With the announcement of Kent Nagano’s appointment as principal conductor, the Los Angeles Opera’s new leadership took a major step toward rounding out its team. The announcement was made Thursday (June by incoming artistic director Plácido Domingo; Nagano joins incoming artistic administrator (=dramaturg) Edgar Baitzel and executive director Ian White-Thompson to command the direction of the company following the departure of its founder and general director Peter Hemmings, O.B.E., who returns to England shortly.
Nagano, 48, was born in California of Japanese ancestry. A one-time protégé of Seiji Ozawa, he enjoyed his first acclaim as director of the Berkeley (CA) Symphony, turning a small, church-based semi-pro orchestra into a hot-ticket innovative ensemble. He understudied Ozawa at the Paris Opera for the 1983 premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s “Saint Francis” and conducted some of the performances, and developed a relationship with the venerable composer during his last years. He holds the conducting post at Britain’s Halle Orchestra, which he will leave next season, and is slated to take charge of Berlin’s Deutsche Symphonie this fall; in 1998 he resigned as music director of the Lyon Opera, with which he made several recordings. He had also been reported in line to take on Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, but dropped that prospect in favor of Los Angeles.
Nagano takes on the Los Angeles post on July 1, 2001. In his first season, according to an L.A. Opera spokesperson, he will conduct from 35-40 percent of all performances. Currently the company mounts eight productions each season, and presents six to eight performances of each. Those figures will increase when the company takes sole command of the 3000-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, following the completion (slated for 2002) of the Disney Symphony Hall which will house the Los Angeles Philharmonic – the Opera’s current hall-mate.
Nagano began piano studies at age 4, graduating from the University of California at Santa Cruz somewhat later with degrees in sociology and music, followed by a master’s degree from San Francisco State University. His career skyrocketed in the manner now regarded as traditional, when in 1984 he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a Mahler symphony on one day’s notice. He currently lives in San Francisco, with his wife, pianist Mari Kodama and daughter Karin Kei, now pushing two.
Nagano’s position with the Los Angeles Opera is newly fashioned; the company has not had a principal conductor in its 14-year existence. Despite sporadic appearances by celebrity guests on the podium – Charles Dutoit, Zubin Mehta, Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen for one production each – the company has encountered frequent criticism for its reliance on, let’s say, middle-of-the-road musical leadership. An upgrade in that regard is, therefore, long overdue.