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Letter from LA


Big Sur, California

Things I have discovered since the last edition of The Podium:

In the same period that I began reading Kevin Starr’s series of Californian histories and continued my usual round of musical and other activities, I also finally visited Yosemite and the gold country and other Californian sights. As some friends and I travelled down the coast from San Francisco, a theme of the sea emerged. In Monterey, where John Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row, I discovered that California’s first constitution was drafted here, at Colton Hall, in Spanish as well as English. Congress’s ratification of that constitution in 1850 made California a state. So, California’s bilingualism is foundational, not just a curious feature of PA announcements on public transit.

Curving down California’s magnificent coastline sent me back to a CD of The Dharma at Big Sur, the John Adams piece that opened Walt Disney Hall in 2003. I read with recognition Adams’ program notes which describes ‘the edge of the [US’s] continental land mass.’

On the Atlantic coast, the air seems to announce [the continental edge] with its salty taste and briney scents. Coming upon the California coast is a different experience altogether. Rather than gently yielding ground to the water the Western shelf drops off violently, often from dizzying heights, as it does at Big Sur, the stretch of coastal precipice midway between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Here the current pounds and smashes the littoral in a slow, lazy rhythm of terrifying power.

This time, unlike on previous occasions I’ve listened to the piece, I hunted down one of Adams’ sources: Jack Kerouac (as Californian a writer as you’ll ever find) and read his ode to the Californian sea, that ‘billion yeared rock knocker’. Big Sur came to mind again as I sat in Walt Disney Hall recently, listening to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first performance of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, Become Ocean by another Adams – John Luther Adams [see ‘Speed Read’].

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s programs are among those I approach with genuine excitement. There always seems to be such a judicious balance between the familiar and novel. And perhaps this appreciation is shared by much of the rest of the audience. One phenomenon I’ve noted while living in LA is that audiences tend to stay for the new work after interval.

This program paired Become Ocean with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The concert was a study in grandeur. Granted, Beethoven’s grandeur is achieved with spacious melodic exploration of a vast tonal layout; Adams’ with expertly crafted swells of orchestration. Adams’ work is certainly a listening experience, but perhaps more: a potentially life-changing experience. The title comes from a line of verse composed by John Cage in honour of the music of his friend (John Luther Adams’ mentor), composer Lou Harrison: ‘Listening to it, we become ocean.’

There are three big climaxes in this piece as the sections of two orchestras merge. At first, listening superficially, I thought of the piece as big washes, but that didn’t explain the monumental power of it. There was so much life teeming beneath the surface. These surges are made up of complex sequences of repeating patterns. ‘It’s Minimalism!’ you think, but Minimalism raised to an elemental level. 

Alex Ross describes the piece better in his review of the Seattle world premiere in an edition of The New Yorker in 2012, but I’d share with him the sensation of ‘coming away reeling’.

Californians can’t claim this Adams exclusively for themselves, though. Yes, he studied at CalArts out at Santa Clarita, in one of Los Angeles’ northern valleys, but he established his career while, famously, a citizen of Alaska. And Become Ocean was written at his new home in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert.

Adams describes his music as an exploration of environment. I read that he is writing a ‘desert’ piece next. It’s a tantalising thought for me, a one-time denizen of the driest continent on earth, ‘that great America on the other side of the sphere’ (in Herman Melville’s designation for Australia in chapter 24 of his greatest novel).

‘Nantucket, New Bedford…Long Island’ – the geographical references in Moby Dick belong to the US’s other coast, the one that the Northern Californian Adams describes above as full of ‘salty taste and briney scents’.

Nevertheless the LA Opera’s production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Melville’s novel, which we saw at the end of November, continues my months’-long circling of the sea. Funnily enough, I thought of Moby Dick when we stopped by the beach at Piedras Blancas on our way down the Californian coast and saw the hundreds of elephant seals that have returned to these beaches now that the days of sealing (and whaling) are largely over.

This story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with hunting down the great white whale that tore off his leg years before the tale starts, is a perfect subject for opera, when you consider that opera is best served when dealing with broad emotions. ‘At last,’ I thought while watching this, ‘a successful, contemporary traditional opera’, by which I meant one that was singable and aptly paced, with Heggie’s rhythmic and tempo decisions worthy of Verdi, and a libretto (by Scheer) that deserves to be sung.

It did occur to me, however, that a Broadway producer (that is a producer from New York’s Broadway) might be able to trim 30-40 minutes from this piece. Not every supporting character needs so many moments to shine. In the end what’s important is Ahab and how his obsession leads to destruction of his ship and the traumatising of Ishmael who escapes to tell the tale.

Like the Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera has a wide range of programming ideas. I caught up with the Opera’s new Public Relations director, Fran Rizzi, for a coffee during the month of November and talked about LA Opera’s full range of activities.

Like so many other classical music companies in the world these days, Los Angeles Opera is heavily committed to outreach. There are educational programs in the LA Unified School District; a whole zarzuela program ‘that goes out into the community on a monthly basis’ (acknowledging Los Angeles’ Spanish-speaking population). And there are experimental productions at Redcat. I’m sorry that I missed Halloween’s screening of the 1931 film Dracula with accompaniment played live by Philip Glass and his ensemble at the Ace Theater downtown (in what was once Chaplin, Griffith, Pickford and Fairbanks’ United Artists’ building).

But LA Opera has particular challenges. First off, there’s traffic: You might have to take opera to the public before they’ll feel encouraged to drive hours to Downtown. That’s why the company simulcast the season opener of the Woody Allen/Franco Zeffirelli double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci to the pier at Santa Monica; for all those people on the Westside who are reluctant to go east of the 405 after 4pm. There’s the Downtown itself. The city has certainly become safer at night. But Grand Avenue, where the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is located, is not yet a charming pedestrian precinct. The Broad, the new contemporary art museum housing the personal collection of Eli and Edythe Broad (endowers also of Plácido Domingo’s Chair at the opera) and down the road from Disney Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, might change that. It ‘has been a game-changer for this sort of concentration of culture, an anchor,’ says Rizzi. ‘You see, at any time of day, a line that wraps around the block at the Broad. And those people, those hipster young people, are the people who need to be here to see opera and see the Phil and see all of the pieces and parts of what has really become a cultural center.’

Rizzi has been at the Opera six months. ‘My job,’ she says, ‘is to tell our story. We are looking at all those education programs and how to bring them all together in a way that is organised around: “what can you do with LA Opera? Can you perform? Can you bring it into your school? Can you just learn more about it?”’ The Santa Monica event was free, but ‘it was ticketed’. That way the Opera can tell if people migrate from the coast to the city. Rizzi also supervises the Opera’s social media enterprises. ‘We can see people reading our blog, joining us on social. Our blog readers may not be easy to match with sales because they may not yet have bought a ticket. But we can see the waves of interest.’

The LA Opera may in most respects – and at its principal home, the Dorothy Chandler – be a traditional opera company. But it is concerned with bringing in the community, ‘those folk from the beach’ in Rizzi’s words. It still does big traditional works like Bellini’s Norma which I saw in a production by Anne Bogart at the beginning of December and followed up next day with YouTube searching for its excellent singers, including Angela Meade and Morris Robinson. But it is also branching out into other sorts of productions and wondering how to bring those back to port.

But what of The Industry, LA’s experimental opera company? Over the years they’ve staged operas in light industrial areas (Crescent City, in which the sets were really giant art installations in an old Atwater factory) and at the iconic Union Station (the audience for Invisible Cities moved among peak-hour commuters listening to the opera on Sennheiser headphones). This year’s offering, in November, paid tribute to the idea that Angelenos spend a lot of time in their cars. It attracted a lot of attention on social media throughout the world and I even sent the trailer to a lot of people outside this country.

Hopscotch was billed as a ‘car-opera’. Could you have anything more quintessentially Los Angeles? The action took place in 24 cars on three routes. Paying audience-members would get in at one of the eight stops along their chosen route that encapsulated another chapter/or outtake in the over-arching story of Luccha, Jameson and Orlando. The scenario, devised by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, was basically one of changing relationships but we weren’t necessarily meant to follow the developments sequentially or get a complete picture. Audience-members travelling with the numerous singers who ‘doubled’ the principal parts and their accompanying musicians could get to know the tale much in the same way as we become acquainted with a new city, piece by piece until forming some sort of overall impression.


The live action taking place in the stretch limos was beamed to 24 monitors arranged in a circle around the Hub’s pavilion. Photo: Josh Lipton

Being that rarity – a Los Angeles pedestrian – I watched the opera down at the Arts District, the bohemian area sprouting up in the midst of one of the traditionally seedy parts of the city, in the Hub built by faculty members of SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture). The live action taking place in the stretch limos which served for performance spaces was beamed to 24 monitors arranged in a circle around the Hub’s pavilion. It was a mistake to ‘channel-surf’ the first time I saw the piece. I couldn’t get any bearing. I actually got most out of the opera on a second viewing by surrendering to the idea that I would not find a tale that spoke to me in traditional terms of mounting conflict, but by actually following a route (and doing some prior research) and locating the next section’s monitor with the aid of coloured string (mine was red) stretching across the roof of the pavilion.

That said, I enjoyed Hopscotch without paying as much attention to the plot, words or music as you’d expect. Yes, I noticed musical highlights – Omar Torrez’s guitar playing, the duets in Marc Lowenstein’s chapter ‘The First Kiss’, and the beautiful finale by Andrew Norman when the pavilion becomes a drive-thru and the whole cast and musicians and their drivers converge dreamlike (is that the point?). And certainly the fact that sections of the production were in Spanish lent the whole a certain ‘encantamiento’. But mostly what made the opera enchanting for me was the tribute to Los Angeles, particularly at this convergence, as the Hub’s monitors froze on city landmarks and the setting sun etched purple lines in the crevices of the Verdugo Mountains visible from the Arts District. It’s interesting that my favourite review of the opera was that of the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who rightly described the co-ordination of 126 singers, actors and instrumentalists, 24 cars and their drivers, and numerous technical crew, as ‘logistically miraculous’. I actually love Sharon’s productions as multi-dimensional (and multi-media: you can still see elements of Hopscotch on the Web) portraits of LA, with music a more-than-usually-prominent element.

So much for the past few months which also saw meetings with Mark Cleary, the Sydney-based founder of Short+Sweet who is introducing this ‘biggest little play festival in the world’ to Hollywood, and will be followed by a trip down to San Diego, where Kevin Starr tells me, Spanish navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo dropped anchor on 28 September 1542. There we’ll hear former Victorian College of the Arts department head, Donna Coleman, and a trio comprising Roger Wilkie (John Williams’ sometime concertmaster) and Australian-born cellist Antony Cooke play music by Connecticut’s Charles Ives, his Yale teacher Horatio Parker, and Brahms from Hamburg, on another sea.

Such has been the whirling swirl of the past few months. As Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, when he was an actor: ‘Hasta la vista, baby’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

From LA Opera's production of Moby Dick (Credit: Craig T Mathew/LA Opera)

From LA Opera’s production of Moby Dick (Credit: Craig T Mathew, LA Opera)