by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles grew dramatically during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the many areas of expansion was in music, including classical music and opera, with performances including professional organizations, like the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, established in the 1890s, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, launched in 1919, as well as many amateur associations, such as the Ellis and Gamut clubs.
With respect to opera, performances by traveling companies were the norm until 1912 when a “holiday season” was set up by the noted impresario Lynden E. Behymer, a major force in Los Angeles musical circles for decades, with the Lambardi Pacific Coast Grand Opera Company performing. While it was hoped that the troupe might permanently relocate to Los Angeles, this did not transpire and it was more than a decade before the Los Angeles Grand Opera Company was established, though that organization folded during the Great Depression after a decade.
In 1924, the same year the professional opera company was established, the Los Angeles Opera and Fine Arts Club formed. As noted by the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News of 27 September 1924, the organization came from a consolidation of the American Music Optimists and the Los Angeles Opera Club and the continuation of their joint goal of “the development and presentation of American composition and the presentation of opera in English.” One activity to be carried over was an Artist Students’ league, which operated under the American Music Optimists banner, and the organization held its first meeting a few days later.
In its edition of 25 March 1928, the Los Angeles Times reported on the establishment of the “Opera and Drama Guild,” sponsored by the club, and which had “the declared purpose . . . to offer this dual fare in the theater in the spirit of the true civic theater.” This meant that the actors and musicians were residing in greater Los Angeles and it was added that “while professionals for the principal roles in the opening opera already have been engaged, auditions open to semiprofessional and amateur artists are being held nightly at Trinity Auditorium.” This venue, which opened in 1914 on Grand Avenue near 9th Street, was where the Philharmonic played its first season.
That inaugural performance was Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Il Trovatore, which premiered in 1853, and the local presentation of which was directed by Alexander Bevani (born Alexander Beaven in London and who was an actor, including in 1925’s classic Lon Chaney feature The Phantom of the Opera) with Italian-born Ettore Gorjux as the conductor, and Sol Cohen as the concertmaster.
Cohen, who was a violinist from Urbana, llinois, studied in Europe and performed in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and taught before serving in the Army during the First World War. After more years in Europe, he moved to Los Angeles where he worked at Grauman’s Rialto Theatre, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He had a ballet performed in New York and spent most of his long life in the East after the Great Depression broke out.
As for the guild’s schedule it was to offer “alternate weeks of opera drama, offering the best of the traditionally excellent pieces.” A recent innovation from European opera was adapted with the guild with Bevani “substituting two pianos for the conventional orchestral support.” The Los Angeles Express of 7 April added that the creation of the guild “will afford Los Angeles professionals to appear in standard works, while the repertoire will be of a nature to acquaint the general public with the great lyric and dramatic literature at popular prices. The following day’s Times chimed in with an unattributed quote that the establishment of the guild was the result of “the dreams of scores of Los Angeles cultural leaders to bring to this city popular priced opera and drama of the higher sort and develop latent talent.”
On the 11th, the Los Angeles Record provided a list of a dozen principal performers for the upcoming presentations of the guild. Myrtle Aber, who played Leonora in Il Trovatore, came from a season with the San Diego Grand Opera Company and sang in many East Coast cities. Ludovico Tomarchio, who was Manrico for the opening performance and a vocal instructor, was hailed as “a tenor of world-wide reputation” who was last with the San Carlo Opera Company, an American traveling ensemble.
The performer in that role for the rest of the week, Miguel Laris, was with companies in Mexico City and San Francisco. Soprano Hortense Barnhardt Jones, playing Azucena, was “a Los Angeles girl, who went abroad to study and who has recently been a star with the Metropolitan Grand Opera in New York.” Then, there was Emily Hardy, a lyric soprano making her opera debut as Inez, “but who has a splendid reputation as a radio singer.” She was one of four performers who were students of Edith Lillian Clark and Carolyn Handley, who had a studio in the Southern California Music Building at Broadway and 8th.
As the opera was readying for its opening, the Record reported, on the 16th, that “Trinity Auditorium promises to take on the glamor of the old world theaters . . . [and] to hold the savor of those intimate and practically traditional ‘people’s operas and dramas’ as they are given in Europe.” It was added the Bevani “has achieved marked results with his chorus of 40 or more young voices.”
That day’s Express added “interest is keen in this evening’s premier performance” and reported that “wide support has been given this undertaken, as it constitutes the most comprehensive opportunity Los Angeles singers have had to form their own opera ensembles.” It noted that “the entire company consists of artists of distinction who have made Los Angeles their home.”
The paper reviewed the performance the following day, writing “Los Angeles singers at last found the opportunity that long should have been theirs,” and it also observed that “undertaking such as the present will have the very effect of eliminating the limiting adjective ‘resident’ from an artist’s description.” The Express continued that “a singer is good, mediocre or inferior. Whether he is a ‘resident’ should not affect his rating.” As to the presentation,
Last night’s performance mustered a surprisingly fine display of “resident” talent. The fact that the opera will be given night after night this week is of great value as this repeating schedule will mature talent and divide the vocal chaff from the wheat.
Perhaps for the [this?] reason the management had better not solicit a review of a performance which on the whole had not yet the aspects of a final rehearsal, though there occurred some astonishingly fine bits of singing.
The unattributed review added the the chorus “gives good promise,” while Gorjux’s “foresight did much to offset [the] lack of ensemble.” Fortunately, “there was a good-sized and appreciative audience present, giving the company the encouragement it deserves.”
While it didn’t provide a review of Il Trovatore, the Record did state, after its run concluded, that “if the productions being put on . . . by the Opera and Drama guild were entitled, ‘People’s Opera and Drama Guild Performances,’ the public would gain a clearer idea of what to expect.” It noted that, in Europe, the idea was to have “a theater where resident artists are looked upon as a part of the social and educational fabric of every-day life; where plays and operas are a force in the development of the young, and where entire families meet their friends and relatives of an evening.”
Tomarchio and a student, Leonardo Ciarlo, were chosen for roles in the next operas, performed in succession during a week, Il Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, with Tomarchio said to have appeared in some 200 performances of the piece, and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, while Hardy was cast in Il Rigoletto, another classic by Verdi. She was also highlighted by the Times on the 19th for her dual performances on the opening night of Il Trovatore, because “half way through the performance she hurriedly removed her make-up, donned her street clothes and rushed across town to the Beaux Arts Building” where she performed a Brahms piano sonata for a contest and then headed back to finish her part in the opera. When she completed her performance, she was informed that she’d captured first prize in the contest.
Concerning the program, there is a front -page announcement that stated “the Opera and Drama Guild takes pleasure in announcing the completion of plans for a season of grand opera and better drama, the productions to alternate with one week of opera followed by a week of drama.” The two-month season would “be prolonged indefinitely if the productions are given the popular support that now seems assured.” As to the reason for establishing the guild, it was added that,
The purpose is to give to Los Angeles the highest class of entertainment at poplar prices and to encourage the musical and dramatic talent so abundant in Los Angeles. Splendid singers have been assembled for the operas, splendid actors have been enrolled for the dramatic offerings . . . The Opera and Drama Guild looks forward to accomplishing something that will rebound [redound?] to the fame of our city.
As to dramatic productions, the week of 23 April, following the run of Il Trovatore, the guild staged Monna Vanna by Maurice Maeterlinck and among the actors was Boris Karloff, born William Henry Pratt in England and who was a stage actor with many film credits to date, though it was after he’d appeared in some eighty pictures that he became a star in 1931’s Frankenstein.
Also forthcoming were The Soul of Rafael, which was originally a novel by Marah Ellis Ryan and which was made into a 1920 film called For the Soul of Rafael, starring Clara Kimball Young, and a revival of Rip Van Winkle, starring Thomas Jefferson, whose father Joseph was a major stage star in the 19th century and who was the titular character in a 1921 film version.
With regard to upcoming operas, the program highlighted the joint bill of Cavallleria Rusticana and Il Pagliacci and then mid-May’s presentation of Rigoletto. Gorjux, Bevani and Cohen were again at the helm for those productions and Tomarchio, who made a memorable appearance in the 1938 Laurel and Hardy comedy Swiss Miss and Ciarlo were mentioned as among the cast, along with Conchita Chaves (Chavez), a New Mexico native and coloratura soprano who later married Miguel Laris, and two others. All the listed performances had ticket prices of 25, 50 and 75 cents.
On the reverse is a full-page ad for the Birkel Music Company, one of the major firms of its kind along with the Bartlett Music Company and the Southern California Music Company, whose principal figure was Frank J. Hart, brother of Edwin G. Hart, founder of Hacienda Heights and La Habra Heights. The ad was to promote the Steinway piano, “the instrument of the immortals,” with prices for uprights starting a $950 and grands from $1475. The Homestead has two Steinways in its collection, an 1893 Model A grand that graces the La Casa Nueva Music Room and a 1923 Model O that is currently in storage.
This program is one of many artifacts in the museum’s collection that helps tell the story of how music developed in greater Los Angeles from the late 19th century through the first three decades of the 20th and the “Striking a Chord” series helps to get these objects out to those interested in that history.