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Hope stirs, but the sounds of silence linger at O.C. opera scene since Opera Pacific folded

November 11, 2009 |  9:00 am

OperaPacific Opera Pacific died a year ago, and as far as professional opera in Orange County is concerned, the rest has been silence.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center, whose 1986 opening in Costa Mesa set the stage for Opera Pacific’s launch the same year, hasn’t offered opera since last Nov. 1, the final performance of Opera Pacific’s swan song, “The Barber of Seville.”

“It’s definitely on our planning radar, and I’m confident that sooner or later we’ll pull it off,” the center's president, Terrence Dwyer, said Tuesday. Overtures to opera companies around the United States and abroad, including the Los Angeles Opera and San Diego Opera, haven’t borne fruit.

“Cost is the main thing,” Dwyer said. “It’s very expensive, and ticket sales are not the easiest.” After an opera-less season, Dwyer said, nothing has developed for the 2010-11 season, either. Opera is the most expensive and complex performing art, and the center, which has cut back staff in the down economy, is coping first of all with “the challenge of properly sustaining what we’re already doing.” There’s an audience for opera in Orange County, Dwyer says, and “we’ll have to find a way to do it.”

For fans who can wait six months — and who are open to new work as well as the standards by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Wagner, et. al. — operatic opportunity is scheduled to knock on May 15 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, when the Long Beach Opera is booked to mount a single performance of Grigori Frid’s 1969 opera, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Far from a traditional grand opera, it’s a chamber work for a single soprano singing excerpts from the diary kept by the doomed Dutch-Jewish teen while her family hid from the Nazis.

“It’s kind of our introduction to the community in Orange County,” said Andreas Mitisek, artistic and LongBeachOpera general director of the Long Beach company, which emphasizes new and off-the-mainstream works. His company previously has staged “The Diary” in underground parking garages in Long Beach and Los Angeles; now it will have a go in a traditional, 756-seat theater, with all tickets $20 in honor of the Irvine Barclay’s 20th anniversary season. “It’s a really relevant opera to reach out to Orange County, a good way to test the waters and create some buzz,” Mitisek said. Orange County, he said, “remains open territory for both” unorthodox and standard works.

Meanwhile, a grass-roots effort has begun to fan opera’s embers again in Orange County. An as-yet unnamed organization of opera supporters expects to incorporate as a nonprofit early next year and begin wide-ranging efforts to raise money, launch education programs, present opera productions by others, and, eventually, mature into an opera company that produces its own traditional grand opera.

“As soon as [Opera Pacific] closed we began having discussions,” said Robin Follman, a  nationally touring soprano whose career began 23 years ago when she was a 15-year-old high school student in Orange who landed a gig singing in the chorus of Opera Pacific’s “La Boheme.”

The “we,” Follman said, includes S. Paul Musco, the last board chairman and one of the leading funders of Opera Pacific. The Newport Beach business executive also is a longtime Los Angeles Opera trustee, now serving as L.A. Opera’s vice chairman. Other established financial supporters of opera in Orange County are on board, Follman said, but preliminary plans call for a far different approach than Opera Pacific took.

RobinFollman “There’s a more economical means of producing here,” she said. Among the core principles are presenting what the budget allows, rather than trying to raise the millions to fund a preset season; exploiting electronic media and design to produce visually enthralling work at much less cost than traditional nuts-and-bolts sets, and emphasizing youth education to help develop new opera lovers. “Our community be part of something” in the operatic art, the Villa Park resident says, “and we can do it in an economically savvy manner. Our goal is to create something by the community, for the community.”

Follman, whose father Robert served for many years on the board of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, recently left her post as artistic director and head of the opera and choral music program at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana. Expecting her first child next spring, she says she wanted to free time to continue her performance career, be a mom and devote herself to opera’s rebirth in her home county. “This is my next endeavor,” she said. “It’s something I’m passionate about, and we’ll find a way to make it work.”

Musco, who characterizes the initiative as still “embryonic,” said it also involves representatives from two neighboring L.A. County communities, the Long Beach Opera and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. He said the first step is “to solidify what opera is all about in Orange County and the surrounding area. What is it we want to do, and what do we want to accomplish?"

L.A. Opera’s leaders have discussed what its role might be in filling Orange County’s opera void, Musco said,  but because of the cost of transporting large-scale productions, without huge donations to foot the bill, the most likely development would have to be far more modest: perhaps a Sunday matinee package in which Orange County opera lovers would get round-trip bus transportation to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, plus a meal and a performance.

Meanwhile, the biggest step in closing Opera Pacific’s bankruptcy, the sale of its office and rehearsal building in Santa Ana, was recently completed with the building's purchase for $1.5 million by a manufacturing company, according to Michael Hartel, a real estate agent who handled the sale.

Musco said the amount should be enough to pay off nearly all, if not all, of what’s owed to creditors – not counting some ticket holders who agreed to waive repayment as a final donation to Opera Pacific. The case file in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Ana lists debts of $1.693 million; City National Bank, which had loaned $500,000 to the opera, and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, with about $450,000 in rent debt, are the only secured creditors, with claims on the opera company’s building that place them first in line to be paid.

Next come $60,500 owed to ticket-buyers, and unspecified amounts owed to the James Irvine Foundation and to a number of singers and their agents, among them Deborah Voigt, who had been engaged to play the title role in a production of “Salome” that never happened because of Opera Pacific’s collapse.

The problem, said Musco, was that three benefactors — himself, Henry and Susan Samueli, and another he said wanted anonymity, “gave 98% of the donations,”  a level of giving that became unsustainable after global financial markets tanked in September 2008.

The board, Musco said, felt it was especially important to provide refunds on tickets that the company no longer could honor, because “if [opera] ever wants to come back in Orange County, we need their support.”

-- Mike Boehm


Opera Pacific's future in doubt

 Photos, from top: Scene from Opera Pacific's last production, "The Barber of Seville."; Ani Maldjian sings the role of Anne Frank for Long Beach Opera while Holocaust survivor Laura Hillman bears witness; Robin Follman. Credits: Nicholas Koon (Opera Pacific); Keith Ian Polakoff (Long Beach Opera); Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times  (Robin Follman)