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From A to Zev

Interview with Zev Yaroslavsky

By Bill Kennedy

Opera wasn't exactly love at first song.

Dragged away on a field trip, the preteen had to sit through a school performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel and Gretel, and recalls now: "I couldn't stand it. I swore I'd never go to another opera."

Some 50 years later, that young critic is now an opera lover and arguably the single individual who has done more to foster, sustain and help the arts prosper in his community than any other American elected official in the last 20 years.

For his service to the arts in general and opera in particular, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has been selected for the Opera League's 2015-16 Hemmings Award and was honored at the League's annual dinner April 2 at the California Club.

Yaroslavsky's achievements in 20 years as a member of the five-member Board of Supervisors -- like the growth of the arts in Los Angeles over that same period -- reads like something no other person or place could accomplish in a century:

  • A pivotal role in getting a stalled Disney Hall project moving forward again when it appeared it might have to be scrapped.
  • Leadership in the development of the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge.
  • Fighting for the transformation of the iconic Hollywood Bowl from a mid-century monument to a state-of-the-art performance facility.
  • His leadership and support was instrumental in securing a critical bridge loan that allowed the company to maintain its commitment to the monumental Ring Cycle following the economic crisis of 2008.
  • Putting civic and financial muscle behind private-sector supported renovations and improvements at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.
  • Toward the end of his service (he was termed out last December), being the key proponent of the simulcast performance of LA Opera's opening night performance on the Santa Monica Pier and pushing for a nearly $60-million renovation of the Ford Theater, now underway.

Appreciation for arts came naturally for Yaroslavsky. His mother and father were classical music lovers and insisted he play the piano. His great uncle played bass for Sol Hurok orchestras that accompanied the great ballet companies of the world in the middle of the last century.

Yaroslavsky himself might have gone on to be an oboist had not an admitted bit of rust and a finger broken on the basketball court led him to "blow an A that sounded much more like a B flat” during a high school orchestra audition.

But Yaroslavsky's support for the arts stems from far more than a personal interest.

He recognizes the intangible contributions a robust artistic sector can provide for a community -- a sense of pride in place, an exposure to things that can lift the human heart and soul. But -- a lifelong student of politics -- he is nothing if not a pragmatist.

Yaroslavsky says: "The arts can provide a common language for a community and help transform it socially and economically."

Concerning the economic value, he points out that the arts employ more Angelenos than the defense industry. And, recalling a colleague's remark some years ago that "people don't go to New York to see the crime and graffiti," he is proud to point out that Los Angeles' own emergence in music, art, theater and, of course, film and television have helped make it the tourist destination it is today, with nearly $20 billion in annual visitor spending.

But how did the early opera hater (well, okay, skeptic) change his mind?

While in high school 16 years ago, his son, David (now an Opera League volunteer and, according to his father, the true opera buff in the family), was preparing for an academic decathlon contest with a major theme being knowledge of opera. Yaroslavsky would often be working at home and hear cassette recordings of operas wafting from his son's room.

"Hey," he thought. "That's good. I've heard that before." And that led him to LA Opera and performances of "Carmen, then Traviata, Pagliacci, Bohème..."

Yaroslavsky -- like most of you readers -- was hooked.

So hooked that he now sits on the board of LA Opera -- one of the few board seats he was willing to take upon leaving office. And so hooked that he accepted LA Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch's invitation to be a supernumerary in last season's opening night performance of La Traviata.

No, he wasn't asked to sing. But in most ways, Zev Yaroslavsky had already sung for his supper... and much more.

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Author: Thomas Lady
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