Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Just Met the New Boss

May 28, 2012

Christopher Koelsch Photo: Rebecca Rotenberg/LAO 2012.
The performing arts season shifts gears here in Los Angeles and around the country as we move into the summer. But a couple of recent personnel changes at Los Angeles’ biggest performing arts institutions in the last few months invite thinking ahead to coming seasons, particularly in corners hardest hit by the economic downturn of recent years. One face, certainly fresh if not in any way new to his organization, is Christopher Koelsch who was announced as the new President and CEO of Los Angeles Opera beginning at the start of the 2012/2013 season. Following the economic downturn and the financial strain of an artistically groundbreaking Ring cycle in 2010, LAO has been digging itself out of a hole in the last few seasons with a reduced schedule heavily oriented towards crowd-pleasers and lower amounts of artistic risk. These developments closely followed the death of the company’s former CEO Edgar Baitzel in 2007. Since then the day-to-day operations of the company that has been headed by General Director Placido Domingo and Music Director James Conlon, has fallen to interim management from other players including LAO Board President Marc Stern and Music Center president Stephen Rountree. Rountree in particular has played a pivotal role as LAO's CEO from 2008 forward managing to complete many of Baitzel’s projects and stabilize the company’s finances in the subsequent economic downturn.

Meanwhile, Koelsch has been working his way up through LAO’s ranks since 1997 when he joined the company under the tenure of founding General Director Peter Hemmings. He’s served as the Vice President of Artistic Planning and in 2010 he became the Chief Operating Officer overseeing the non-financial aspects of the company’s management. His appointment to the top post under Domingo and Conlon is a big step and very good news for a number of reasons. Not only does he have a long history with the company throughout most of its history, but he represents the board’s move towards a stable future after a period of some struggle. Koelsch has taste and vision, which will serve the company well, particularly in the ensuing years, which promises even further changes. For those of you playing along at home, you may recall that 2013 is the year that the contracts of both Domingo and Conlon with LAO will expire. They may or may not stay on board, and even if they do, its highly likely the company will have to make new decisions about its artistic leadership somewhere in the not too distant future. Having Koelsch on board in the top day-to-day financial and operations spot buys the company core stability to ride with whatever punches may come along artistic leadership lines. Here’s wishing him the best and bringing the company back to a bigger and more adventurous seasons in the near future. (And how about a revival of that Ring cycle while we’re at it?)

Kristy Edmunds.
On the other side of town a new director with an even bigger task ahead has come to the performing arts series at UCLA. Kristy Edmunds was named the new Executive and Artistic Director of the series last spring following the precipitous departure of former director David Sefton in 2010. Again dwindling resources were to blame both internal to the University and in the community at large. Things quickly crashed and burned at UCLALive with just about everything adventurous in the once impressive series, including Sefton’s hallmark International Theater Festival, going out the window for very small amounts of the predictable, tried and true.

But in comes Edmunds to revive this moribund organization with an impressive track record both in Portland where she founded the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Time-Based Art Festival, and in Melbourne, Australia where she was head of the Melbourne International Arts Festival for four years. She’s a leader with connections and ideas and she began showing some of those off just last week when she welcomed former subscribers and donors to Royce Hall to announce plans for the coming season at UCLA. She wasted no time with some new initiatives. She quickly suggested that the series completely re-brand itself with a new name and logo replacing UCLALive with the awkward and unwieldy name of The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA). As she explained, while the name seems an odd choice, it’s meant to reflect a new emphasis on the series, functioning in the broader context of an interdisciplinary academic institution where the university community’s access to the study and act of performance is tantamount. This commitment is further reflected in two initiatives that will bring in new and established artists to the UCLA campus often in multi-year terms to develop new work and interact with others in the academic community. There will be CAP UCLA Artist Fellows, who initially will include both Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson developing new projects during a multi-year commitment at the University, and then there are CAP UCLA Residencies from artists including Meredith Monk, Barak Marshall and Lars Jan. The residencies are already under way, and Monk’s work on campus earlier this year will inform her new piece On Behalf of Nature, which will receive its premiere at CAP UCLA in early 2013.

Edmunds should be cheered for shifting the emphasis of CAP UCLA toward developing more new work over just importing the latest and greatest from elsewhere, which dominates programming from similar presenters around town. But CAP UCLA isn’t out of the woods yet by any means. The fiscal picture, though improving, is still bleak, particularly for the state and University even if they represent only a small portion of the overall CAP UCLA budget. Edmunds introduced an expanded and certainly more diverse program last week than in the last few years that even included an albeit small return of three or four theater events. But the program overall is still heavily weighted toward one-off performances from world, folk, and roots based music outfits and the most familiar of faces. Classical music is particularly hard hit in the schedule with CAP UCLA relying nearly exclusively on the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for their programming. LACO is a great ensemble and cross promotion that gets more people into their shows is a good thing to be sure. But outside of promoting the Sunday evening programming LACO has typically offered at Royce Hall over the last several years, CAP UCLA will only offer three other “classical” performances including the Monk premiere, an evening with violinist Hahn-Bin, and an appearance from the great Anonymous 4 which will include the premiere of a piece from David Lang, love fail. The dance programming is more promising with visits from Ultima Vez and several programs revisiting the groundbreaking work of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, some of which will take place out of the theater and in the community around UCLA.

Wisely CAP UCLA has done away with any of the specific genre based subscription packages of recent years favoring an almost entirely design-your-own format for people requesting tickets in advance this year. There are signs of life here in the ashes of UCLALive, and one hopes Edmunds finds the support and resources to bring one of Los Angeles’s former premiere performing arts institutions back from the brink in seasons to come.

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A revival of the LA Ring Cycle would be awesome. Any idea when it may happen?
No, though I too would love to see it. Mr. Rountree had previously stated that such a revival wouldn't happen before 2018.

I believe that many in the company, including Mr. Koelsch and Mr. Conlon, that would like to see a revival happen. But there is no way that it will, until the company is on surer footing and their debts are paid off. I think the end of the decade is the most optimistic scenario at this point.
Maybe if we pester Mr. Koelsch a little bit we might see it sooner. I know a lot of young folks, including myself, that were completely amazed by Freyer's Ring and became LA Opera fans because of it. I think that next time around it'll be a little more successful.
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