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Christopher Koelsch: Bringing Opera to the Masses

Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera’s president and CEO, grew up in Boston during a period of operatic drought. Through the waning days of college and into graduate school, he was thrown headlong into the sweeping pleasures and perils of opera. And once Christopher got a taste of the depth and breadth of human expression possible on the operatic stage, he was hooked forever. He now considers himself an evangelist of the power of music and theatre to enlighten and change us, and a zealot on a crucial mission for the performing arts in people’s daily lives.

In fact, we heare at Frontiers are so enamoured, we are hosting a "Night Out at the Opera" Thursday, March 13, for a special presentation of Billy Budd.

What makes the L.A. Opera truly unique?
As the youngest large-scale opera company in the nation, we have a degree of elasticity that comes with youth. That quality is balanced by the wisdom, maturity and [the] experience of our artistic leadership. Together, the company strikes an ideal balance between stewardship of a tradition and a reinvention of that tradition. Perhaps most importantly, an audience that trusts exploration and experimentation. We’re interested in breaking down stereotypes about the art form; next year, in addition to the traditional fare of La Traviata, we’ll commence a multi-year series of contemporary chamber operas in partnership with REDCAT, with music that has more in common with Radiohead than with Mozart. I believe we’re leading the charge for opera companies to produce work that is truly idiomatic to their communities, while also upholding international standards of music and theatre.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
A big challenge is in battling stereotypes about opera; it still surprises me that people have a reflexive prejudice against the art form, or are intimidated by it. And yet, music is such a ubiquitous element of people’s daily lives and a crucial means of how they find self-expression. It’s our responsibility to ensure people know just how accessible the art form is; there is no previous experience or knowledge necessary to have an enchanting evening in the theatre.

Tell me about some of the L.A. Opera’s community and educational outreach programs.
Active engagement with our community has been a foundational principle for the company from its inception. Both on our own and through long-standing partnerships with hundreds of organizations—including museums, libraries, churches, hospitals, universities, and community groups—our programs reach more than 100,000 citizens annually. Some of these activities include active student participation in the creation of operas, an annual high-school level opera camp, student and senior citizen access to mainstage artists and rehearsals, vocational training, adult-learning lectures, and teacher training. In active pilot programs, we’re partnering with service organizations in East Los Angeles to provide a sustained, deep engagement with the performing arts. We devote more than 8,000 tickets to mainstage performances to allow access for underserved communities, and through an annual Community Opera event, we offer a performance activity for more than 400 amateur musicians for an audience of more than 6,000. We’re proud of the fact that we have programs for Angelenos from 4 to 104, and we, in turn, learn a great deal from the dialogue engendered.

With opera superstars singing at the opening of the Super Bowl and the Olympics, do you see a resurgence in opera?
Anything that helps expose or demystify opera for people is a very good thing. Both events gave people a taste of the superhuman talent required by a professional opera singer, and of the full range of expression of the human voice.

What do you think Angelenos who have never attended the opera will take away from it?
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, in an ideal world we’d unlock a portal to a transcendent, cathartic emotional experience for someone. The beauty of opera is that one can have a casual relationship with it, enjoying an occasional evening of entertainment and beauty. But, like most pursuits, there are huge intellectual and emotional rewards from a sustained relationship with its complexities and variety. Anyone ever moved by an unforgettable painting, a beguiling bit of choreography, a memorable melody, a one-of-a-kind evening gown has already taken the first step into our world.

Are you involved with any other philanthropic organizations?
I am on the board of councilors of the Thornton School of Music of USC and am actively involved in their innovative programs to train the musicians and arts leaders of the next generation.