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L.A. Backyard Sets Stage for World-Class Operas

The Pacific Opera Project attracts audiences with an intimate experience at a surprising venue. Sponsored by Grape-Nuts.

About this sponsorship: In honor of the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic ascent of Mount Everest, Patch and Grape-Nuts are teaming up to highlight those who inspire people around them to climb their own mountains. 

It’s an insane idea to produce operas at your home and expect audiences to flock to backyard performances of Così fan tutte or Don Giovanni. But a couple of wild and crazy professionals, artistic director Josh Shaw of Highland Park and musical director Stephen Karr of New Jersey, have done just that. Their company, Pacific Opera Project (POP), launched in 2011, aims to provide audiences with an alternative to L.A.'s big-budget opera circuit and offer local performers a showcase for their talent. (They even pay their artists.) A fully functioning opera company, POP operates primarily out of Josh Shaw’s home on the border of Eagle Rock. The compound houses skeletons of sets, props and costumes procured from studio auctions, including a pair of purple pants worn by Jack Nicholson during his turn as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.

Shaw, 34, an opera singer/director who refuses to cast himself in POP productions, and Karr, 33, who scores and conducts the music, cut costs by doing almost everything themselves. Pieces originally composed for full orchestras are played by a 10-piece band. Karr commutes 3,000 miles from New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and baby, and bunks in a treehouse in Shaw’s backyard when helping with shows that draw between 120 and 150 patrons. The pair worked together in 2006 and reconnected when Shaw placed several ads seeking a musical director. Both have scores of professional experience: Karr has worked with Opera New Jersey, Palm Beach Opera and Opera UCLA; and Shaw has directing credits at the Southern Illinois Music Festival, Redlands Opera Theater and Chamber Opera Players of Los Angeles.

It has all paid off, especially now that POP has earned nonprofit status, which allows the pair to apply for grants and better compensate both their performers and themselves. They also operate with budgets more than twice the size of their first few shows. Aside from Così fan tutte or Don Giovanni, they have produced Trouble in Tahiti, Sweeney Todd, La bohème, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. They’ll be offering The Mikado in September and The Turn of the Screw in January 2014.

Here is how they buried their fears and managed to produce a home-grown opera company that is now in the black.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve taken on? or, What's a goal you're trying to achieve right now? Starting an opera company has felt like a series of dramatic challenges to overcome. In the current financial environment, establishing an organization to perform one of the most expensive of the performing arts may seem to have been a risky proposition. While it remains so, we are happy to say we have now finished our eighth production since our founding in 2011, hopefully providing some proof of both our staying power and that of live musical and theatrical events. A goal we are currently working toward is building our company into a community-supported source of arts and entertainment for greater Los Angeles, so we are not so dependent on ticket sales for our day-to-day production expenses.

We also aspire to become a company who pays its artists a reasonable wage for the incredible amount of work they do to make our productions excellent. While there are always artists hungry for opportunities who will work for free or very little, we feel that as we grow in size and stature at POP, we have a responsibility to the people without whom we would have an empty stage.

Q. What inspired you to take on this challenge? or, How do you plan to achieve this goal? The story of our founding begins with Josh's and my dissatisfaction with the availability of opera in the Los Angeles area. There are many companies producing opera here, from other small-budget organizations like us all the way up to multimillion-dollar, world-class performances, but we thought there was room for a different sort of experience. We keep the intimate and immediate experience of our audience foremost in mind, hoping to provide every person who comes to our shows with the satisfaction of having interacted with and — if we are lucky — having received some measure of enlightenment from our performances of this ancient but still relevant art form.

Being artists ourselves, we always have large goals in mind for the artistic side, and will hopefully never be fully satisfied with the company. That is what keeps creative people creative, but our most immediate and communicable goals are financial. While we have been supporting ourselves largely through ticket sales, along with a few generous donations, we hope to fund a larger percentage of our budget through arts grants from local municipal funds and private foundations. Our board is busy researching organizations who might be interested in helping us do this work.

Q. Did you succeed? or What will you do when you succeed? According to our audiences, we seem to have occupied a space that needed to be filled in our area. We are developing a following, which grows with every show. What began with a single, generous donation has grown into a company that has more resources at its disposal for every new production. We are raising our artistic expectations with each successive production, and are seeing progress towards our goals of artist pay and financial support. I am not sure if one ever completes the building of an organization like this, but once we find ourselves in a position with a comfortable budget and staff to take care of some of the jobs that Josh and I do which take away from our time to think about the larger picture, we aspire to be a fixture in the Los Angeles cultural scene, and hopefully an arts destination that will serve the region for years to come.

Herbert Edgard Alamo May 08, 2013 at 09:09 PM
Nice to know that the OPERA is coming to town!
archie's bunker May 09, 2013 at 02:51 PM
This is an inspiring story. Thank you.

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