Hitting a high note with LA Opera

Christopher Koelsch with other key members of the LA Opera

LA Opera personnel (L to R): Christopher Koelsch ’93 (President and CEO), Placido Domingo (Eli and Edythe Broad General Director), and James Conlon (Richard Seaver Music Director)

Christopher Koelsch ’93

Growing up in suburban Boston, Christopher Koelsch ’93 reveled in watching professional theater, ballet, and the symphony. It wasn’t until his junior year at Colgate that opera, like a diva temptress, grabbed his attention and wouldn’t let go.

It happened when he attended an English National Opera production of Handel’s Xerxes while taking part in the university’s London Study Group, under the direction of Deborah Knuth.

“I was immediately seduced by the scale of expression of opera and the fact that the creators could fire on so many more cylinders than you could in conventional theater,” Koelsch said. “It was like going from driving a Yugo to driving a Mercedes.”

“I figured my love of theater and music was a foible of youth and that I should do something much more practical, and the arts could be a hobby. My time in London changed that fundamentally.”

He couldn’t predict it at the time, but the experience was an overture for things to come. His newfound love for opera would become his life’s work, first as rehearsal administrator for five summers at South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival, and then briefly as company manager at the now-defunct Opera Pacific in Santa Ana, Calif. Koelsch joined LA Opera’s artistic department in 1997, and he’s enjoyed a steady climb ever since.

In 2012, he was named president and CEO of LA Opera — the country’s fourth largest — where he reports to the general manager, famed Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo.

Like many an opera hero, Koelsch’s journey is characterized by discovery. He enrolled at Colgate with the idea that he’d go on to law school. He loved the arts, but it felt “impractical” to seek a career in the field.

“I figured my love of theater and music was a foible of youth and that I should do something much more practical, and the arts could be a hobby,” said Koelsch, who double majored in English and political science. “My time in London changed that fundamentally.”

When he returned to Hamilton, he decided the arts it would be. Koelsch went on to earn a graduate degree in theater studies at the University of Michigan.

These aren’t easy times for American opera companies. Facing increased entertainment competition from the Internet and elsewhere, several companies cite fundraising challenges as a reason for closing their doors in recent years.

Unlike in Europe, where opera companies receive government subsidies, Koelsch must spend long hours drumming up dollars — an art form all its own.

“You’re thrust into a world of extremely accomplished and erudite people,” he said. “You need to make a persuasive case to intellectually and aesthetically sophisticated philanthropists, and a big component of that is the general knowledge that one learns from a classic liberal arts education.”

Another immediate and enduring challenge is countering public perceptions of opera. “People tend to be intimidated by it,” Koelsch said. “The biggest challenge is removing barriers for entry to people and getting them to understand that opera isn’t for anyone in particular. You have to make the case for the accessibility and vitality of the art form every single day.”

He’s doing so, in part, by promoting community productions, in which 500 amateur artists stage an opera each year at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. LA Opera also reserves 250 seats for low-income residents at every main-stage performance.

Both are attempts, Koelsch said, to show that “opera is for and of the people. It has a reputation of being a rarified art form, but that is not its origins or its tradition, and that’s not the opera company we are or the opera company we want to be.”

To that, the chorus sings, “bravissimo!”

— Article by Andrew Faught; Photo by John Rottet