by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many indications that Los Angeles was, in the first years of the 20th century, emerging into a major American metropolis was the growth of the arts. This applied to the so-called “legitimate theater” as well as the onrush of film; the increase in the “fine arts”; the 1913 opening of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art; and the expansion of interest in music of all kinds, including “serious music.”
Probably the most important proponent of “serious music” in the city was Lynden Ellsworth Behymer (1862-1946), a native of Ohio who went to the Black Hills of South Dakota from Illinois to mine and operate a store. After a cyclone destroyed both his business and his house, Behymer and his wife headed west and came to Los Angeles in 1886, just in time for the great Boom of the Eighties.
Despite having no musical background of any kind, Behymer began working for the Grand Opera House and is credited with introducing opera and expanding presentations of classical music in Los Angeles. By 1900, he was managing both the Los Angeles Symphony and the Women’s Symphony and was an independent producer.
He became manager of The Auditorium Theatre, also known as the Philharmonic Auditorium or Temple Auditorium because the venue, located at Grand Avenue and 5th Street, was built by the Temple Baptist Church. In 1919, he was hired as manager for the new Los Angeles Philharmonic, which celebrates its centennial in the new year and remained a major force in regional music for decades.
Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of pamphlets and a ticket book from a special engagement at the Auditorium of performances by the Lambardi Pacific Coast Grand Opera Company. The series of ten operas began on 30 December 1912 and concluded a little under a month later and was heavily promoted by the theater and media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times.
One of the biggest boosters of the series and who wrote several lengthy promotional articles for the Times was Hector Alliot (1862-1919), a native of France with a doctorate from the University of Lombardy. After migrating to the United States, he began work in the growing field of archaeology and oversaw an exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 on cliff dwellers in the American Southwest.
After settling in Los Angeles and making the acquaintance of Charles Lummis, a leading figure locally in the study of native Americans in the Southwest, he became associated with Lummis’ Southwest Society, which developed into the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, opened in 1914. Alliot was curator of the collections and then director of the institution, but was involved in a host of other arts and educational organizations. He was a professor at U.S.C. and, for a period, was the music critic for the Times.
Mario Lambardi (1848-1915) was a native of Florence, Italy and was trained as an architect. At twenty-one, he went to South America and designed theaters, including the opera house at Bogotá, Colombia, after which the government hired Lambardi to organize a company. He was said to have a musician’s ear and a promoter’s sense of finding and developing talent and stocked the company with performers from Milan.
After becoming the leading figure in serious music on the west coast of South America, Lambardi brought his company to the United States in 1906 and performed in New Orleans and St. Louis, though he specialized in engagements on the West Coast, including Los Angeles. He continued to find undeveloped talent in Italy and elsewhere and was based in Portland, Oregon, where he died of a stroke while playing billiards after an opera performance (his wife, half his age, committed suicide by drinking poison after learning of his death.)
Behymer arranged for Lambardi’s company to perform in Los Angeles in 1899 and, in a 15 December 1912 article for the Times, Alliot wrote that “it was the dream of both impresarios that some day Los Angeles would become the home of the Lombardi organization” and instituting a permanent grand opera presence in the City of Angels. Just six weeks in 1912, the company performed in the city and the success of that run, including records for attendance at the Auditorium, convinced Behymer to bring it back for the special engagement.
Alliot wrote that “Los Angeles may not be the most music-loving community in the West, but it has made great advance in this direction.” Specifically, he stated that there was more interest in opera during the past few years. But, he added that “it has rarely been a paying venture” as “there have been occasional outbursts of enthusiasm.” The result was that “spontaneous support has been somewhat lacking.”
With a roster of seventeen singers; a chorus master; a general stage manager; the recently hired Arturo Bovi, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and then in Havana, Cuba, as music director; forty musicians; and two assistant directors, the Lambardi company was poised for another excellent run of performances.
One of the pamphlets in the collection included an announcement for the return engagement, labeled a “Holiday Season” festival, noting that the previous run was “such an Artistic and Financial success” that it led to “the insistent demands of the great student body of musicians, as well as the theatre-going public in general” for an encore. It was expected that “the event will go far toward establishing a permanent Grand Opera institution for Los Angeles.”
Most of those performers who were in Los Angeles for the recent run returned. There were several new singers, including Ester Adaberto, formerly of the Metropolitan; Regina Vicarino, who was heard in Los Angeles to great applause two years prior; and Lina Bertossi, another well-regarded performer. Blanche Fox, another addition, was on a tour of the East Coast recently and also appeared in Mexico City.
As for the repertoire, it included some of the best-known works in the operatic canon, including Aida, the Barber of Seville, Tosca, La Boheme, Faust, Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, Rigoletteo and Lucia di Lammermoor, among others.
Another pamphlet noted that, because the festival was expected to “be the best ever produced in this city, we have therefore taken the liberty of mailing you this season ticket.” The holder of the tickets had great flexibility in choosing which operas to attend in terms of reserving seats and then exchanging the tickets in the book, which was partially used. Reiterating the desire to have a permanent Grand Opera company established in Los Angeles, the item observed that supporting this engagement by taking a season ticket package was part of the realization of that goal.
Despite the heavy promotion through advertising and by Alliot in the Times, which included photographs of the many of the company’s performers, the engagement did not prove to be nearly as successful as was hoped. On 26 January 1913, Alliot wrote,
It is no secret that this last engagement has not been profitable to the impresario. Mario Lambardi leaves tonight poorer by many thousand dollars than when he opened at the Auditorium this second engagement. The secret of this lack of support is due to the fact that even at popular prices we have not the appetite or probably the digestion for more than three weeks of grand opera in the autumn and three in the spring. It is now established and proved.
Another decade passed before the founding of the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association in 1924, as a sort of affiliate of the San Francisco Opera which was established the prior year. Operating at the Philharmonic Auditorium and later the Shrine Auditorium, the association operated through the remainder of the decade, but the onset of the Great Depression brought difficult times and the organization folded after the 1934 season.
In 1948, the Los Angeles Civic Grand Opera Association had modest beginnings at a Beverly Hills church before moving to the larger Wilshire Ebell Theatre and then the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center when that facility opened in 1964. After a few years, the Music Center’s board shifted focus and the Music Center Opera Association was created to host touring companies, through partnerships with the San Francisco and the New York associations, rather than have “home” productions.
Finally, in 1986, the Los Angeles (or, naturally, LA) Opera was launched, creating productions for performance at the Chandler, and is now, under famed tenor Plácido Domingo, the fourth largest company in the country. Here is a very interesting history of opera in Los Angeles written in 2017 and produced by KCET.
As a side note, the recipient of the pamphlets and season ticket book was Mrs. John H. Munholland of Long Beach. John Munholland emigrated with his family from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to that city in 1903 and promptly bought a prime piece of property on Ocean Boulevard, where he built two apartment complexes, the Mun and the Munholland.
He and his wife Myra Snedeker managed these until John died in 1917, though she continued to operate them for a time before they were sold. Today, a Westin Hotel occupies the property. The Munholland’s son, John G., became a prominent attorney and real estate developer and broker in Long Beach and lived to be 102 years old, dying in 1987. Presumably, Myra Munholland was either a season ticket holder or frequent attendee of the performances at the Auditorium.