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Behind the Scenes: LA Opera

Cellist JOHN WALZ calls his gig with LA Opera Orchestra “a dream job.” by Patrick Dillon 

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Walz in concert at Royce Hall
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Walz in rehearsal
Dirk Peuser

BY THE AGE OF TEN, John Walz had discovered two enduring passions—the cello (at a summer camp in the California mountains) and opera (at the old Met, on a family trip to New York).

Thirty years down the line, he found a way of conjoining them as principal cellist of the LA Opera Orchestra. 

Walz had been playing freelance for decades when the opportunity arose to play for LA Opera, in 1992. “I just jumped at it,” he says with a still-boyish alacrity, as he speaks with me by phone from West Coast to East. “I already knew the repertoire so well!” Initially, this was yet another freelance gig, but “then, in the late ’90s, we became the official orchestra, with tenure and a fully contracted position. It’s not full-time, but it offers some basic security. And one of the great things about this job has been seeing the company moving in the right direction. My first years with the orchestra, we had no music director, just a series of guest conductors, and it’s very hard to feel like an ensemble when you’re just kind of lurching around as a bunch of freelancers. And as wonderful as the company is now, we didn’t always have the highest-quality singers. But once Plácido [Domingo] took over as general manager, the casting took a quantum leap forward. That’s been an incredible joy. And now with James Conlon as music director—well, he’s the real deal. With Plácido and James aboard, it’s kind of a dream job.”

Much of the orchestra plays for vising ballet troupes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and for the Los Angeles Music Center in general, including the occasional gala. “And we’d love to start playing some symphony concerts—maybe someday!” he adds. Walz boosts his income with solo gigs, chamber work (he’s a founding member of the highly regarded Pacific Trio), teaching and—L.A. being L.A.—studio work for the movies. “Right now we’re finishing up the new Star Wars chapter, with John Williams. We’re a pickup group, with many of us from the [opera] orchestra. George Lucas made a deal for the earlier six movies with the London Symphony to record over there, because he didn’t want to pay the local musicians residuals. But Lucasfilm got sold to Disney, and John, who’s eighty-three, didn’t want to travel, so we’re all thrilled to be working with him on the picture here in L.A.”

Meanwhile, there’s a new opera season to tackle. “We open with the double bill”—Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci—“and we all know both those operas, so it’ll be easy to get things together. But we’re all coming new to [Jake Heggie’s] Moby-Dick, and that should be fun. And if we’re doing a piece like a Strauss opera, or anything where I know I have lots of solos, I’ll definitely put in a fair amount of practice time ahead of the first rehearsal.” (He calls the “huge” Act II solo in Die Frau ohne Schatten “the biggest and most difficult” in the operatic cellist’s rep—and he’s happily risen to its challenge, twice.) “But the rest of the season—those I can play practically by heart.” 

For a guy who adores opera and sits in the audience whenever he can—whether in San Francisco, San Diego or New York—being stuck in the pit must have its frustrations. “My friends come to a performance and say, ‘Oh, that staging was great, blah, blah, blah, blah,’ and of course I don’t see any of it. My back is literally turned to the stage. If I turned around for even a second I’d get distracted. The concentration it takes to get through a three- or four-hour performance is astronomical. Singers have a different sense of rhythm than instrumentalists, so what you hear from the stage and what you hear going on around you are rarely in the same place. But I’ve done some singing myself”—last year he gave a kind of “joint recital” that alternated voice and cello—“and I think that’s given me a better idea how to bridge the gap.”

What about his operatic wish list for LAO? “Well, I’d love to play Rusalka. We’ve never done that. And then there’s William Tell. I’d love to start that whole long evening the way Rossini intended, playing that gorgeous cello opening from an opera pit.” He practically sings that sentiment, and that chair of his in the orchestra pit suddenly seems the best seat in the house. spacer 

Patrick Dillon is the New York correspondent for Toronto- based Opera Canada and for Scherzo in Madrid. 

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