At its 20th anniversary celebration, Los Angeles Opera had a ball with

And why not? It had after all come a long, long way from the days when LA was seen by the rest of the world as a cultural backwater and the only opera one could listen to with any regularity was... ummm... the soap variety. Well, those days are over, and today LA Opera can rightfully stand shoulder to shoulder with the finest in the world, and abide by its own rules. As it did with its 20th anniversary celebration: it threw a party and had a ball - with "The Grand Duchess" or La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, an operetta by Jacques Offenbach, one of his Parisian hits in the 1860s. Staged for the anniversary in the manner of grand opera (rich, colorfully elaborate sets and lavish costumes to the tune of $2M), it is light and lyrical, hilariously comic and frivolously satirical, at times downright silly! - the way the composer meant it to be. And festive - with a happy ending the way birthday celebrations are supposed to end.

LA Opera put Hollywood in the director's chair in the person of Garry Marshall, popular veteran director of hit movies (Pretty Woman, Princess Diaries, Runaway Bride) and TV programs (Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley). In this age of mixed media, why not a Hollywood director? And for an operetta designed to entertain and make people laugh, why not a specialist in comedy?

And so, with General Director Placido Domingo's blessings, Garry Marshall, directing opera for the first time, adapted Offenbach's operetta for today's audience: singing in French as in the original, spoken dialogue in English, a handful of new characters, (the major one named Offenbach - an elfin caricature of the composer - who first appears at the conductor's podium to introduce himself and the show, with a warning that he, Offenbach, will be back often - pun # 1 of the evening! (And indeed he does, as narrator, commentator, self-promoter - at times in the middle of the action, at other times from the outside looking in.), and more than a sprinkling of good and bad jokes that never fail to draw hearty laughs (or occasional groans) from the audience, a lot of clowning, and some circus-type acrobatics.

Photos - The Grand Duchess Here, in pictures, is the gist of the story of "The Grand Duchess".

Star billing went to renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade who, singing the title role for the first time, was in good voice and form. A natural comedienne, she charmed the audience in the role of an older woman chasing a younger man. Tenor Paul Groves and baritone Rod Gilfry, known to opera audiences for their more dramatic roles, both showed a flair for comedy, giving winning performances as Fritz and Prince Paul. Constance Hauman who auditioned for the role was delightful as the lisping Wanda (try saying Myth of Sisyphus!). French conductor Emmanuel Villaume served Offenbach's elegantly lively music well.

You've got to hand it to Placido Domingo for having the vision to draw on Hollywood's vast pool of directorial talent. Certainly something can be gained from the cross-fertilization that could ensue from this sort of interaction between opera and the movies, two forms of entertainment (elitist and perennially struggling for funds vs popular and, it seems, eternally rich) that in Los Angeles have traditionally lived separate lives on opposite sides of the tracks. A wider audience, for example, never a problem for the movies, can only mean good news for the future of opera.

So, did the Marshall Plan work? Purists of course will always want their operas and operettas "pure and unadulterated". But with an audience that seemed to have as much fun as the stellar cast on stage, it sure did.

Photos: ©Robert Millard, courtesy Los Angeles Opera



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