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Nazi-suppressed operas are so L.A.

by Danielle Berrin

March 10, 2008 | 3:26 pm

L.A. Opera is one of a kind.

It may lack the fanciful flair of opera-goers in New York or San Francisco, with their lavish attire and high-culture gabbing at the mini-bar, because, save for a handful of ladies anachronistically bedecked in fur, Angelenos prefer a more casual fashion display—call it “off the red carpet couture.” And instead of the escapism most Americans crave on the eve of economic recession, Angelenos desire to see themselves reflected in their art.

Luckily, music director James Conlon knows just how to give that to them.

This past weekend, the appropriate performance was “Recovered Voices” a double-bill of one-act operas written by Jewish composers and suppressed by the Nazis. Alexander Zemlinsky wrote “The Dwarf” before fleeing The Third Reich for New York, and Viktor Ullmann penned “The Broken Jug” then perished in a gas chamber.

How providential then, that these two concealed works found a stage in a city that mimics their themes: political corruption and beauty versus ugliness.

At first I thought “The Broken Jug” would need metaphor. A whodunit opera about a fractured water pitcher seemed like a tall order for people whose attention spans were crafted by Hollywood. But then it dawned on me that a political satire about a judge presiding over a trial in which he is the culprit, reeked of hypocrisy. Like Mayor Villaraigosa being endorsed a member of the tribe,” praised by L.A.‘s most esteemed rabbis - without a trace of scorn for his public infidelity. It’s a delicate balance you know, Ten Commandments or political allies?

Next up was “The Dwarf,” a weepy melodrama about a Paris Hilton-type princess gifted with an exotic dwarf for her birthday. The young beauty trifles with the dwarf’s delicate heart while the rest of court mocks him. When he glimpses his deformities in the mirror, he yelps and dies. The dramatic preoccupation with looks—a perfect fit—for a town that lives and dies by the vagaries of youth and beauty.

Though they most certainly didn’t anticipate it, Zemlinsky and Ullmann were channeling the voice of Los Angeles almost half a century before Los Angeles would find its most prescient operatic companions.

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