In 2002, I drove to Long Beach to interview Long Beach Opera’s Michael Milenski, the founder of a little company that despite frequent financial troubles had built a serious reputation for unorthodox and contemporary productions. "My main interest is in opera as a theater art," he told me, "in the spectacle part of opera."
Milenski spoke a great deal about the joys and horrors of putting on shows -– of trying to push the envelope, of fighting conventional wisdom in the opera world, and so on. Overall, he was quite inspiring, even as he was stepping down after more than two decades.
"Southern California has by this point seen my tricks," Milenski said, sitting in the office behind his Craftsman house in Long Beach's Bluff Park. "I'm not interested in repeating myself. Somebody else can take the reins and move forward; Long Beach Opera is in good shape."
Not once do I remember him mention reaching more audiences, connecting with other local groups or with, say, fans of art or theater who don’t think opera is for them. That kind of talk of “outreach” is pretty de rigueur in the arts world.
The Austrian-born Andreas Mitisek, who took over from Milenski after several years there as principal conductor, believes in reaching out, and he’s had some success with it.
When I visited him a few weeks ago, at a sold-out performance of "Medea" -– a 1797 opera he had radically reshaped -– Mitisek was everywhere. He spoke to the audience beforehand about the opera and the way he’d distilled it, his face eerily lit from below despite his cheery demeanor.
In the narrow window between addressing the audience, talking about the company with me and preparing to conduct the orchestra –- he also designed the lighting, which was criticized in a review –- Mitisek seemed to greet by name just about everyone lined up in the lobby. A few minutes after Medea’s 2 p.m. start time, he was still out in the audience, shaking hands. He even laughed off some good-natured teasing about the lighting.
“With operas like we do,” he said that day, “no one is going to come because they know the singer or the opera. “We have an audience that trusts us whatever we do, that knows that it will be something special.”
When he took over fully in 2004, the young Viennese conductor had the difficult position of following up Milenski’s strong personality and reputation. Sometimes this kind of founder sticks around and makes the life of the successor difficult. But Milenski moved to Northern California years ago, and has stayed out of Mitisek’s way.
“Long Beach Opera is long ago and far away for me,” Milenski told me, “and I haven't followed its fortunes closely. I do know that it is still a vibrant part of the L.A. art scene, and I am very grateful to Andreas for keeping it there.”
To read my Arts & Books article, click here.
-- Scott Timberg
Photo: Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times