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A Day at the Los Angeles Opera with Carmen

My first memories of opera, take me back to grammar school.  My mother had briefly trained to be an opera singer before abandoning it in pursuit of becoming a doctor. Of the two, she found medicine to be the lesser difficult discipline even though she was one of only three women in her USC medical school class. Whenever she picked me up from school I was greeted with Die Zauberflüte or another one of her favorites blasting out of her car, announcing her arrival in the carpool lane.  Despite enjoying opera, I'd actually never been to see one before.  Truth be told I think I was a little intimidated. Going to the opera was for aficionados, people who knew every aria and composer by heart.  Nevertheless, I was excited when my mom asked me to join her to see Carmen at the LA Opera.

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On the left, the original Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié in Carmen, by Henri Lucien Doucet (1884), musée de Marseille.

Above illustration of Carmen by Luc for Journal Amusant 1875, a french satirical weekly magazine.

 

Before every performance, the conductor, James Conlon, gives an hour long introduction. He is also the music director and has quite an impressive career, conducting at La Scala in Milan and over 270 times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in addition to serving as the director of the Paris National Opera.  He's a great speaker, very informative and I appreciated the backstory of Carmen that he gave while dropping little fun facts and juicy tidbits about its inception. The orchestra is below the stage so you can't see the musicians during the performance but you can see Conlon with his hair whipping back and forth as he waves his baton energetically.  Mozart in the Jungle was in the back of my mind as I watched him conduct.

Ana Maria Martinez  as Carmen. Photo by Ken Howard / LA Opera

Ana Maria Martinez as Carmen. Photo by Ken Howard / LA Opera

I had always thought of Carmen as a Spanish opera. I was partially right, it takes place in Spain, but is sung in French (Bizet was French). Since I speak French, it was fun trying to decipher some of the arias as they were sung and not solely relying on the subtitle teleprompter that hangs above the stage. It was adapted from the novella by Prosper Mérimée, that came out in 1845.  Georges Bizet adapted the story of Carmen into his opera and died three months after it debuted in march of 1875,  at the age of only 36! Similar to Mozart who died at 35. It's remarkable to think what both of them could have achieved if they had only lived longer.

In the 19th century, Spain seemed like an exotic and distant backdrop for the story of a Roma femme fatale whose magnetic charisma and sultriness captivated every man she encountered. Carmen is on her work break from the local factory when she meets Don José, a naive soldier who is the only man in the square oblivious to her charms. She is intrigued by this challenge and sets her sights on acquiring his affections. After a factory dispute ensues, Don José is ordered to question and imprison her but she escapes with his help, he is then put in jail and reconnects with her upon his release. After a scuffle with his commanding officer, Don José is forced to desert the military and his mother and her wishes for him to marry the girl next door. He joins Carmen's gang of smugglers but becomes jealous that meanwhile Carmen's feelings have shifted to a well known matador named Escamillo. Incensed, Don José kills Carmen in a fit of rage outside the arena.

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With all this melodrama, I was surprised to learn that Carmen is considered Opéra Comique. Essentially that means to separate musical numbers with dialogue. Carmen is a feminist prototype, she is unapologetically in control of her own destiny. She is completely transparent about her motives both to do what she wants and to love freely. "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" She does what she wants when she wants, sometimes rather capriciously. The opera's depiction of lawlessness, immorality, and the murder of the main character made for a bold subject matter both at the time of its writing and even today. Carmen has become one of the most popular operas thanks in part to its many well known arias such as Habanera and Toreador.

Flamenco in Carmen. Photo by Ken Howard / LA Opera

Flamenco in Carmen. Photo by Ken Howard / LA Opera

Not only are there wonderful singers in Carmen,  there are also talented flamenco dancers. They give a physical expression to Bizet's dialogue and assist in the telling of Carmen's story. They are led by Spanish choreographer Nuria Castejón,  a dancer with the Ballet Nacional de España and choreographer for Pénelope Cruz in Pedro Almadovor's Volver.  Their costumes are magical as they stomp, heels clicking with fringe flying. The toreador's costumes were also fantastic with satisfying detail all the way down to the pink socks!

If I were dressing Carmen, I would pair my Hazel tassel earrings in Onyx and this embroidered tulle dress by Needle and Thread

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Taking a bow at the end of Carmen

Taking a bow at the end of Carmen

Such a revered opera calls for an impressive setting and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center does not disappoint. It's hard to believe that once upon a time, this center did not exist. In fact, it's only 53 years old. Dorothy, the wife of the former LA Times publisher Norman Chandler, spearheaded the fundraising efforts to get the center made. At the time, the Philharmonic was sharing a performance space with a local church since the early 20's, and Dorothy Buffum Chandler thought that Los Angeles deserved something a little more dignified in stature. The center was built by Seattle transplant architect Welton Becket and Associates, responsible for iconic Angeleno buildings such as the Capitol Building, the Beverly Hilton (the home of the Golden Globes), Pan Pacific Auditorium, Cinerama dome and LAX Theme building to name a few. Built from 1964-1967, becoming at the time the nation's second biggest music center after Lincoln Center in New York.

Photos from Top to Bottom, Dorothy Chandler at the opening in 1964.  Zubin Mehta, left, Dorothy Buffum Chandler and architect Welton Becket. Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall with lattice windows. One of many chandeliers in the grand staircase.

Gustavo Dudamel isn't the only young music director that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has had. Bombay, India born Zubin Mehta, was only 28 when he became the music director at the time of the opening! He was known as Zubie Baby and the Swinging Symphonist. The ushers were dressed in raspberry and orange red Nehru collared jackets in tribute to his heritage.

Architectural drawing of the orchestra foyer by Welton Becket and Associates. The foyer today.

The philharmonic played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until 2003 when it moved down the street to Disney Hall. The building while not overly impressive from the outside is quite grand on the inside. It houses large lattice like windows and countless chandeliers from the sixties.  Upstairs where the talk is given prior to the opera, there is a bar with a large Frank Stella painting and an adjoining nook with Chinese wood screens that make you want to curl up with a whisky cocktail and a cozy conversation. It's like entering a time warp but in the very best way. All the decor appears to be original, from the pea green carpet and dark paneled walls to the ornate chandeliers. This is an impressive feat in a city like Los Angeles that loves to tear down or remodel anything that is remotely past its prime.

Frank Stella Irregular Polygons, 1966. Champs baby! One must have champers at the Opera. Pictured in front of one of many gold mosaic tiled columns. Gilded swallows swoop around the mezzanine bar, Chinoiserie in the mezzanine.

You can see Carmen this Saturday, September 23rd as it's simulcast live in Santa Monica (for more SM info click here) and Exposition Park. Admission is free, doors open at 5 pm and show starts at 7 with a running time of 3 hours 25 minutes with 2 intermissions. Bring your chairs and blankets and picnic under the stars. Los Angeles magazine is even hosting a Wine Terrace on the pier. Sadly, no alcohol is permitted at Exposition Park. For more info on Exposition Park, click here.

Opera under the stars in Santa Monica . Photo by Craig T. Matthew

Opera under the stars in Santa Monica. Photo by Craig T. Matthew

Art, Los Angeles CA, Travel

14th Factory Tour: 10 reasons you need to go now!

I had seen a lot of images of 14th Factory popping up on my Instagram feed when it opened in Spring. For one reason or another, I wasn't able to make it until earlier this month. Since it was late in its run, I wondered if it would be worth it or if it was another Museum of Ice Cream type of expensive selfie photo op. I decided to go and I'm so glad I did. It's closing at the end of July, so make your way there as soon as you can!

The outside of the factory is painted black with giant Chinese characters and black and white flags hanging outside the entrance, imparting the foreboding feel of a pirate ship. (I have a 5 year old son, so we see Pirates everywhere these days) I love that it's in Lincoln Heights, a peaceful, industrial neighborhood I often drive through on my way home. Once inside, there are 14 rooms showcasing mainly Simon Birch's work, the British born, Hong Kong based artist who is the founder/creator of the 14th factory. I spent my Junior year abroad in Hong Kong, and haven't been back since so was excited to see this little bit of Hong Kong brought to LA.

Los Angeles was not the first city envisioned to be the home of 14th factory. 5 other cities were previously in the works, the most recent, New York City, but with all other cities, the project was about to open to the public and they either lost their funding, permitting etc, so this installation has been years in the making and very much a labor of love. Supposedly two of the pieces in the factory were sold to LACMA, so it seems that there really was a happy ending after all.

The site selected for 14th factory LA is huge; 3 acres in total in a former warehouse, making it the largest experiential art project in LA. When I visited, they were in the process of filming a documentary for the BBC, and hoping to have the next site take place in London. This whole project is like a rotating mini museum that is entirely funded by ticket sales and donations. There is no guided tour as you walk through the space, and because of its size it can be a little confusing and overwhelming at times. Birch's intention was that it be an informal space for viewing art in a casual setting rather than the conventional museum going experience. He often gives talks on site and has other collaborative, interactive events with artists on the weekends.

What was the most famous room in the factory (that is until the crown room selfie fiasco) is a replica of the room from the last scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001. The light up floor emanates a lot of heat, each group of 4 or so has 2 minute to walk through, without shoes on and experience it. It's gimmicky for sure but still pretty cool to experience.

The Barmecide Feast by Simon Birch and KplusK associates

Garlands  by Simon Birch, Lily Kwong and KplusK associates.

Garlands by Simon Birch, Lily Kwong and KplusK associates.

Next up is an interior courtyard, filled with grass. They had just replaced it the evening before. Even though the ceiling is perforated, with the extreme heat of LA summers, the grass just couldn't survive very long. There were a few swings scattered throughout but we were told not to step on the grass because it had just been put down. With nobody on the grass it seemed like a haunted idyllic playground.

In the Garlands hall there are 10 photographs by Li Wei with various people suspended in mid air. They were shot with the subjects on cranes and in some you can see the expression of the crowd as they look at the people flying in front of them.

Upclose of The Crusher by Simon Birch, 300 wood and steel painted pitchforks suspended from the ceiling. Acrylic paintings by Dominique Fung, The Inhabitants. Closeups of vegetables in various stages of decay.

One way we've found to keep our son actively engaged while looking at artwork is to give him a camera to record his own view of the art. It's fascinating to see the angles and compositions he comes up with. We also discuss what's going on in the piece, be it the subject matter, technique employed, setting or materials involved.

Closeup of the audience watching of  The Inevitable  By Eric Hu and Simon Birch.

Closeup of the audience watching of The Inevitable By Eric Hu and Simon Birch.

The video of a vintage Ferrari speeding and crashing, flipping over and over until it's destroyed feels hypnotic and voyeuristic, it's hard to look away from. I'm not personally a big car fan, but I can imagine that this video is upsetting for any car aficionado. My son was incredulous that anyone would willing destroy a car. (Again 5 year old here) Various pieces of the car wreckage are displayed on a long table in the adjoining room like archaeological finds.

Hypercaine by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan, and Jacob Blitzer.

Sometimes you experience an emotional reaction just from simply looking at a piece of art, and with others the story behind it makes it much more impactful.  At first glance, this room had simplistic crowns made out of various stones and metal juxtaposed with more intricate Alexander Mc Queen like head pieces and some metal fragments. When chatting with the security guard, he explained that various pieces throughout the exhibit detailed the emotional journey that Birch embarked up on after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Some pieces represent the chaos and turmoil of receiving such a grim prognosis. Others are more hopeful. The metal fragments and some of the metal cages were made from Birch's actual brain scans. This is also the room where a girl attempting to take a selfie recently fell backwards, knocking several of the pedestals down in a domino effect and causing $200,000 worth of damage. Its great when people can get right up close to enjoy and experience the artwork but it's a shame when people are careless and inconsiderate. Just because it's not a conventional museum viewing experience doesn't mean that the artwork shouldn't be treated with the same respect.

Tannhauser  by Simon Birch

Tannhauser by Simon Birch

One of my strongest memories living in Hong Kong was how crowded it was, with people and buildings.  It made New York City look like a suburb. I was there in 1997 so I can only imagine what its like now, with the rapid pace of development. Hong Kong has so many of these drab high rise buildings shooting everywhere out of the ground up to the sky everywhere as far as the eye could see.  Tannhauser gives the experience of riding upwards in a glass elevator outside these buildings as it goes from the ground floor up. Dizzying and electrifying, I really enjoyed it and you can see from the face of my son above, he did too!

Clear Air Turbulence by Simon Birch

The last piece of the show is Clear Air Turbulence, which is comprised of salvaged airplane tails submerged in a steel frame pool.  The shadows reflecting in the still water create a peaceful calm while the eeriness of the subject matter makes it slightly unsettling. The airplane tails seem like a scene of a giant plane crash. With the deck chairs circling one end its like pulling up a chair to a car crash. Voyeurism on steroids.

14th Factory closes July 30 with special events until then. A panel on the Art Experience and the age of Social Media is this Saturday, July 22 and Simon Birch will be tattooing various limited edition designs all day Saturday as well.

Tickets are $18 online, $22 at the door with residents of Lincoln Heights entering for free with valid license.

440 North Ave. 19
Los Angeles, CA 90031