LA Opera goes Hollywood

Placido Domingo mines film talent for new season

It's been a long libretto and lots of operas, high notes and low notes since superstar tenor Placido Domingo took over the Los Angeles Opera in 2001. But one accomplishment the risk-taking 67-year old artistic director points to with special pride is that "many of my dreams about using the talent in Hollywood are coming true."

This season, Domingo is beginning with an operatic Hollywood two-step: Filmmakers William Friedkin and Woody Allen will direct the three one-act operas that make up Puccini's "Il Trittico," and David Cronenberg will direct (and Domingo conduct) the U.S. premiere of Howard Shore's "The Fly," adapted from Cronenberg's 1986 film for which Shore supplied the score.

The artistic risks are that neither Allen nor Cronenberg, like Garry Marshall last season in Offenbach's "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein," has ever directed an opera. Friedkin, on the other hand, has directed here and abroad; his LA Opera productions include a Bartok/Puccini double bill in Domingo's first season and an "Ariadne auf Naxos" (Richard Strauss) in the 2004-05 season.

Cronenberg, whom Domingo introduced along with Shore at a recent news conference at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, admits not having done any stage work since "playing Banquo in high school," but he talked enthusiastically about the challenge. The Canadian director described David Henry Hwang's libretto as "very cinematic: lots of back and forth rather than monologues and arias."

Allen, who has directed only his own one-act plays, recently told the Village Voice, "I'll just do the best I can, and then get out of town and let them tar and feather Friedkin." In both cases, it was Domingo who provided the impetus for initiating the projects and selecting the vehicles he thought would be suitable to the three directors' personality and talents.

Used to making risky choices, Domingo believes that movie directors, even inexperienced ones, see things in different dimensions. Over the years, he has brought in Julie Taymor, Maximilian Schell, Bruce Beresford, Herbert Ross, John Schlesinger, Marthe Keller and Franco Zeffirelli to provide "new and different opera experiences."

Whoever is directing, a night at the opera is always a financial gamble.

The Opera's 2008-09 budget is estimated at $60 million, 50% more than it was when Domingo took over, and it has to pay for 67 performances of 11 operas. So far in the new century, it's been relatively smooth cruising for the company, although like other performing arts organizations, it took a funding hit after Sept. 11. And yet, single ticket prices are holding constant, ranging from $20 to $250.

Domingo is also putting his stamp on the season by singing the role of Siegmund, one of Wagner's lustiest heroes, in "Die Walkure." The feat is being perceived as fairly remarkable -- so much so that fans from around the world are making plans to attend one of the seven performances to hear Domingo seduce the character of Sieglinde, Siegmund's twin sister in the opera. Domingo's partner in crime will be Anja Kampe, one of the hottest young sopranos around.

The season's biggest artistic risk is also its one off-the-wall production, "The Fly," which disappointed critics in July when it premiered at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. There was admiration for it as a theater piece, thanks to Dante Ferretti's striking 1950s set dominated by two contraptions, like giant industrial washing machines, which create the story's half-human monster, and Stephan Dupuis' special effects. Shore's music, however, received mixed reactions.

The real meat of the season starts in February with the first of the two installments ("Das Rheingold" in April will be the other) in the company's first production of Wagner's four-opera epic, "The Ring of the Nibelungen." Directed by Achim Freyer and conducted by LA Opera's music director James Conlon, it will be a back-breaking labor of love but one that is every opera company's proof of its bona fides.