By Bill Green
The Opera League was organized several years before there was a resident opera company in Los Angeles.
In November 2020, the League’s first three presidents came together via Zoom to share fond memories of events surrounding the formation of the Opera League, as well as the role League volunteers played in the formation of a resident opera company for L.A. These three women served collectively as Opera League President from 1981 through 1988, a time characterized by our second president, Lorraine Saunders, as a time of “service, good times and friendship.” The bonds of friendship between these three women have endured for over 40 years.
A Fateful Encounter at a Box Office Flop
The first president was Alice Coulombe (1981 to 1984). During the 1960s, Alice’s late husband Joe (“Trader Joe”) had served on the board of a short-lived, struggling Pasadena opera company. At one point Alice decided to invite the neighbors to come by and enjoy some TJ wine before a performance. Alice described the performance as a disaster, and by intermission, only the Saunders were left.
A little later, Alice met Carol Henry and her late husband Warner at a dinner party. After what is reported to be have been a few rounds of Saki, Alice convinced Carol to get involved in the fledgling League. “To this day,” Carol says, “Alice continues to find rewarding ways for me to spend 99% of my discretionary time.”
Opera Tours: A League Is Born!
After the Music Center opened, but with no resident opera company to call its own, the Music Center Opera Association (MCOA) was created to manage and coordinate the visits of touring opera companies. New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera made visits to Los Angeles for years, just to name two examples.
By this point, Alice and Lorraine were known for their involvement as volunteers and supporters of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. And so in 1981, Carl Princi, radio announcer for classical music station KFAC, and Sol Rubin, board member of the MCOA, asked them to form a support group that would provide volunteers to help out whenever a touring opera company performed at the Music Center. Alice and Lorraine immediately recruited Carol, and the three of them went to work putting together a certain opera volunteer support group you might have heard of:
The Opera League of Los Angeles
Opera League volunteers began organizing stage parties and seminars for music educators. Volunteers would pick up visiting artists as needed from the airport and perform other support activities that should sound familiar to today’s League volunteers. Carol maintained the League’s membership database, which in that nascent stage was a box full of 3x5 cards containing contact information.
Opera League President Lorraine Saunders welcomes the audience to a pre-performance seminar for a Royal Opera production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on July 7, 1984
The Early Years: Cat Naps, Loose Lips and a Bank Heist
Alice, Lorraine and Carol have no shortage of anecdotes to share about the League’s early years. Alice and Lorraine recall many events where volunteers had to set up and take down chairs and tables, carrying stuff up and down the central stairway in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. One night they got so exhausted setting up chairs on the second floor for a pre-performance seminar that they walked up one level after seating everyone for the event and took naps on the benches until the event was over.
Carol recalls planning an elaborate fundraising event at the Biltmore Hotel. This involved dropping the invitations into the mail at a local post office. One small hiccup? The day the envelopes were mailed turned out to be the very same day thieves decided to pay a visit to the post office to pilfer the social security checks that had just been delivered. During the heist, they also made off with the Opera League fundraiser invitations. Undeterred, hardy League volunteers took to the phones to get reservations in for that event.
Another incident all three remember is the time when the Music Center Operating Company had made a decision to discontinue the annual visits of New York City Opera. That decision was inadvertently revealed by one of the Music Center staff members after a few drinks at a pre-performance event with the opera company performers and support team. The League had set up for a post-performance reception for the opera company members, but no one showed up.
The Opera League Takes Gold!
In the lead-up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, which would take place in to L.A., Alice was summoned to a meeting with Paul Finley, touring manager for England’s Royal Opera (RO). Plans had been finalized for the RO to perform several works at the Music Center during the Olympic Arts Festival. This would entail 400 visitors, including the RO itself plus family members, staying in L.A. for several weeks. Suffice it to say the need for volunteer people power was great. Enter the Opera League, which would shoulder the logistics supporting the RO’s extended stay.
RO presented three operas, a total of 11 performances, spread over 13 days: Peter Grimes, The Magic Flute and Turandot. The best seats cost $75 each, a new high for opera ticket pricing in L.A. Yet the performances sold out. Any doubts about there being a receptive audience for opera in Tinseltown were erased.
Lorraine’s term as president began with the arrival of the RO in the summer of ‘84. “If people said to me then: ‘Do you have dreams for an opera company in L.A.?’ That wasn’t even a thought in my head. At that time, our goal was to support whatever opera company was coming to the Music Center.”
After the tremendous success of the RO visit, the momentum for raising funds to establish a permanent resident opera company in Los Angeles only grew.
Opera League President Lorraine Saunders and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade at an Opera League recital at UCLA in 1984
Birth of LA Opera
LA Opera started with three employees, including General Director Peter Hemmings. The Opera League and its volunteer army had no time to waste expanding its role keeping the LAO ship afloat.
The League planned and staffed a reception for Peter Hemmings after his arrival at Embassy Auditorium. Lorraine recalls that at the end of the evening, none of the volunteers could find the checks and donations that had come in, and she and others stayed late into the night scouring the place before they finally found the check-full envelope in a staff restroom.
While planning and scheduling LAO’s first full season (1986-87), Peter Hemmings brought Saint Louis Opera and Deutsche Oper to L.A. to stage performances and keep the momentum of live opera going. During those visits, the Opera League continued staffing LAO operations while hosting receptions for the visiting companies. Carol recalls that one of the receptions for Deutsche Oper was held in the Pasadena home of a League member, which happened to be the home that General George Patton had lived in as a child. League volunteers were careful not to mention that to the visiting Germans.
A Tradition Begins
As LAO’s inaugural season approached, the League was asked to help with fundraising.
“A Tradition Begins with the Opera League” was the headline of a Los Angeles Times article by Mary Lou Loper in 1986. The article documents the League’s organization of “17 buffet receptions, cocktail parties, desserts, teas, and a few dinners…” held all over Southern California, raising funds and obtaining season ticket commitments to support the new resident opera company.
By the summer of 1986, with LAO’s inaugural production of Otello a few short months away, League membership had swelled from 107 charter members in 1981 to 823. Our three early presidents had put together a board of directors made up of people with experience in other volunteer nonprofits, as well as professionals with skills required to maintain a successful volunteer organization—attorneys who drafted by-laws and handled organization of the League as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, a public relations specialist who helped draft the League mission statement, people with financial backgrounds to handle budgeting and expenses.
The three League founders emphasized the League’s goal of engaging people from all walks of life and providing them a meaningful path to support a significant presence of opera in our diverse community.
“The vision we had,” says Alice, speaking for the group, “was we were workers who had a passion for opera. We really didn’t care who you were, or where you came from. If you liked opera and were game to bring a casserole, you were in.”
That attitude has not changed in the 40 years since the League’s founding. The adage “Service, Good Times and Friendship” continues to guide the Opera League today, as we look forward to emerging from the pandemic as strong and vibrant an organization as ever.
Cover photo credit: Alma Guzman