Mix a singalong, some classical performers, and a well-loved Bible tale and if you strike just the right notes, you will get Los Angeles Opera’s latest initiative to shed its formal trappings and recast the art form as a community experience for audiences.
During two days in March, the nation’s youngest, large-scale opera company presented the critically lauded “Jonah and the Whale,” an hour-long première inside the city’s new downtown modern cathedral.
Local children clad in elaborate and colorful silk costumes played sea creatures – fish, squid, and starfish – swirling around Jonah as he fell into the ocean. Pro and amateur musicians from L.A. Opera, The Colburn Music School, the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School, and Celebration Ringers of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Church made up the orchestra.
From the start, it was clear this would not be your father’s opera. Tickets were free of charge. Children in jeans made up a section of the audience. And, oh yes, the audience participated in a “rehearsal” so all could sing along at key moments.
This deep reach into the local community is the outgrowth of L.A. Opera’s ongoing commitment to bring new audiences to an old art form.
The inspiration behind this latest performance began during the celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday in 2013. The company produced the British composer’s community masterwork, “Noye’s Fludde,” which calls for the community to perform alongside professionals.
“Having admired and conducted Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’ for many years, I felt that there should be more works like it that bring together the entire musical community, combining professional and amateur musicians, choirs, soloists, and – most of all – children,” says James Conlon, L.A. Opera music director, via e-mail. While the scale of “Noye’s Fludde” has never been replicated, he says “Jonah and the Whale” is a first step toward performing works with more audience participation. This kind of community opera, and one that exposes children to classical works, is important to the future of opera, he says.
The ability of the company to take these professionals and meld them with more than 400 people from schools and churches in the area is unique, says Robert Thomas, music critic for the Pasadena Star-News. “This project sets the bar high for other companies but not unreasonably high,” he adds in an e-mail. In an era in which many public schools are cutting back arts education, “these sorts of ventures help to fill that gap,” notes Mr. Thomas.