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Fans of Long Beach Opera can breathe a sigh of relief: Without a doubt, its new artistic director will continue the spirit of determined exploration and off-the-beaten-track programming that have been the company’s trademarks for most of its 42-year existence. James Darrah, a rising star in the small but flashy world of boundary-pushing opera directors, is clearly a sensible fit for Long Beach Opera, which mirrors his highly creative and unconventional aesthetic. Darrah was named LBO’s new artistic director on Feb. 22.

Darrah’s appointment is the result of a yearlong search. He is only the third leader in the company’s history, succeeding Andreas Mitisek, who stepped down at the end of the 2020 season after a 17-year tenure.

Long Beach Opera defies the odds in several ways. Founded in 1979, it’s the oldest producing opera company in Los Angeles and Orange County, a region that has not always been fertile ground for the unwieldy art form. (O.C.’s opera fans still get emotional when talking about the messy demise of Opera Pacific in 2008.) But unlike many regional companies that exist to dutifully produce the same dozen or so warhorses, LBO has made its reputation as a risk-taking and iconoclastic organization, exploring new and obscure work with innovative productions and championing up-and-coming talent, all on a budget that would make a shoestring look overfed.

The company’s vision is succinctly summed up in the self-description on its website: “Our artistic vision is to present unconventional works — repertoire which is neglected by other, more mainstream opera companies — ranging from the very beginnings of opera to modern, avant-garde works, emphasizing their theatrical and musical relevance to our time.”

Michael Milenski, who started his career in northern California with the San Francisco Opera and San Jose Opera, set the tone and direction of Long Beach Opera from its first production in 1979 until he stepped down as executive director in 2003. LBO’s mature period began with two productions in the 1983-84 season, Benjamin Britten’s “Death in Venice” and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea.” Both were directed by Christopher Alden, now one of the opera world’s most in-demand directors, whose career was given a boost through those two well-received stagings.

Voice of OC recently talked with Darrah, a graduate of UCLA who teaches there when he’s not helming productions for some of America’s pre-eminent opera companies.

Voice of OC: What are your earliest memories of Long Beach Opera? What did you think of them?

James Darrah: I actually was becoming aware of them when I was doing my MFA at UCLA. I had started to work in opera, and I believe at that point Andreas (Mitisek) came and did auditions at the school. I attended several performances in 2007-08. I was aware of their interesting rep choices, such as “Nixon in China.” I saw their production of “The Emperor of Atlantis” on the Queen Mary. I was also aware of the history of the company. I thought it was amazing to have an opera company of that size that wasn’t afraid to try those kinds of demanding works. I appreciate that Long Beach Opera has always thrived on going against the grain.

VOC: Founding director Michael Milenski really set the tone for LBO. What was most remarkable about his leadership?

Darrah: For me it comes down to a director and conductor being able to work together, with the director understanding how to make sense of the artistic choices. People complain about things that are not in service of the music. Milenski’s operas never made that mistake. His productions to me brought a certain aesthetic that wasn’t familiar to audiences. He was a carefully considered, intelligent musician and thoughtful about how opera can be combined with other art forms.

VOC: At times, LBO was almost as well known for its minuscule resources as its innovative programming. What’s the secret to making opera, a notoriously expensive art form, work on a tiny budget?

Darrah: I’m used to tiny budgets. A smaller size allows for fleetness and quick pivoting. With larger institutions it takes longer to evolve the company DNA and change direction when you need to. Too often, people equate having resources and money with the quality of design and directing. Early on, one of my mentors told me, “Don’t ever forget that you can’t design your way out of something if it’s not working.” You should be able to put singers in an empty space and do great opera if your approach is right. Long Beach gets to opera’s core that way. We can’t spend millions on each production. That fosters ingenious solutions. 

VOC: Many opera companies still seem mired in traditions that keep it a segregated, some would even say elitist art form. Obviously your career has been all about changing those traditions and preconceptions.

Darrah: I think some of the problem is an unhealthy adherence to traditions that don’t serve us anymore. There are people who are really comfortable with being very elite and exclusive and get wrapped up in the cachet of it all — the red carpets and the evening wear. I don’t think that’s helping sustain the art form. It alienates younger generations who don’t care about that glitzy “opera star” opera. I talk to my friends who aren’t in the opera world. Their point is: “If you produce something compelling and accessible and resonant with the real world, then your company is worth investing our time and money in.” That has been my biggest wake up call in the last year. 

VOC: What’s the secret to making opera more accessible and relatable to those who aren’t fans?

Darrah: I’ve been a freelance artist my entire adult life. I join certain companies for certain projects. I’ve watched some companies succeed because of leadership and embracing the reality of where we’re at as a society going through massive paradigm shifts. This is a time for opera and the performing arts to make bold choices. There’s a certain energy right now in the world, (and) smart art institutions are able to fully embrace what is happening.

VOC: You did some imaginative work during the pandemic, including a production of Philip Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher” that included puppets and other ingenious ways of getting around COVID restrictions. How did you approach your art differently in the last year?

Darrah: I think one of the things I learned this year is not to underestimate your artistic family. A lot of friends of mine, either their contract was completely dissolved due to force majeure or they were fired because the season was canceled. Working with my team, we were able to create jobs for designers, technicians, production designers. That came from the longstanding tradition of artists taking care of each other, and that bond feels stronger now. 

VOC: How will the experience of the pandemic change the way you and other artists think and work?

Darrah: Some institutions really relied on artists to be creative and come up with new solutions. That’s where I see a lot of strength coming out of this. There’s a newfound inventiveness throughout those organizations that embraced the need to change. I feel it was a time for bold leadership, and not wallowing or burying our heads in the sand. The people and companies that took action in the past year found imaginative new ways to practice their art. They have already shaped what will happen to the art form in the years to come.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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