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L.A. Opera's 'Il Postino' and Placido Domingo take a trip to Orange County

October 12, 2010 | 11:41 am

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Opera returned to Orange County and the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Monday night, but it arrived in an unusual form at an unlikely setting.

A taped version of Saturday's performance of Los Angeles Opera's "Il Postino" was projected on the outside of Segerstrom Hall in front of an audience estimated by arts officials at about 2,500. Viewers sat on lawn chairs and picnicked on the arts center's 46,000-square foot plaza area.

The work, which had its world premiere in September at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- and received a similar taped showing Saturday at the California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles -- stars tenor Plácido Domingo as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It was written by Daniel Catán and inspired by the 1994 movie of the same name.

Domingo, who over the years has sung in three programs at OCPAC, received a rousing ovation from the audience when he addressed them in person before the screening, which was projected crisply at 30 feet high by 51 feet wide. He got straight to the point.

"I want you to have an opera company here again, very soon," he said.

Domingo's appearance and Monday's showing was a rare bit of sunshine for Orange County opera-goers. The abrupt bankruptcy of Opera Pacific in November 2008 left the county without a major opera presence of its own for the first time in 15 years. Since then, Long Beach Opera's visit to the Irvine Barclay Theatre in May, for a single-night staging of its chamber opera "The Diary of Anne Frank," had been about it.

And that's not good enough, according to Denise Oliver of Laguna Niguel, who was with friends in the plaza Monday night.

"I wasn't a big Opera Pacific fan, but it was shocking to me when they went … we had nothing," she said. "There must be opera for us [here], not driving to Los Angeles or San Diego for it."

Domingo didn't make any formal commitment, but from the podium on the plaza -- gesturing behind him to Segerstrom Hall, where in 1992 he sung the lead in L.A. Opera's production of Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West" -- he said, "One day we might be here to do ["Il Postino"]."

Terrence Dwyer, president of the arts center, said in a brief interview before the showing that opera is something OCPAC continues to see as part of its core mission. It's not cheap to do or quickly arranged, but …

"It's an important art form to have here," he said. "Events like this one, or recitals or touring opportunities, are options that we look at going ahead. And having a good relationship with L.A. Opera is a very important step."

The live staging of a popular piece like "Il Postino" could act as a kick-start. Catán's work is turning out to be that operatic rarity, the contemporary work that is also a hit. Critics have been largely enthusiastic, and tickets sold out about two weeks in advance for a sixth and final performance at the Chandler on Saturday before the production heads to Vienna and Paris.

Meantime, this was the second time in less than two weeks that OCPAC has used this vertical space for a free arts program. "Project Bandaloop" drew about 20,000 over three nights Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. It was the second visit to the site by the Bay Area company, which brought its aerial dance to the arts center's 100-foot high wall, with performers harnessed to ropes maneuvering across the building's face during three pieces set to live and recorded music.

No other outdoor performances are scheduled, but Dwyer described the plaza as "a blank slate for us to paint on in an adventurous way. We want the whole community to find something in it."

Among other elements that have been seen there are a movie series, radio station dance parties and tie-ins to events including American Ballet Theatre and Merce Cunningham Dance Company programs, the musical theater production of "Xanadu" (which led to a roller skating party) and now this opera screening.

"We want these things to be free or to keep the ticket prices as low as possible," Dwyer said. "This spot is for everyone to feel a part of and that's how we plan to program it going forward."

-- Christopher Smith

Photo: The crowd at OCPAC for "Il Postino." Credit: Nick Koon

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