Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

After the Fludde

January 28, 2007

Cross from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral

LA Opera’s new music director is in town for the next several weeks as he prepares to lead brand new productions of both Mahagonny and Tannhäuser. While this is his first year in the job, he is already making his presence keenly felt. He started the season with magnificent performances of Don Carlo and La Traviata and shortly thereafter announced a major new initiative to feature concerts and new performances of works and composers suppressed by Hitler’s Third Reich. In fact, new productions of works by Ullmann and Zemlinsky are one of the few highlights of LA Opera’s 07/08 season.

One of the other things that is quickly becoming clear in Conlon’s tenure is his commitment to community and educational programs. Three years ago he headed up a performance of Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis in a Wilshire synagogue for the LA Phil and this weekend he participated in another significant community-oriented event - a staged production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde at Our Lady of Angels Cathedral. The piece was performed with the Orchestra of the Hamilton High School Academy for Music and adult and children's choirs from St. John Eudes. The orchestra and cast did contain a few ringers from the LA Opera orchestra as well as Jason Stearns as Noye and Phyllis Pancella as Noye's wife.

The production was ticketed, but free to the public and turned out to be a huge success in perhaps every way other than artistically. Though this may be debatable as well. Britten's 45 minute version of the 16th Century miracle play does contain some moving and beautiful music. He wrote it with the intention of its being performed in this very type of setting with these types of forces - essentially a children's opera of sorts. So it is what it is. The acoustics of the cathedral are far from ideal and the amplification was awful. The large cast of children sang and moved around a minimal set of colorful fabric that represented everything from waves, and rainbows to the body of the ark and huge puppet doves that flew over the audience. The piece can't quite shake that Church of England Christmas Pantomime feel even here in media savvy LA where a significant number of kids in attendance probably have their own agents already working out their big deals at Sundance.

So what was so successful about the evening? There were a lot of kids there gaining some exposure to opera through a work that was neither chopped up or translated in order to achieve the purpose. But more importantly, the crowd was standing room only. I've not seen this large of a crowd at the Cathedral even on Christmas Eve. Why is this important? Not primarily for religious reasons (though Cardinal Mahoney was on hand to thank everyone for coming and encouraging them to come back again soon) but because there were many, many people who were seeing the Cathedral for the first time. While much attention has been rightly lavished on Frank Gehry's magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall just two blocks away, many have forgotten about the other major architectural achievement in downtown LA this decade - and frankly one arguably as important as the WDCH. José Rafael Moneo's design which was completed in 2002 is stunning and in many ways fits Los Angeles perfectly. The building is filled with light filtered through hundreds of panels of Spanish Alabaster and, though the building itself is minimal and very modern, it imparts a real warmth and sense of comfort appropriate to its purpose. So maybe even if the opera itself wasn't so great, many good things came out of it and a good time was had by all.

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