RUPERT IS ONE OF THE MOST EXPERIENCED PRODUCTION DIRECTORS in the opera world, as he literally grew up watching how opera comes together backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and behind the curtains at many other opera houses as well. As the son of Peter Hemmings, LA Opera’s founding general director, the young Rupert became acquainted with many of the most famous singers and directors in the business, creating relationships that remain highly advantageous to LAO to this day. Rupert’s initial training was in stage management at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, his birthplace. Early in his professional career, he worked in stage management at Lyric Opera of Chicago, LA Opera, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Florida Grand Opera. After freelancing for a while, he returned to Los Angeles, joining the LA Opera’s full-time staff in 2007.
When he describes the process of getting an opera onto the stage, Rupert’s enthusiasm is contagious. The initial production concept may be sparked by the timeliness of a composer (e.g., Britten’s 100th birthday) or a specific work, or the availability of a particular singer or director. The creative staff then starts completing the picture: which opera, what singers, what dates, whether to develop a new production or work with a production already owned by LAO, or perhaps to rent a production developed by another company. If it is to be a new production, are there other companies that might want to share the costs and ownership? On rare occasions, a “ready-made” production of superb quality becomes available, such as next season’s Einstein on the Beach.
Once a solid production concept emerges, Rupert and his team oversee the many details of getting the opera to the stage. Among the separate divisions that must fit together are: Technical, Costume, Wigs, Makeup, Stage Managers, Rehearsal Administrator, Lighting, Scenery, Orchestra, Singers, Chorus and Dance. Each department generates a timeline that syncs with all other departments in order to have the production ready by opening night. Not surprisingly, each department must generate a budget. On at least a weekly basis, Rupert monitors progress on the various undertakings and budgets. When discussing whether frictions might arise along the road to opening night, Rupert shrugs and flashes a smile, as if to say it goes with the business. As opening night approaches, the company can spend as many as 16 hours a day working in the theater. Rupert recalls days preparing for the Ring cycle when staffers sometimes slept at the hall to get things together. He answered our unspoken question by saying that his wife Michele sings with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and understands the business.When there is time, Rupert takes scouting trips to see operas that showcase a director’s work or a production that might be of interest.
We asked Rupert if he ever felt he was operating under the shadow of his famous father or if there were any drawbacks to being in the company first headed by Peter Hemmings. He looked utterly puzzled and simply said he could not imagine a drawback to having a father as terrific as his dad. I barely scratched the surface of the information that Rupert gave us. The good news is that this engaging man has agreed to speak to us at the May 23 Volunteer Appreciation event.
Photo: Rupert inspecting construction of The Two Foscari set.