Andreas Mitisek isn’t interested in how opera ‘should be’

Opera is often perceived as an esoteric artform with a high barrier to entry. You have to have gobs of money. You have to wear satin gloves that stretch above the elbow. You have to own tiny binoculars. You have to speak multiple romance languages. You have to have an unending attention span.

Or do you?

“Opera is not as scary as it sounds,” Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic and general director, says over coffee and waffles at Signal Hill’s Black Bear Diner. Ever since he was a college student in Vienna, Mitisek has lived to make opera—opera his way, not opera as “it should be.”

Andreas Mitisek

He’s not interested in convention, high society, or pleasant evenings spent toasting each other with crystal goblets. Instead, Mitisek’s productions are political, confrontational, and challenging, staged in unorthodox venues such as parking garages or the Port of Los Angeles.

And they bring our deepest ethical conflicts into conversation. Take the 2018-2019 season, which starts this Saturday, November 3 and is themed “#JUSTICE.” The first production,  “Three Tales” by Steve Reich is described as a “documentary video opera” and uses video to delve into the Hindenburg explosion, the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, and Dolly, the cloned sheep. Scored for two sopranos, three tenor, string quartet, percussion, keyboards and pre-recorded audio, each segment reflects on the growth and implications of technology during the 20th century and the ongoing debate about the physical, ethical, and religious nature of our expanding technological environment.

Upcoming productions will explore spousal murder, death row, the role of the bystander and the Central Park Five. While other companies tend to sprinkle experimental or contemporary fare in among the classics—Don Giovanni, for instance, or Orlando—Long Beach Opera exclusively runs the former.

“We want people to feel that art still has such relevance that they have to speak out for or against it. I’m not interested in museum art,” he says. “If you want to sit back and relax, don’t go to our show.”

Americans aren’t going to opera in the numbers they once did and many large companies have been struggling to fill seats. But Southern Californians are going to Mitisek’s shows. Since he was appointed director in 2003, Long Beach Opera season subscriptions have grown by more than 500 percent; the company even weathered the recession, which he attributed to the relatively low cost of attendance. This season, single tickets range from around $50 to $150.

It’s important to Mitisek that opera be accessible, performances are paired with community conversations about piece’s themes. Raised by his grandmother in Vienna, his family didn’t have much money and they weren’t involved in the arts. But at school, when his grade learned the classical stuff in music class, he was the self-described weird kid who got extremely into it. At around 10 or 11, he bought himself a ticket to go to the symphony and stood in the back, alone. The ticket was cheap—about $1.50—and it opened up a world to him.

That fearlessness—the fearlessness of the 10-year-old that takes himself to the symphony—has been a defining characteristic of Mitisek’s life. In 1988, having just finished his university studies, he somehow convinced the Austrian government to fund an experimental opera he wanted to produce. The iron curtain was still up, yet he figured out how to bring an international orchestra to Vienna. There were problems with the visas and hotel rooms, so he flew to the Soviet Union, drove hours to the Black Sea, rehearsed with the orchestra for a week, and then brought them back after him. Naturally, there was some light bribing-of-strict-communist-officials involved.

“Everyone said the opera would never work,” he says. “But the impossible can be done sometimes.”

In 2008, he was told his desire to stage an opera in a filled swimming pool was impossible or crazy or both. He went ahead and did it.

“That wasn’t part of the universe in the opera world,” he says. “Now, ten years later, so many companies do it.”

Or in 2014, when he directed “The Death of Klinghoffer” at Long Beach Opera. The piece, which centers on the Palestinian militants who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and killed a Jewish-American man in a wheelchair, was deeply controversial; many of the opera’s older patrons were disgusted by the production and some even said it endorsed terrorism. Mitisek, who anticipated the controversy, stood firm.

“It was an important story to tell,” he says. “Sometimes we have to take sides for justice.”

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