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Refuse The Hour and Persona: Opera Takes an Avant Garden Turn into the 21st Century

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No longer confined to the classical repertory on which most opera lovers cut their teeth, in this brave new world of the 21st century today’s practitioners of opera increasingly incorporate their surroundings to produce magical, internally challenging, and ambitious works. It is most fortunate that LA Opera and CAP UCLA provide Los Angeles audiences with such seminal creations as Persona (REDCAT and LA OPERA) and Refuse the Hour (UCLA) that were presented over the past two weekends. Although both feature experimental amalgamations of media, sights and sounds, each employs different sensibilities.

Refuse the Hour comes to us circuitously from its inception in 2012, first performed at the Holland Festival. It is rife with so many ideas playing against each other, with odd instruments and giant metronome projections alongside a petite chamber orchestra, all realizing a sound ambiance that washes back and forth; at once rushing forward, that the effect is dizzying.

To say that the experience is multilayered is to diminish its sense of total immersion. It begins innocently enough: creator William Kentridge approaches the lectern and begins his speech. His soothing demeanor, reassures that we’re on familiar ground. Soon, however, drumming drowns him out and overhead, video projections by Katherine Maeyburgh beckon us into another dimension altogether.

Dada Masilo’s dance choreography, Joanna Dudley’s odd reversed vocals, and Ann Masina’s beautiful operatic contralto coalesce with composer Philip Miller’s sometimes lyrical, other times bracing, composition. The onstage performance is so dense, it’s difficult to find a focal point toward which to follow the unspooling of time’s relativity made to defy gravity in a thunderous crescendo of music, movement, vocalization, and machinery. We are immersed in space where time circles endlessly.

Many of the creative team come from South Africa, and this piece applies their grounding in colonialist resistance to the concept of time. Luc DeWit’s movement; Greta Goiris’ quirky costumes; the machine designs by Christoff Wolmarans, Louis Olivier, and Jonas Lundquist; and sweeping lighting by Felice Ross make notable contributions. Musical Director Adam Howard, with sound designer Gavan Eckhart, orchestrate the aural ambiance.

Dramaturg Peter Galison contributes the scientific basis for Kentridge’s performative examination of time.  Does it run backwards?  Can it stand still? In Refuse the Hour no supposition is too far-fetched.

Persona has taken quite another journey to arrive in Los Angeles (see accompanying review by Michael Van Duzer on this site). Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s now-classic movie, the opera was created in 2015 at MIT for Beth Morrison Projects and National Sawdust.  Composer Keeril Makan and Librettist Jay Scheib were intrigued by the idea that one of the two women featured never spoke, much less sang.

The libretto encapsulates the plot devised in Bergman’s film but shifts emphasis away from hapless Elisabet (Lacy Dorn) to focus on Alma (mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider). Her descent into madness becomes triggered by her splintering personality as seen through the prism of Elisabet’s silence.

Making the best use of REDCAT’s versatile stage, designer Caleb Wertenbaker has strewn the available space with a jumble of partial settings, video cabling, music stands, ubiquitous cameras, play-back monitors, and other trappings of film/video production. Director Jay Scheib achieves a doubling and splitting of audience focal point from the intimate camera shot to the audience’s messy view of actors, with production personnel and camera persons hovering over them.

The angles of performance differ, as well.  Instead of face-to-face dialogues, actors simulate direct conversation by turning away to the camera. As much as we may try, we cannot become immersed in the narrative. What supercedes,then, is the rich musical composition. Streaming through and around all the action, Makan’s orchestral palette tantalizes while contrasting with more his minimalist vocal score.

Taken together, these productions are but two instances of movement toward freewheeling pastiche, inviting cultural habits to blend, then depart, and again refashion themselves into new experiences with classical forms. The mixture of hard and soft imagery with orchestral vs. vocal gradations at once confuses, contradicts, and then merges into a cohesive experiences that reaches beyond reason.

Center for the Performing Arts at UCLA presents its next theatrical venture in the new year with Poor Dog Group’s Group Therapy, Thursday, January 11th to 13th at the Little Theatre in Macgowan Hall.  For complete schedule and information, phone 1-310-825-2101, or online at tickets@capuclaedu.

Find REDCAT beneath Walt Disney Hall, corner of First Street and Grand, Los Angeles 90012.  Consult for more information about their season of diverse offerings in theatre, cinema, and dance.





Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.