THE new David Hockney-designed, Jonathan Miller-directed production of Wagner's ``Tristan und Isolde'' is yet another important landmark in the brief history of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. This much-anticipated new production, which opened Sunday, brings together two giants of the creative scene today - Hockney, the celebrated painter, and Miller, one of the most provocative stage directors active in Britain today. It is just the sort of collaboration one has already come to expect from this young yet challenging company.
The seeds of L.A. Opera were planted when the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, visited Los Angeles in 1984, when the city made it clear it was thirsting for opera. After that visit, the board of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera approached Peter Hemmings, who was just finishing up a five-year contract as general manager of the London Symphony. Among his various past posts, he headed both the Scottish National Opera and the Australian Opera in Sydney.
``I had always known that one day I would work in America, Mr. Hemmings told me in a Monitor interview a few months ago. ``I had always wanted to. I always liked the work ethic here, and I'd always felt that opera was a potential boom area.''
Within a short time, Hemmings was installed, seasons were planned, and Pl'acido Domingo was enlisted not only as a guest singer and conductor, but as artistic consultant. In the interview, Hemmings noted that ``Los Angeles is a big-star place. You've got to recognize that. This is why we are so lucky to have this association with Pl'acido Domingo ... and whose very presence is sufficient not only to sell tickets but to raise money and to encourage other similar artists to come and sing here.''
And yet, the L.A. Opera struck out boldly from the very outset. During its first full season, it stood the opera world on its head with a wildly acclaimed production of Strauss's ``Salome,'' with Maria Ewing in the title role and Sir Peter Hall directing. Domingo, singing the title role of Verdi's ``Otello,'' officially opened that season, and this year Domingo was on hand again to sing Rodolfo in Puccini's ``La Boh`eme.'' But the artistic triumph of the first part of the season was Andrei Serban's arresting production of Prokofiev's ``The Fiery Angel.''
When I cited the ``Salome'' and ``Angel'' as major achievements, Hemmings instantly added, ``Well, I hope we've got some more as well. ... The `Tristan und Isolde' ... is a huge effort, the first Wagner we will have done, and I think a combination of [conductor] Zubin Mehta and Jonathan Miller and David Hockney is a very good beginning!''
What Hemmings is clearly after is a carefully balanced repertoire of familiar and lesser-known works. ``I don't think that there is any piece that we couldn't tackle if we wanted to, because we have the resources, we have the technical facilities on the stage, and we seem to have an audience,'' Hemmings explained.
How did this remarkable audience willingness to experience the new come about? He noted that ``because we had an open slate, we weren't dealing with a tradition, which can, in itself, be debilitating. If you intend to present unusual repertoire in the future, you've got to start doing it, otherwise how do you put those pieces in?'' He pointed out that still to come this season is Britten's ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' (Feb. 17-21), and next year the company will present Janacek's ``Katya Kabanova'' and Berg's ``Wozzeck.''
Hemmings praises his board for being supportive and challenging in the best sense of the word. ``I think that they are involved in an educational process themselves, in that they are learning more and more about the problems of running an opera company.... I think the more that we discuss these things openly and the more I am forced to explain decisions, the better those decisions will be.''
The company, which operates on a $10 million budget, functions without its own orchestra or chorus. The latter duties are filled by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is in the pit, and it can be expanded to as many as 96 players. For ``Tristan,'' the Los Angeles Philharmonic is on hand. Among the conductors who appear or will appear regularly with the company are Mehta, Domingo, Lawrence Foster, and next year, Simon Rattle.
As for young singers and their development, Hemmings said, ``I've always laid great stress on the need for a resident company into which you can meld stars by having sufficient rehearsals. We already have 15 singers on salary up to 35 weeks a year. We want to get that to 52 weeks, and we want to get to a situation where emerging artists here in Southern California don't need to go to the East Coast or to Europe - that they can begin their careers here.''
He also favors a system of avuncular advice, rather than specific young-artist training. To him, this means access to fine directors, coaches, and colleagues so the young singers can learn from experience. Because of the visibility of such projects as ``Tristan'' or ``Fiery Angel'' (which will be seen in Geneva and London in the next few seasons), Hemmings is confident about opera in Los Angeles, about his company, and about his audiences.
``My experience in other places is that if an opera audience drops off, it drops off either for economic reasons ... or because there is a slump in the artistic standards. And since we seem to have a recipe which is attractive, then that recipe must be maintained.''
Thor Eckert is the Monitor's music critic.