Like, it's Pagliacci, dude!

Now that it has a home of its own, Los Angeles Opera is poised to revitalize opera for audiences.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To the rest of the world, Hollywood may mean "the movies." But even though the Oscars are just a month away, the hot ticket in Tinseltown right now is the opera.

First and flashiest, there's Baz Luhrmann's updated Parisian love story "La Bohème," a great example of how stylistic verve can revitalize a venerable art form. It opened this week in a downtown theater and is already sold out in its only US venue this year.

But the hottest opera news is happening downtown. The Los Angeles Opera, which has had to share space with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the past 18 years, finally has a home of its own: The famed Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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The opera company, led by tenor superstar Placido Domingo for the past three seasons, has had to work its productions around the symphony's demanding schedule since Day 1. No more. Now that the snazzy new Disney Concert Hall has opened, the Philharmonic has handed over the Pavilion keys to Mr. Domingo.

Many opera watchers believe that the new, permanent stage marks the arrival of Los Angeles as a world-class opera town. From its new base, and under the guidance of its influential general director, the up-and-coming company now looks to tap into the extraordinary talent pool in its own backyard as a way to capitalize on the steady renaissance of the art form across the country.

"I've long said that L.A. was one of the crucial opera cities of the future," says John Dizkes, author of "Opera in America: A Cultural History."

The nation's second-largest city has every reason to be a leader in the opera world, he says. First and foremost are the natural resources of talent at hand. L.A. is also hugely important due to its population, sheer wealth, and possibilities for growth.

The company is already making rapid strides to expand. Four of the season's unprecedented nine productions (up from eight this past year) are new. In support of this expansion, the board has commmitted to raising the budget from $36 million to $48 million.

"They've begun to realize that potential," says Mr. Dizkes. "They are emerging as a leader in terms of conducting new works and attracting the best talent."

Hello, Operawood!

While opera may be a tough sell in the shadow of the international movie factory, tapping the city's entertainment industry is an obvious move.

So far, Domingo has not been shy about using his marquee status to bring talent on board. "We have to find ways to reach out to many audiences," says the musical director.

Domingo is a longtime friend of Mr. Luhrmann's (he provided the voice of the Moon in the Australian movie director's "Moulin Rouge"), and is in talks with the film director to create an opera. It's just one project in the company's ongoing mambo with the movies: The fall season will be previewed with a summer run of the Sondheim musical, "A Little Night Music," starring Jeremy Irons, and will include another Sondheim show, "Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." The opera company has also invited two movie directors, William Friedkin and Maximilian Schell, to direct productions. But, without question, the pièce de résistance of the season's announcements hovers on the horizon like summer lightning, sending a bolt of excitement through the city: plans for a $60 million production in 2007 of the Wagner "Ring Cycle" in conjunction with George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic special-effects company.

"You have incredible talent because of the entertainment industry, huge resources of every sort, and [Domingo] has brought them together to make the opera a very exciting thing in this town," says Monica Weil, president of the Opera League of Los Angeles, a volunteer support group of some 1,100 members.

A boom for opera

The announcement of the opera company's permanent residence comes at a surprisingly healthy time for the growth of opera in this country, says Dizkes, particularly given the dire state of many symphony orchestras.

Taking the long view, he points to the prewar years, when New York's Metropolitan Opera was virtually the only reputable company in the country. Today, with more than 300 regional and local opera companies across the US, the art is in a resurgence. "Opera is flourishing," Dizkes says.

It can be profitable, too. Los Angeles Opera board members announced that the company finished this past season in the black, with roughly $100,000 in surplus. However, in L.A., and elsewhere, the art form still faces many challenges in today's media-saturated environment.

"The challenge for any company is to compete for the entertainment dollar," says Gerard Floriano, artistic director of the Rochester Opera Factory, a small company in New York whose entire annual budget equals the L.A. surplus. "To make audiences see opera these days as a viable option, especially in a city like L.A. where all you have are options," he says, "the people running it have to find ways to hook audiences."

The playbook for his small but profitable company reads like an extended primer for modern opera companies.

Mr. Floriano says he goes out to the schools to bring in students for special performances and offers the now standard English supertitles on all shows. These above-the-stage translation monitors were controversial when introduced, yet many say they have been key to opening opera to everyday audiences. "People can finally understand what's happening," says Floriano, who also does presentations prior to opera performances.

Floriano believes opera will continue to grow in its appeal. "It is the wedding of the three great performing art forms: music, theater, and the voice," he says, "it's not like anything else and the experience is richer for it."

What are opera's boundaries?

Los Angeles Opera offers a similar menu of outreach programs, but without question the greatest factor in its current growth has been its charismatic leader. "The great heroes of our culture today are the film and TV stars," says Dizkes. "Domingo is one of those singers who has crossed over," he says, adding that Domingo brings a glamour that is crucial to attracting audiences.

At the same time, the singer hasn't compromised on the important aspects of the art form. This is an issue closely watched by opera lovers everywhere. "It's good that movie people are reaching young audiences," says Philip Frohnmayer, a singer and Loyola University music professor. "But you don't want to turn opera into something it's not. It's not ballet or a movie. It's opera."

Most opera lovers agree there is at least one nonnegotiable line. "My greatest reservation," says Dizkes, "is amplification. If the voice is amplified, then it is not opera," he says, adding that there is something about the unaided human voice that moves audiences as nothing else can.

Opera matters as an art form, he says, and it's worth fighting to preserve it. "I don't have any doubt that this is a battle that should be fought," he concludes.

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