PETER HEMMINGS, Enfield, Middx, England, April 10, 1934 – Dorset, England, January 4, 2002
Where others had failed, or succeeded only halfway, Hemmings planted the operatic seed in the Los Angeles cultural desert and nursed it into full bloom. Determinedly ignoring a chorus of naysayers, charming a support structure into existence by dint of soft-spoken earnestness and elegant British tailoring, Hemmings came to Los Angeles with the mission of founding that city’s first-ever world-class opera company, and fulfilled that mission with surprising ease. Even the ultimate omen – the curtain stuck halfway up at the opening-night Otello — did not block his upward path. When he retired in June, 2000 – yielding his place to his hand-picked company superstar and logical successor Plácido Domingo — his 14-year-old Los Angeles Opera had long shaken off its initial omens and challenges.
Hemmings’ lifetime was almost entirely operatic. At Cambridge he headed the University Opera Group and aimed briefly at a singer’s career. Instead he moved into music management at London’s prestigious Harold Holt Ltd., from there to a personal assistant’s post to the manager of the Sadler’s Wells Opera and from there, in 1962, to run the newly formed Scottish National Opera, which he built over 15 years into one of Britain’s most adventurous companies..
A stint at Sydney’s Australian Opera, where Hemmings groomed the company to make the most of the newly-won reputation engendered by its glamorous new hall, was cut short by political infighting. In 1979 he strayed outside opera to manage the London Symphony. Five years later, however, the call came from the Los Angeles Music Center; it was high time, it said in so many words, to create a place in the operatic firmament for that famously nonoperatic city.
Los Angeles’ operatic desires had previously been feebly fanned by visits from the San Francisco Opera (in the notorious acoustic horror, the 6000-seat Shrine Auditorium) and occasional one-shots in the Music Center’s early days. In 1984, a three-production stint by London’s Royal Opera (including a Turandot with Domingo) sparked an outcry for a local company of Los Angeles’ own and Hemmings was tapped as founder-director.
He moved wisely and well. Installing Domingo as resident superstar gave out word that the Los Angeles Opera would rise above the city’s boondocks reputation. A fine mix of repertory and exotic items – Otello, Butterfly, Fiery Angel, Wozzeck, Mahagonny, Don Giovanni, the complete Les Troyens – enhanced that reputation. So did some enlightened backstage choices: Goetz Friedrich to stage Otello and Janácek, David Hockney to design Tristan und Isolde, Peter Sellars to move Pelléas et Mélisande to a Malibu beachfront, Simon Rattle to conduct Wozzeck. As with any company afflicted with high ambitions, there were duds here and there; local critics could count on one or two yearly one-on-one confrontations, over a splendid lunch, for Hemmings to defend (with scoresheets and full documentation) this inadequate conductor or that tottering diva.
From the start, Hemmings appended an active Resident Artist apprenticeship program to the company’s operations, out of which several major artists have emerged –- baritone Rodney Gilfry for one, a walk-on in that opening-night Otello now a worldwide star. Hemmings’ final Los Angeles production was a triumphant Billy Budd with Gilfry as Billy. Like its star, the Los Angeles Opera had grown impressively – from a 22-performance first season to well over 60 performances, most of them sold out, in Hemmings’ final year.
In 1998 Hemmings was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He returned to England in the summer of 2000 and, after a brief bout with cancer, died at his home in Dorset, survived by his wife Jane and five children.