LOS ANGELES — When the tenor Russell Thomas appeared at the Los Angeles Opera in 2017, Plácido Domingo, the company’s general director, asked him to return one day to sing the title role in Verdi’s “Otello.” It was a notable invitation coming from Domingo, the leading Otello of his day, who sang the role in 1986 at the very first performance of the Los Angeles company.
Six years later, Thomas is back in Los Angeles starring as Otello in a six-performance run that begins Saturday. But Domingo, who had initially contemplated singing opposite him as the opera’s villain, Iago, is gone, having resigned in 2019 at the age of 78 amid allegations that he had sexually harassed multiple women over the course of his career.
So it is that the company’s season-ending production of “Otello” is at once a look back to its foundations and a glimpse into its future, as the Los Angeles Opera charts its course in a post-Domingo era at a moment when it faces the same challenges as other companies in recovering from the loss of audience members and revenues since the pandemic.
“It’s slow — it’s much slower than I would have desired,” Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said of the audience’s return. But he noted that attendance was in line with what other opera houses across the country were seeing these days, and that there were signs that the company was overcoming its recent setbacks. “By most criteria, other than audience attendance, the company is in significantly better shape than it’s been in its 38-year history,” he said.
Attendance so far this season has averaged 64 percent of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s 3,033-seat capacity — still short of the 83 percent the company logged in 2018-2019, but showing improvement since it first reopened after the shutdown. Two productions that sold well, and sometimes sold out, reflected the company’s efforts to balance new works with the classics: “Omar,” the new Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels opera based on the autobiography of an enslaved Muslim scholar that won the Pulitzer Prize for music this week, and “The Marriage of Figaro,” the Mozart comedy.
In a season when the Metropolitan Opera in New York was forced to dip into its endowment to make up for declining revenues, the Los Angeles Opera’s endowment is at a record high — $74.1 million, up from $28.8 million in 2012 — reflecting a continued influx of contributions, said Keith Leonard, the chairman of its board. It survived the downturn without running a deficit, relying on salary reductions, a handful of layoffs, a $5 million five-year loan against the endowment, and federal aid.
Domingo’s downfall stunned Los Angeles and its opera company, which had been so closely identified with the star tenor, who had been singing there since the 1960s and was instrumental in the creation of the company. An investigation by the Los Angeles Opera found accusations that he had engaged in “inappropriate conduct” with women “to be credible,” but did not find evidence that he had engaged in “a quid pro quo or retaliated against any woman by not casting or otherwise hiring her at L.A. Opera.” When he left, the company pledged to strengthen its measures for preventing misconduct.
It is difficult to say precisely whether attendance was affected by the departure of Domingo, given that the coronavirus shutdown followed so soon afterward. For many years his performances had drawn the biggest crowds, and his image was as integral to the company’s marketing as Gustavo Dudamel’s is for its neighbor, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It is unmistakably a loss because he’s such a titanic figure in the world,” Koelsch said. But, he added, “a scientific controlled experiment is impossible here.”
The opera never filled the general director position after Domingo left; those responsibilities were picked up by Koelsch, who already was running its day-to-day operations.
Domingo, in an email interview, said that in his view, the company had continued to thrive even after what he made clear was his unhappy departure from a position that had been a high point of his career.
“I saw it grow and I believe that I gave it my all, to the point that it became one of the leading opera houses in the U.S. and the world,” he said, adding: “I see the programming and the seasons appear to be very diverse, with a big focus on new works that can attract new audiences and I think this is a great added value for all the people of Los Angeles.”
With a $44 million operating budget, the Los Angeles Opera is the fifth largest company in the United States. Despite its (by opera standards) short existence, and with its modest roster of six productions a season (compared with 23 this season at the Met), it has been establishing itself as one of the more adventurous mainstream opera houses in the country: working to be more edgy than stuffy.
Even before Domingo left, the company — aware of his age, and that an institution should not be too closely tied to any one person — had been planning for its future, working to forge an identity that would combine war horses with more contemporary work.
For a decade it has been working with Beth Morrison Projects, which has been at the vanguard of producing contemporary opera: they collaborated on the world premiere of Ellen Reid’s opera “p r i s m” in 2018 at Los Angeles’ smaller Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, or REDCAT, and the work won a Pulitzer Prize. And in 2020, “Eurydice,” by Matthew Aucoin, who was then the opera’s artist-in-residence, had its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler before moving to the Metropolitan Opera.
“L.A. Opera is doing very, very well,” said Marc A. Scorca, the president of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization for opera companies. “Of all the major companies in the country, it is the youngest and is still discovering new audiences and new momentum as L.A. continues to build out its cultural infrastructure. I am very optimistic about the company.”
This spring, it collaborated with Beth Morrison Projects to present two operas by Emma O’Halloran, the Irish composer, at the 250-seat black box theater inside REDCAT.
One of them, a 70-minute, two-person work called “Trade,” explores an emotionally unsettling hotel room liaison in working-class Dublin between an older married man and a younger male prostitute, hardly the kind of story that has historically been presented on the opera stage.
“When we started this relationship, most opera companies were not doing new work,” Morrison said. “L.A. Opera, in terms of the big companies, was very much ahead of the curve on that. They believe in experimental work, and they believe we need to have these things to make sure that opera evolves into the future and brings in new audiences.”
Now other large companies, including the Met, are programming more new works in hopes of attracting new audiences.
If this is a recovery, it is still a tentative one; crucial questions about how audience behavior has changed remain to be answered. James Conlon, who has been the opera’s music director since 2006, after being recruited for the job by Domingo, said that the opera was “working very hard to regain that audience.”
“My own suspicion,” he said, “is that a lot of the competition is not going to be other venues but people who are sitting home who became used to making more use of their televisions.”
That is a particular issue in Los Angeles, considering the early evening traffic that can make trips downtown to the Music Center an exhausting, hourslong adventure.
When the company was first formed, there was much talk about whether Los Angeles had an appetite for grand opera. “Up until the early 80s the received opinion by many of the leading figures at the Music Center was that ‘L.A. is not an opera town’ and ‘L.A. can afford a great symphony or a great opera, but not both,’” said Don Franzen, an original member of the opera’s board of directors.
But 38 years after that opening night, that question appears to have been answered.
“Los Angeles is very much an opera town — I see the growth of the company and its success as a testimony to that,” Scorca, of Opera America, said.
Now Thomas, the company’s current artist-in-residence, is getting ready to take his place singing the demanding role that launched the company: Otello. He recalled that invitation from Domingo, who had floated the idea of appearing with him in the lower-lying baritone role of Iago, since he had stopped singing high tenor roles.
“He was very interested in my singing Otello, and he and I performing the show together,” Thomas said the other day. “I would have loved that to happen. I would have loved to be onstage with one of the legendary singers in opera. Things happen the way they do.”