is the most interesting of challenges,” Bryant says, “because opera has everything. Everything. Since it has everything—orchestra, principal singers, chorus, sets, costumes—it’s the most expensive art form by far. Being able to field the resources for fully produced grand opera is challenging anywhere. It’s challenging in New York, in D.C., in all the great cities of the world.

“After leaving and coming back, I haven’t really seen that much growth and development of producing performing arts companies of scale,” he says. “Once you get past the large ones like South Coast Repertory, I rather expected to see more and larger-making companies, producing companies. And in terms of scale, I mean capable of supporting artists who are making their livelihood by associating with the company, who have 36-week seasons, and buildings to produce in. The question isn’t in the art, but in the act of will among those who work to create a cultural enterprise. They have to come together committed to the principle that something of this nature is important, vital, and wanted by the community, and then create a longer-term view of how to develop the resources to attract the talent to make it happen. Our measure in D.C. was ‘How many weeks is the season? How many are on the payroll? How much are they paid? Do they have health insurance? Is there an institutional infrastructure that can make a great work of art again and again and again over time?’”

In other words, growth isn’t being hampered by a lack of appreciation of the art form, or whether a celebrity is at the top of the bill or not.

“Everyone loves opera, it’s great, and it’s not going anywhere,” Bryant says. “The question is, where is the will to finance it, and the vision to produce it?”

At present, most of the will and vision reside at Pacific Symphony. Since 2011, it’s been the primary home for OC’s opera buffs.

The symphony’s longstanding music director Carl St.Clair has an extensive operatic background and has been the driving force behind the semi-staged operas that have graced Segerstrom Concert Hall once a year. Supporting this effort from behind the scenes is the symphony’s president, John Forsyte, who has as good a handle as any on the always-tenuous world of professional music, and the difficulties of sustaining a successful arts organization.

“Pacific Symphony has been fortunate to enjoy the support of extraordinary supporters like the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom family,” Forsyte says. “But the truth of the matter is that no arts organization today can thrive without philanthropy. To garner this support, I believe that the organization must, above all, have a focus on serving its distinct community and understanding how it adds value. Naturally, artistic excellence is a driving force, but that can mean more than just technical excellence. The programming choices must resonate, stimulate, and perhaps provoke deeper understanding.”

Photo courtesy of Doug Gifford/Pacific Symphony

Pacific Symphony’s 2019 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”

In general terms, it makes clear sense, but has this approach worked with the operatic initiative?

“The performances traditionally sell out and are our best-selling concerts,” Forsyte says. “That said, traditional symphonic audiences were initially skeptical that they would enjoy the operas. They love the sound of a symphony and the rich canon that we perform. With that in mind, we have programmed operas that benefit from a full orchestra onstage, so there is that pure symphonic impact. However, I believe that like any great art form, it takes time to acquire the unique language and we are seeing that our traditional subscribers are, in most cases, falling in love with these operatic masterpieces. Conversely, and much to my surprise, the opera purists have been swept up in the sonic discovery of having the orchestra on stage with the singers.”

More Going on Than Meets the Eye

Along with Forsyte, the symphony’s operatic initiatives are shepherded by Gary Good, nominally the symphony’s senior executive for special campaigns and major gifts, but de facto “opera buff-in-chief.” The symphony hosts bus trips to LA Opera and San Diego Opera, has an active schedule of salons and social events, presents condensed opera on its Family Series, has an active volunteer support group in Opera FOCUS, co-chaired by former Opera Pacific stalwarts Laila Conlin and Bev Spring. Good plays a role in all of it.

“There’s a lot more going on than readily meets the eye,” he says.

Good’s career has been devoted to arts administration, having held top executive positions nationwide, and few people would have greater insight into the future of opera production in O.C. Does the absence of Domingo make a difference here, and should there be a revamped Opera Pacific? According to Good: no, and no.

“I personally don’t think there’s an appetite or really the wherewithal to start another traditional major arts organization in Orange County,” he says. “Something like 20,000 new non-profits are chartered by the IRS every year. If you think about that, it’s 20,000 organizations at various levels of budget that require administration, volunteers, boards, and a cause. When one addresses the question, ‘Can there be more performances of opera in Orange County?’ It’s not necessarily ‘should’ there be an opera company here. Those are two every distinct things.

“When Opera Pacific went under, we had a town hall meeting with its subscribers. What was important [to them] was the quality of singers, a regular presence, and opera education for the schools. What was less important were the high costs of traditional production values. Frankly, renting a set from Seattle [Opera], and paying royalties and all the production costs of staging that over four weeks or more – when people were forced to think about it, it was not that important.”

For those with a Zeffirelli-esque view of the art form, it may seem like the dialing down of theatrical components hits at something central. According to Good, that’s not always the case. In fact, in some instances it’s a feature, not a bug.

“We’ve had ample feedback and evidence that opera in the concert hall, with the orchestra onstage, and the singers more intimate with audience, is meaningful to both traditional opera goers and people new to the art.”

A Domingo-less Future

So, there may not (will not) be a semi-staged Ring Cycle on the Segerstrom stage anytime soon, but there’s a repertoire that seems to work in this format.

“This season is the eighth opera we’ve done,’ says Good, “and we’ve done eight of the largest selling weekends in Pacific Symphony history. I think that there are very few people who would say that minimalist productions are compromising the experience. We get just the opposite when people talk to us. They’re saying if this semi-staged version is the future of opera, give me more.”

As for Domingo?

“I have no real comment on that, but I think the symphony is, with close to a decade of experience, an obvious organization to eventually get to returning fully-staged opera. My major exception to the premise whether the need for an independent institution is there: after eight years, the symphony has made the case that we can be the future of produced opera in Orange County.”

And that may be enough. LA Opera continues to stage traditional and spectacular productions, Long Beach Opera forges ahead in its scrappy and innovative way, San Diego Opera provides yet another outlet for listeners. The market for opera in Southern California may already be saturated, and it may be a settled question: asking for a fully-staffed, active and sustaining professional company in Orange County that consistently delivers top-quality, fully-staged productions before packed and enthusiastic houses? It may be too much.

Impossible, one might say.

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at palefevre@gmail.com.