By Tom Lady
You don’t always associate opera with the Olympics, but we should be grateful the Games of the XXIII Olympiad took place in Los Angeles or else you might not be reading this article right now. And I might not be sitting in the living room of this beautiful single-story house in Pasadena, right around the corner from the Rose Bowl, with the sounds of KUSC drifting across the polished wooden floors.
For it was leading up to, during, and after the 1984 Summer Games that the evolution of the Opera League was given a kick in the costume trousers. But don’t take it from me. Let’s hear it from one of the League’s first members, Rita Pudenz.
“I joined the Opera League in 1984 because Alice Coulombe and Lorraine Saunders [who founded the Opera League together three years earlier] suggested that everyone helping with the ’84 Games should be a member of the Opera League. I’d been interested in opera all my life, since growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania listening to Met broadcasts with my mom.
“The Olympic Arts Festival happened at the same time as the Games. Peter Sellers organized the festival, and the Royal Opera Covent Garden visited from London. It was kind of like Figaro Unbound with lots of institutions participating. LACMA had an exhibit called “A Day in the Country,” and it included Van Gogh’s Irises, which is now at the Getty…The other volunteers and I took the Royal Opera artists and orchestra musicians around L.A. County to see highlights such as LACMA, the Huntington Gallery and Library, and Mount Wilson. I signed up to drive people. It was very interesting to listen to the musicians talk while I was driving. I was surprised how, during the opera, they don’t really know what goes on onstage.
“My first live opera was La Traviata with Lily Pons, when the San Francisco Opera came to the Shrine Auditorium, and it was everything I imagined.”
At this point, Rita had retired from being an OR RN in Huntington Memorial’s neurosurgery department. And focus she did. After the Games and the festival, the newly formed opera company needed help on special projects. They brought in visiting companies like Deutsch Opera Berlin. Many volunteers couldn’t always make it downtown, but Rita didn’t mind the drive from Pasadena.
By the time LA Opera was born in 1986, Rita was volunteering in the front office. She’s been lending an invaluable hand—well, both hands—ever since. A week hasn’t gone by when she hasn’t made it to the office. Today you’ll find her on the third floor of the Dorothy Chandler working with the people who generate all the artist records.
And how’s this for a one-two milestone punch: From the very first LA Opera production, Rita has been both an LAO subscriber and a light walker. She has only missed one production. Given that “light walker” wouldn’t even be a word without opera, you’d be forgiven if you weren’t quite sure what that meant. Light walkers are a tiny but mighty band of Opera League volunteers who stand on the stage where someone will be singing an aria so the LAO lighting designers can find the optimal lighting. Gone are the days of giant spotlights. Light walkers must be able to stand still and not speak and follow directions. The next time you meet a light walker, shake their hand.
While artistic administration and light walking have always been Rita’s fortes, she used to spend a lot of time in Artist Services transporting singers around town. What does she remember most about those days? “The singers never looked like their headshots!”
Rita’s volunteering hasn’t stopped with the Opera League. For a long time she pitched in at the La Brea Tar Pits where she had a knack for matching the bone fragments. She’s also a member of Caltech Associates, a support group for the school where her late husband had an appointment and conducted research. She used to take drawing lessons at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) and has done weaving and woodcarving. “I’m not creative, I’m just a good technician. That’s why being a nurse and working the tar pits suited me to a T. I’m very good with my hands.”
Rita has been living in Pasadena for over sixty years and is probably this city’s biggest fan. “Everyone loves the Getty, but the Norton Simon’s got everything. And have you been to the Huntington Gardens? Pasadena is loaded with places that have exceptional collections.”