By Bill Kennedy
Christopher Koelsch, LA Opera’s President and Chief Executive Officer, is either astonishingly modest or tremendously reverential to those who have gone before him… or both.
Mr. Koelsch is this year’s recipient of the Opera League’s Peter Hemmings Award – given to individuals “who have made significant contributions to the development of opera in the greater Los Angeles area.” He speaks of the achievements of LA Opera in his four years at the helm as little more than the naturalension of ideas and programs put forth by his predecessors – and by “the incredible team we have here.”
Asked about the company’s accomplishments during his tenure, he evokes none other than Peter Hemmings himself, LA Opera’s first general director during its “startup years” of the 1980s and ‘90s. “There were no rules, no established tradition to combat. He could design a repertory for this unique city and forge a path for the future of the art form.”
Koelsch says that leaders such as Kent Nagano, Edgar Baitzel, Stephen Rountree and, more recently, Music Director James Conlon and General Director Plácido Domingo, set and reinforced the “core values” that he is proud to have had a part in upholding:
- Fidelity to storytelling.
- Investing in our artistic corps.
- Inviting the best and the brightest, even from outside the opera community, to play in our sandbox.
- Working outside the Dorothy Chandler in spaces such as REDCAT and the Ace Hotel.
- An emphasis on community engagement and accessibility for all.
Those values are fully ingrained in Koelsch -- a trim, dapper, direct man who uses the syntax and vocabulary of an English professor -- because he has spent 19 years, nearly half his life, at LA Opera.
That life began in Brockton, Massachusetts, a small blue collar city outside Boston that calls itself the City of Champions because it is the birthplace of both Heavyweight Boxing Champion Rocky Marciano and Middleweight titleholder Marvin Hagler.
Photo credit: Alma Guzman
Fortunately, Koelsch was drawn not to the ring but to the theater, in part because Brockton High School had just opened a new state-of-the-art theater where he acted in and directed his own shows. This led to undergraduate work at Colgate University and a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, where he trained as a dramaturg and stage director.
In 1997 he joined the artistic team at LA Opera and rose through the ranks, becoming Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer in 2010. He assumed his current position of President and Chief Executive Officer in 2012.
Of the aforementioned core values, Koelsch has received more recognition for helping LA Opera stretch beyond the traditional boundaries of the opera house, particularly with programs like Off Grand, community outreach and a simulcast opera under the stars.
But while artistic values and aspirations may not change for opera, audiences and audience behaviors do. “Fifty percent of the audience for our Off Grand programs are completely new to the company,” he says.
Koelsch sees outreach to a more diverse audience as much more than “a business development plan” to ensure seats are filled in the future, instead stressing his belief that “access to the arts is a fundamental human right,” and that LA Opera needs to ensure it builds a diverse audience to match our “increasingly diverse county.”
He dismisses the “lazy idea that the art form is in peril” because of the greying of the audience. He believes that anyone – maybe everyone – can feel the spark that comes from opera.
Asked about his hopes for the future, Koelsch reinforces his desire to remain focused on the core values, continuing to invest in artistic excellence and finding ways to expand access to the art form for the whole community.
He sees twin initiatives in the next several years as central to keeping that momentum.
First, he is hopeful that the company will “expand the scale of the mainstage season.” He sees this in terms not of getting bigger for bigger’s sake but of providing broader artistic experiences for the audience. “I would like to have seasons that, while not necessarily comprehensive, are at least emblematic of the historic continuity of opera – from the Baroque to the Contemporary.”
And second, he hopes to invest “so that the doors are (figuratively) always open.”
While the specifics have yet to be determined, he would like to see the opera house “continue to take steps to be at the center of an ever more vibrant performing arts culture in Los Angeles.”
And what does Koelsch think of receiving the Hemmings Award?
As you can imagine, an opera executive who places such high value on the traditions and beliefs of those who went before him was touched when given the news.
Sitting in his office on the third floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he notes, “Peter Hemmings hired me in this very office. I was quite honored and surprised to get this recognition. In truth, I was deeply moved. I am inspired by the legacy, promise and dedication of my forebears and privileged to continue their great work. ”
Cover photo credit: Steve Kohn