The Long Beach opera adds water and chlorine
Known for taking risks, the company enlists some big names and turns 'Orpheus & Euridice' into a pool party.

LONG BEACH OPERA is nothing if not nervy. Two years ago, it mounted an abbreviated version of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, with the composer's majestic orchestrations played by an ensemble of 25. Last year, its production of Grigori Frid's "The Diary of Anne Frank" was staged in two parking garages. That kind of moxie has brought LBO national and even international attention. Yet for all its acclaim and a loyal cadre of supporters, it continues to be relatively unfamiliar to L.A. audiences.
v But that may be about to change. With tonight's opening of its newly commissioned version of Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus & Euridice," LBO is launching a season studded with high-profile names -- and one that could bring the 29-year-old company a greater following.

"Orpheus & Euridice" stars Metropolitan Opera alum Elizabeth Futral and twice Grammy-nominated clarinetist Todd Palmer along with the Denali String Quartet. The 70-minute song cycle will be performed around -- and in -- the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach and staged by LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek, who also conducts the company's productions. It will be followed later in the season by a double bill featuring actor Michael York, a recital by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and a reprise of "Anne Frank."

The concept for the "Orpheus" production was Mitisek's. "The inspiration for using the pool was the element of the water, with Orpheus crossing the River Styx to find his lost love," says the Viennese-born maestro, just back from conducting and directing the Italian premiere of John Adams' "Nixon in China" in Verona. "The water is a metaphor that takes many forms: a pool party, a place for love and a road to the underworld."

Such imagination is characteristic of Mitisek's approach to music theater, but it's an approach that follows that of LBO founder Michael Milenski, who tapped Mitisek to succeed him in 2003. "For me, rather than taking people to a theater where you enter a room you are comfortable with, it is important to select a site-specific location, as we did with 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' " says Mitisek. "It made people understand the work in a different and emotional way."

Most opera companies would be averse to such risks. However, "I think companies sometimes underestimate their audience and therefore limit themselves," explains Mitisek, who co-founded and was music director of the Vienna Opera Theater. Just as that company was launched to present contemporary works and add something that was missing from Viennese musical culture, so too is LBO "here to fill a gap, a big gap."

"Taking a risk, that's what we have to do in art anyway," Mitisek says. "Any new production is a risk, unless you limit yourself to the old war horses. Ninety percent of opera companies do the same 10 operas. But if you don't have the courage to take risks, then you are stuck."

As it happens, composer Gordon is one of contemporary opera's bright lights. His "Grapes of Wrath," which first bowed at Minnesota Opera in 2007, is slated for Opera Pacific and Houston Grand Opera in 2009 as well as a recording. The Times' Mark Swed praised the premiere, saying "the opera's greatest glory is Gordon's ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan."

Mitisek was familiar with Gordon's work, including songs performed by Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw. Looking for something contemporary, he came across Gordon's "Orpheus & Euridice."

Part of the attraction was that it was based on a Greek myth. "It seems the unbearable truth of so many issues we have in mankind we only are able to make bearable by retelling the story all over again," says Mitisek.

In Gordon's case, the story of Orpheus, the musician who journeys to the underworld to retrieve his lost love, had a connection to his own experience. Written while his partner was dying, the piece was originally intended to fulfill a 1995 commission from clarinetist Palmer.

"I don't think he expected that I was going to write an evening-length opera," says Gordon, speaking by phone from New York. "I loved his initiative. He not only wanted to be an instrumentalist, he wanted to create repertoire."

Unfortunately, Gordon was his partner's primary caretaker and didn't feel up to writing. "It was a very difficult time for me, and I kept putting Todd off," he recalls.

Then in the middle of one night, the idea struck, and Gordon wrote the libretto in the kind of fevered haste that ordinarily occurs only in movies. "My partner, Jeffrey, woke up an hour later and I had the whole piece written," he says.

The result exemplifies the transformation of pain into art. "This really rose from the ashes," says Gordon. "It is so about what was happening to me at the time -- for instance, the line 'As in increments he left.' It's exactly what you want as a writer: If you have to live it, you hope you can blow it out your horn."

To Mitisek, the result combines the best of both worlds: "It's a very personal view, but he keeps a universal approach."

"Orpheus & Euridice" was first heard in a shorter version at New York's Cooper Union in 2001, then in an expanded form at Lincoln Center in 2005, with Palmer, Futral and the Doug Varone Dancers. It was Mitisek's idea to have Gordon rescore it with strings and piano added.

For any new opera or song cycle to have multiple productions is rare, but "it's having the kind of life it is because it's small and manageable and not expensive," says Gordon.

Budget-conscious
THAT kind of artisticpragmatism is something Gordon and Mitisek share. In fact, in Mitisek's first year at LBO, he succeeded in boosting ticket sales to 270% above what they had been the previous year. But the company was also mired in inherited debt.

Most opera companies are just one bad move away from debt, and LBO has struggled financially for the last several years. But it ended last year in the black and committed to a budget for this season of roughly $725,000 -- a figure Mitisek hopes to raise to $1 million within a year or so.

One key factor has been exercising restraint in the scope of productions. "The aim when I came here was to increase the visibility and to keep the mission that we have," says Mitisek. "I'm not aiming to grow with compromise. I want to grow with the artistic concept and vision that we represent.

"The key is making sure the productions don't exceed our possibilities and knowing where you are and how to get to the next point instead of spending too much and then having the damage."

Mitisek has expanded LBO's offerings from a short June festival, with an occasional small additional event during the year, to a February-June season.

His aim is for the company to be more visible throughout the year, and using different venues helps make that possible.

Indeed, LBO is attracting diverse audiences to these new places. "It wasn't just the hip young people, there were also 80-yearold ladies," notes Mitisek of the "Anne Frank" performances. "I was walking through the audience and one lady said to me, 'I know exactly what you mean being in here.' Nothing else needed to be said."

The difference is between a performance and an experience. "For me, that's a much more rewarding concept than just using the regular theater," says Mitisek. "The convenience and the familiarity of always using the same theater has wonderful, positive aspects, but there is also a side where it gets too comfortable."

In addition to Mitisek's artistic strategies, LBO's improved finances are also attributable to increased fund-raising. "We work very economically with the resources we have, which is good," says Mitisek. "But it is also dangerous because people think we don't need money."

Last year, in fact, because of its financial situation, LBO was forced to cancel a planned production of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar."

That's a long way from how things are done in Mitisek's homeland. "It's very interesting to work in this completely different world than in Europe," he says. "It enables you to do anything you want, if you find people who like it. Great art needs great sponsors, especially in America."

Consequently, LBO now has its first full-time development director. "This is one of the things I have been pushing for, increasing our staff, especially for fundraising," says Mitisek. "It's an investment. It's also a compliment to our board to say they stand for what we do."

Asked to sum up what has helped LBO move forward, Mitisek says it "goes back to a very simple formula: You have enthusiasm, you present something you believe in, you find the people who want to support it, and you find the audience that wants to see something beyond the regular."

The pairing of Gordon and Long Beach Opera is propitious. The composer and the company both offer new directions for opera in America.

Writing about "The Grapes of Wrath," The Times' Swed said that "Gordon's other great achievement is to merge Broadway and opera," and the composer's current assignments prove the point. He's writing a piece for Signature Theatre, outside Washington, D.C., and a new musical for New York's Playwrights Horizons as well as operas for the Met and Minnesota Opera.

And LBO has a long-standing commitment to new work. "The NEA has this great quote: 'A great nation deserves great art,' "says Mitisek. "Great art is also new art.

"If I look back and think what we have done in three years, I am proud of where we are. I truly believe, looking at the American landscape, that we have a right to be proud."
- Jan Breslauer, Los Angeles Times, 17 February 2008