When Aida closes on June 12, Los Angeles Opera tenor George Sterne will step down after more than 150 performances, more than any other choir member in the company’s history.
Sterne was with the LA Opera long before there was an LA Opera. He’s seen it all: the revolving door of great guest directors — Julie Taymor, William Friedkin, Franco Zeffirelli. Divas and dilettantes. He took the spotlight and took falls. Now he takes his last bow.
“I’ll miss the place, I’ll miss the people, I’ll miss the productions and I’ll miss the music,” he said during a break between rehearsals for “Aida,” which opened over the weekend. end at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “It will be bittersweet, but I’m ready to retire.” His reason for retiring after this show is mostly practical: “I decided a few years ago, when I reached retirement age, that I would retire if it was financially feasible,” says -he. “And it looks like it is, so I decided to go ahead and do it.”
When Sterne first arrived in LA in 1982, there was no LA opera. There was the LA Master Chorale, founded by conductor Roger Wagner. At the time, they provided the choir for opera companies visiting places such as New York or Berlin.
Then, in late 1985, under opera administrator Peter Hemmings, LA Opera presented three Deutsche Oper Berlin productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – “The Marriage of Figaro”, “Tosca” and “Die tote Stadt” by Korngold. Sterne sang in those shows but missed the company’s inaugural production a year later (“Otello” with LA Opera’s founding artistic advisor Plácido Domingo), before eventually joining LA Opera in its second season. Domingo, who served as LA Opera’s general manager from 2003 to 2019, resigned three years ago after the organization launched an investigation concluding that the sexual assault allegations against him were credible.
In the early years, LA Opera had no Music Director but rather a succession of guest conductors, until Kent Nagano was named Principal Conductor in 2001. (The position was later renamed Music Director.) He was replaced in 2006 by current Music Director James Conlon. . “Nagano is a little more cerebral and, from a personal point of view, he’s a little distant from both the orchestra and the choir,” says Sterne. “While James is actually quite friendly, and I think he goes out of his way to fraternize with everyone in the business.”
Sterne knew from an early age that he wanted to sing. At age 10, in Tucson, Arizona, he joined the Tucson Boys Chorus. After touring with them for four months across North America, he remembers thinking, “This could be a cool way to make a living.
He moved to San Diego when he was in seventh grade and saw his first opera a year later – Gounod’s “Faust”. The production cemented what he wanted to do in life. He then studied voice and choral music at what was then Chapman College (now Chapman University) in Orange County. There he developed his sharp, cutting mid-tenor vocal style.
A member of the Carmel Bach Festival Chorus from 1984 to 2000, he has also sung with the Pasadena Classical Singers, Zephyr, I Cantori and the Los Angeles Chamber Singers.
In a career full of ups and downs, Sterne has also had a few lows—like the production of “The Marriage of Figaro” where he rushes into Count Almaviva’s bedroom. “On entering, I lost my footing and fell on my stomach,” he laughs. “I slid about 10 feet, got up really fast and continued the scene. Everyone was like, ‘Are you okay?’ Only my ego was bruised, everything else is fine.
Sterne was also present when guest director Franco Zeffirelli, a veteran of Italian opera, allowed the choir to improvise their own crowd scenes during rehearsals for “Pagliacci.” In sharp contrast is Maximilian Schell, whose process Sterne recalls was so long and meticulous that the opera had to add rehearsal time on “Der Rosenkavalier” late in the process.
The work of German composer Richard Wagner has long been a company staple, notably in 2010 when the Los Angeles Opera embarked on production of “The Ring Cycle,” a 17-hour show. The juggernaut led by Achim Freyer which cost $32 million.
Around this time, LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich issued a statement calling for an overhaul of Ring Festival LA, citing Wagner being anti-Semitic. “The problem with Wagner is that yes, he was a real bad guy and his anti-Semitism was real. But he was one of the most important and greatest composers in the history of music, and you can’t ignore it,” Sterne says.
Within the company, the thorny question of what to do with Wagner came up again this season around the production of “Tannhauser,” and again with “St. Matthew Passion,” which depicts anti-Semitic attacks. On the “Tannhauser” program, LA Opera has included a disclaimer on combating Wagner’s racist and anti-Semitic legacy.
For its season finale this year, the opera will premiere director Francesca Zambello’s LA short story “Aida.” He scores a dubious season for all theaters emerging from the pandemic everywhere, who are grappling with a combination of soaring costs, declining public attendance and COVID-19 concerns. “Audiences, on the whole, haven’t started coming back yet. So we’re still downsizing the houses a lot,” Sterne says. “I guess they have to be very careful with the money.”
The new production of “Aida” stars soprano Latonia Moore and tenor Russell Thomas as secret lovers from rival kingdoms. Art star LA RETNA provides the backdrop for this epic staging with full choir, orchestra and ballet.
Next season at the LA Opera, Grammy-winning soprano Angel Blue in “Tosca” and filmmaker James Gray’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Hopefully audiences will be back in full force and COVID-19 won’t be a lingering threat.
But Sterne will not be there. Right now he’s thinking about his next cruise on the Danube with his wife, a retired music history teacher. “I’m going to relax after thirty-four years in the Vienna Opera Company,” he said with a sigh. “We are going to the Staatsoper [the Vienna State Opera]. It will be a great vacation.