Long Beach Opera Goes Where No Opera Company Has Gone Before

Jim Farber on February 1, 2011
Andreas Mitisek

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“There will be a scream, and then we start,” says Long Beach Opera’s General Director and Principal Conductor Andreas Mitisek with a devilish grin. Then he and the orchestra launch into a tempestuous rendition of the overture to Medea, Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 saga of blood, revenge, and matricide.

From the moment of that scream onward, nothing about this Medea is traditional except the style of the singing and its dramatic impact. Mitisek has honed the opera down to a single act of 100 intense minutes.

“We have created our own version,” he explains. “I cut all the big chorus scenes out. I wanted to distill it to the main characters and the drama between them.”

The location where the production is being staged is equally unusual. That’s because the building at 4321 Atlantic Ave. in Long Beach is not a theater or an opera house. It’s a former furniture warehouse.

Off-Site and Off-Kilter

The opera will be performed in the round, with the orchestra tucked away in one corner of the vast warehouse floor. The center of the space is dominated by a series of interconnected metal grid platforms lit from below and covered with Lucite. On this glowing translucent surface, oddly reminiscent of the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever, Suzan Hanson (singing Medea) and Ryan MacPerson (Jason) will act out their dance of death.

“I believe the environment should be part of the performance experience,” says Mitisek, who became general director of the company in 2003. “In this instance, the desolation of the warehouse can represent the desolation of Medea herself.

“I like the idea that the audience is a little uncomfortable, where they don’t know what to expect. It creates a different mind-set. I don’t want our audiences to always have the same seat in the same theater. I want them to experience different perspectives. It keeps them more active. At the same time, because every one of these sites presents its own technical challenges, it requires us to be more innovative and keeps us from becoming complacent.”

Suzan Hanson as Medea
Photos by Keith Ian Pokoloff

Medea represents the latest in a series of adventurous, site-specific productions that Mitisek has designed, conducted, and directed, including Viktor Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis, performed inside the engine room of the Queen Mary, and a deliberately claustrophobic staging of Grigori Frid’s Diary of Anne Frank in a bunkerlike parking garage. And then there was the company’s aquatic setting of Rickey Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Eurydice that set the lovers adrift in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

The use of these alternative sites also lends the air of a festival to Long Beach Opera’s performances. The audience feels a sense of camaraderie, that they are about to embark on an unpredictable shared adventure. There’s no chance of a preopera drink at the bar, when the venue is a warehouse.

For this reason, LBO attracts a fascinating demographic: You are as likely to see young people in outrageous attire sitting alongside the most staid-looking operagoers. It’s certainly the hip alternative to a traditional opera performance, and the company’s success with this model shows that if you’re going to do the unusual, then go all the way with it. Maybe other companies will follow its lead in moving opera out of the opera house, the way that other classical music organizations (Classical Revolution, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra) are doing with their classical performances. In San Francisco, the tiny, upstart Urban Opera has done the same thing on a smaller scale.

The Benefits of Surprise

Ryan MacPherson as Jason

Mitisek, who is 47 and was born in Vienna, replaced Michael Milenski (a former San Francisco Opera stage manager), who founded the company in 1979. Milenski established Long Beach Opera’s reputation for daring and, later on, as a cutting-edge alternative to the more traditional productions of the Los Angeles Opera.

Milenski consistently stretched LBO’s repertory to include works both new and obscure, from Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (Johnny Strikes Up) and Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger to John Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4 and Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, complete with onstage fellatio.

Milenski traded in the vastness of the traditional opera house in favor of a more intimate setting, the 800-seat Center Theater. Then he latched onto a pair of hot young directors, David and Christopher Alden, who are twins. And in 1983-84 Chris Alden ignited a firestorm with back-to-back productions of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, and The Coronation of Poppea, in which the Emperor Nero (sung by a dashing Jacque Trussel) made his entrance driving a Porsche. The performance was conducted by a recent British transplant, Nicholas McGegan, and his period instrument ensemble, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The Poppea was a fiery Catherine Malfitano.

Throughout its history, the company has showcased such bright young singers as Ruth Ann Swenson (as Baby Doe) and Jerry Hadley (as Rodolfo), as well as famous veterans like Malfitano and James Morris (as Mephistofeles).

The set of Medea

One of the company’s more notorious moments came in 1996, when it presented the premiere of Stuart Wallace’s outrageous bio-opera, Hopper’s Wife. There was so much concern about the production’s potentially offensive nature that a sarcastic disclaimer was placed in the lobby. It read:

“Warning: Hopper’s Wife may be hazardous to your mental and physical health!!!

The opera contains:

Full frontal nudity offensive language an out-of-focus pornographic film clip possibly carcinogenic stage fog verifiably carcinogenic second-hand cigar smoke ear-splitting gunshots a perplexing, pre-millennial, postmodern literary text a challenging musical score outrageous distortions of the real life of Edward Hopper recycled scandalous Hollywood gossip

Finding an Audience

If all this were just so much gimmickry, Long Beach Opera would have perished long ago. But it’s not and it hasn’t. Indeed, under Mitisek’s leadership, LBO’s subscriber base and audience attendance have consistently grown, even during the recent recession, and of late the company has actually had to add performances.

“When I came to Long Beach Opera, I wanted to continue the mission of the company. But I also wanted to open it up to new audiences,” says Mitisek. “Long Beach Opera was always sort of a secret, and in many ways it still is. But over the last three years we have quadrupled our subscribers.”

From an earlier production of Orpheus and Eurydice

The rest of the season’s repertory makes Medea look almost conservative. LBO’s production of Akhnaten, Mitisek says, will represent the first full-scale presentation of one of Philip Glass’ major operas in the Los Angeles area. He’s invited the German video artist Frieder Weiss to collaborate on creating the production’s visuals. “[Weiss] creates performance-driven images that are actually dictated by the movement of the actors on the stage. Akhnaten is not an opera you should depict too literally — if you do, it becomes silly.”

If the hipster, new-music crowd is likely to be pleased by the Glass offering, the final two offerings of the season are even more up their alley.

“If you are totally unaware of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Moscow, Cherry Town,” Mitisek says with a smile, “then we’re doing our job. In the 1950s, during the Khrushchev era, housing was a big problem, which [the government] tried to solve with these cookie-cutter apartment complexes. How it all failed is the subject of this wonderfully satiric opera. Shostakovich uses all the tricks he learned in writing film music. It’s a hilarious score in which he shamelessly quotes Tchaikovsky and Offenbach. There’s a chamber version for 25 musicians that has just the right bite.

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is a very intriguing, Rashomon-style tale,” he continues. “It’s based on a one-page newspaper story by Ambrose Bierce and is set in pre–Civil War Alabama. It’s about a slave owner who walks across a field in the middle of the day and disappears. Then there are these different accounts of what happened, from the slaves, from his wife, but nothing is certain. It incorporates a lot of different musical styles that cross boundaries in every way, rather like Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion.

“We’ll be presenting it in the big Terrace Theater, but turned around, so the audience is on the stage facing into the auditorium. The action will take place on the stage and in the auditorium. I prefer intimate experiences. It’s more rewarding when you feel like you are a part of what’s happening.”

I discovered Long Beach Opera during its formative years and have been consistently impressed both by the unpredictable nature of its productions and by the quality of the singers and musicians. The one thing you can always expect from an LBO production is that you never know what to expect.