By Paula Correia and Tom Lady
“Put your platters right here!” the petite woman calls out. Anne Prokopovych, veteran Opera League volunteer, oversees the setup and arrangement of food, lots and lots of home-cooked, amazing-looking food, across three long tables.
My friend and fellow volunteer Sue Correnti and I are on the 4th floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. No, we are not here to see an opera, but to feed all those who go into making an opera possible. As we stroll into the rehearsal room, we are greeted by fellow volunteers as well as a plethora of scents, each redolent of something prepared with tender loving care.
After Sue and I deposit our contributions, we stroll along the tables to peruse the multi-ethnic salads, the veggies, entrées and the dessert which, of course, gets its own table. Even more amazing than the sheer volume and variety of YUM! is the fact that each and every one of these dishes is homemade by the same volunteers who are now here tonight to give even more of their time.
Welcome to the Opera League cast dinner, perhaps the most nutritious tradition this side of the velvet curtain. Cast dinners typically take place during the last week of rehearsals, what they in the biz call tech week, when the performers are putting in grueling hours in full makeup and costume.
“The League dinner is one of my favorite parts of tech week,” says Aurelia Andrews, one of LA Opera's Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists. “It feels like a family reunion, with all the casserole, and the cornbread is seriously amazing! It really feels like a fun family dinner amid all the focus and stress of production tech.”
“It’s a continual labor of love for our opera performers and support personnel,” is the oft-repeated volunteer refrain.
“My wife Anne and I have been joyfully volunteering, practically from the beginning when LA Opera was founded, because it gives us so much satisfaction,” says Anne Prokopovych’s husband, Ernie.
“I just like to be of service,” adds Japan-born Satchiko Higuchi, who sits on practically every Opera League committee.
So just who is the trailblazer who baked this delectable innovation?
That would be Alice Coulombe, the very same grande dame who, with Lorraine Saunders, co-founded the Opera League over thirty years ago. Alice recalls: “Our inspiration was English opera administrator Peter Hemmings, who became LA Opera’s first general manager in 1986 and strongly supported any type of hospitality and social activities… We had many small activities then. Cast dinners began with sandwiches in the basement and eventually evolved into the full dinners offered now.”
“The cast dinners are a wonderful way to get to know the Opera League community,” says Young Artist Liv Redpath. “I am always so honored by their dedication, interest and support of what we are working towards here at the company, and for the art of opera in a broader sense.”
At your typical cast dinner, the performers and support personnel can number anywhere between 80 and 160 very hungry people. On this night, those numbers are definitely bearing out to the higher end of that scale.
It’s half past five when the first of the famished show up. Opera League President Marlene Chavez says it best: “A diva’s gotta eat.” And how! In no time the room is packed with—sorry, I just have to say this—starving artists! Sue and I and the other volunteers can’t help smiling in gratitude as the LAOers pile on those plates. Starving no more!
One such newly fed LAOer is Young Artist Michelle Siemens. “The Opera League's cast dinners are a wonderful opportunity to relax during the heightened anticipation of an approaching opening night,” she says. “The friendly faces and delicious food make for fond memories."
“It’s a wonderful way to learn a lot about opera,” says Mike Fawcett, who volunteers with his wife Virginia.
Virginia adds: “I wanted to find something meaningful to do related to my enthusiasm for opera.”
The thick, warm gravy on top of all this epic feasting is that none other than Maestro James Conlon shows up toward the end of the dinner to give thanks to the League volunteers. “The League is an integral part of LA Opera and a meaningful partner in all that we do,” he says. “Those of us who are devoted to the preservation and advancement of the form, each in his or her own way, work toward these goals because we believe that our society is richer and the world more humane as a result. With its various programs, the Opera League truly makes a difference.”
After LA Opera is fed, there is always plenty of food left for the volunteers to have their own dinner. By the time those volunteer bellies are full, it’s after seven o’clock. You know what that means, don’t you? Time for the dress rehearsal!
Sue and I and the other volunteers head downstairs to be among the first to watch the forthcoming production. And there we all are, the Leaguers in the audience and the LAOers singing their hearts out on stage, all of us united in nourishment, both culinary as well as cultural.