June 3, 2023

LOS ANGELES — When tenor Russell Thomas performed at the Los Angeles Opera in 2017, Plácido Domingo, the company’s general manager, asked him to return one day to sing the title role in Verdi’s “Otello.” It was a remarkable invitation from Domingo, the leading Otello of his day, who sang the role in 1986 at the company’s first-ever performance in Los Angeles.

Six years later, Thomas is back in Los Angeles starring as Otello in a six-performance run that begins Saturday. But Domingo, who had initially considered singing alongside him as the opera’s villain, Iago, has disappeared, was forced to leave in 2019 at age 78 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted multiple women over the course of his career. bothered.

Thus, the company’s end-of-season production of “Otello,” which will be released by the company, is both a look back at the foundations and a look into the future as the Los Angeles Opera charts its course in a post-Domingo era. at a time when it faces the same challenges as other companies in recovering from the loss of audience and revenue since the pandemic.

“It’s slow — it’s much slower than I would have liked,” Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said of the public return. But he noted that the rise was in line with what other opera houses around the country are seeing today, and that there were signs that the company was overcoming its recent setbacks. “By most criteria, aside from public attendance, the company is in significantly better shape than it has been in its 38-year history,” he said.

So far this season, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s 3,033-seat capacity has averaged 64 percent — still less than the 83 percent the company recorded in 2018-2019, but it’s showing improvement since it first reopened after the closure. Two productions that sold well and sometimes sold out reflected the company’s efforts to balance new works with the classics: ‘Omar’, the new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, based on the autobiography of an enslaved Muslim scholar who won the Pulitzer Prize for music this week and “The Marriage of Figaro,” Mozart’s comedy.

In a season when New York’s Metropolitan Opera was forced to dip its endowment to make up for declining revenues, the Los Angeles Opera’s endowment is at an all-time high — $74.1 million, up from $28.8 million in 2012 – due to a continued influx of contributions, said Keith Leonard, the chairman of the board. It survived the downturn without running a deficit, relying on salary cuts, a handful of layoffs, a $5 million five-year loan against the endowment, and federal aid.

Domingo’s demise stunned Los Angeles and its opera company, which was so closely associated with the star tenor, who had been singing there since the 1960s and was instrumental in the company’s founding. An investigation by the Los Angeles Opera found allegations that he had engaged in “inappropriate conduct” with women “credible”, but found no evidence that he had engaged in “constitutional or retaliatory action against a woman by failing to cast or otherwise hire her at LA Opera When he left, the company promised to strengthen its measures to prevent misconduct.

It’s hard to say exactly whether attendance was affected by Domingo’s departure, as the coronavirus shutdown followed so soon after. For years his performances had attracted the largest audiences, and his image was as important to the company’s marketing as Gustavo Dudamel’s was to its neighbor, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It’s undeniably a loss because he’s such a giant figure in the world,” said Koelsch. But, he added, “a scientifically controlled experiment is impossible here.”

The opera never filled the position of general manager after Domingo left; those responsibilities were taken over by Koelsch, who was already in charge of the day-to-day management.

Domingo said in an email interview that he said the company had continued to thrive even after he made it clear that he was leaving unhappy from a position that had been a highlight of his career.

I watched it grow and I believe I gave it my all, to the point where it became one of the leading opera houses in the US and the world,” he said, adding: “I see that the programming and the seasons seem to be very diverse, with a big focus on new works that can attract new audiences and I think this is a great value for all people in Los Angeles.”

With an operating budget of $44 million, the Los Angeles Opera is the fifth largest company in the United States. Despite its short (by operatic standards) existence, and with its modest roster of six productions per season (compared to 23 this season at the Met), it has established itself as one of the more adventurous mainstream opera houses in the country: working more uptight than being stuffy.

Even before Domingo left, the company—aware of his age and that an institution shouldn’t be tied too closely to one person—had been planning for his future, working to forge an identity that would combine warhorses with more contemporary work.

It has been working for a decade with Beth Morrison Projects, at the forefront of contemporary opera production: they collaborated on the world premiere of Ellen Reid’s opera ‘prism’ in 2018 at the smaller Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in Los Angeles . , or REDCAT, and the work won a Pulitzer Prize. And in 2020, ‘Eurydice’ by Matthew Aucoin, who was the opera’s artist-in-residence at the time, had its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler before moving to the Metropolitan Opera.

“LA Opera is doing very, very well,” said Marc A. Scorca, the president of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization for opera companies. “It is the youngest of all the major companies in the country and continues to discover new audiences and momentum as LA continues to build its cultural infrastructure. I am very optimistic about the company.”

This spring, it partnered with Beth Morrison Projects to present two operas by Emma O’Halloran, the Irish composer, in the 250-seat black box theater at REDCAT.

One of them, a 70-minute two-person work called ‘Trade’, explores an emotionally disturbing hotel room relationship in working-class Dublin between an older married man and a younger male prostitute. presented on the opera stage.

“When we started this relationship, most opera companies weren’t doing new work,” said Morrison. “LA Opera, in terms of the big companies, was way ahead of that. They believe in experimental work and they believe that we need these things to ensure that opera develops into the future and attracts new audiences.”

Now other major companies, including The Met, are programming more new works in hopes of attracting new audiences.

If this is a recovery, it’s still a tentative recovery; crucial questions about how public behavior has changed remain to be answered. James Conlon, who has been the opera’s music director since 2006, said after being recruited for the job by Domingo that the opera “worked really hard to win back that audience”.

“My own hunch,” he said, “is that a lot of the competition won’t be other locations, but people sitting at home who have gotten used to using their television more.”

That’s a particular problem in Los Angeles, given the early evening traffic that can make trips downtown to the Music Center an exhausting, hours-long adventure.

When the company was first formed, there was much talk about whether Los Angeles was in the mood for grand opera. “Until the early 1980s, the view of many of the Music Center’s leading figures was that ‘LA is not an opera city’ and that ‘LA can afford a great symphony or a great opera, but not both,'” said Don Franzen, an original member of the opera’s board of directors.

But 38 years after that opening night, that question seems to have been answered.

“Los Angeles really is an opera city — I see the company’s growth and success as a testament to that,” said Opera America’s Scorca.

Now Thomas, the company’s current artist-in-residence, is getting ready to take his place in the demanding role the company founded: Otello. He remembered that invitation from Domingo, who had suggested the idea of ​​performing with him in Iago’s lower baritone role, as he had stopped singing high tenor roles.

“He was very interested in my Otello singing, and he and I performed the show together,” Thomas recently said. “I would have liked to see that happen. I would have loved to be on stage with one of the legendary opera singers. Things happen as they happen.”