A Celebration of Young Artists at LA Opera

by Bruce Wright, Lister Reviewer

You could tell it was no ordinary opera night, just by looking at the ticket holders drinking, chatting, and waiting for dates outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night, April 1st. The plaza was packed with a bubbly, ethnically and sartorially diverse crowd, enjoying the fine evening alongside a sizable contingent of wealthy LA Opera donors.

Doubtless both groups were drawn by the occasion—a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. Some of the former were probably friends and relatives (bless them!) of the “current participants and distinguished alumni” of the Young Artist Program who were scheduled to share the stage with Placido Domingo and Sondra Radvanovsky.

Others may have been attracted by relatively inexpensive ticket prices; I sat next to one such, a first-time operagoer. I have it on good authority that many seats were not filled until a day or two before the performance. The line for Will Call snaked all the way from the box office window to the central steps of the plaza, overlooking Grand Park.

Concert performances of selected numbers may seem less than fully-staged operas, but they can also have a surprising intimacy, spontaneity and vitality. The orchestra, placed onstage, can have a richer sound. Singers must be able to project over it, but they are helped by standing in front of it, on the proscenium, where they can project their voices and emotions into the hall and make a direct connection with the audience. Inevitably, their backs are turned to the conductor—but that is hardly a problem with such singer-sensitive conductors as Domingo (who sang as well as conducted) and Grant Gershon.

On top of these advantages, a concert performance can offer an opportunity to hear new singers, variant interpretations, and unfamiliar music. Among the highlights of the Young Artists concert were stirring and enchanting excerpts from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani and Simon Boccanegra, from Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and from two Spanish zarzuelas: Chapi’s La Tempestad and Caballero’s Chateau Margaux. Even veteran opera fans were likely hearing some of this music for the first time.

Tenor Brenton Ryan brought down the house with “Oh, the lion may roar” from Ghosts, with its chilling wind effects in the orchestra. Acting, and not just singing the role, can be more difficult in concert, without a stage setting, props, costumes or context. Ryan effectively transformed into Bégearss and conveyed the drama of the aria with a minimum of well-placed gestures and expressions. Likewise, soprano Hyesang Park created a charming illusion of lighthearted intoxication as she swayed to the strains of “No sé que siento aqui” from Chateau Margaux.

Massenet’s Thaïs would surely be performed more frequently if it were not for the difficulty in finding sopranos who can negotiate the formidable title role. The striking and statuesque Lauren Michelle was a singer-actor fully in command as she dispatched the second act aria, “Dis-moi que je suis belle.”

Indeed, all of the Young Artist Program alumni showed themselves worthy of the investment made in them by the sponsors of the program. Chosen as one of only five or six accepted each year, out of five to six hundred applicants, they are granted a paid residency of two or three years and the opportunity for invaluable training and experience. “Years from now you will be proud,” Domingo told the audience, “that you heard them singing at the beginning of their careers.”

Domingo himself, at 76, sings with a power and polish that his young protégés can only admire and envy. He and Radvanovsky clearly showed what Hollywood calls “chemistry” in their two duets, the dramatic recognition scene “Orfanella il tetto umile” from Simon Boccanegra and the flirtatious “Lippen schweigen” from Lehar’s The Merry Widow. He also joined with the able young tenor Joshua Guerrero in “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, with Domingo, of course, taking the baritone part. Can you imagine what that felt like for Guerrero?

While young, still budding talent can impress and inspire, Radvanovsky set a high bar for them to reach. A true dramatic soprano, with a warm and burnished tone in her lower and middle registers combined with sweet, sparkling high notes, she projected star power and a generous devotion to her art every time she sang; especially memorable was her breathtaking rendition of “Senza mamma” from Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

Will we have to wait another ten years for a concert like this one? Let’s hope not.

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