By Todd Calvin
London-born Robert Ronus and his late wife, Ann, have been enthusiastic supporters of opera and classical music in Los Angeles for over 30 years.
Robert serves as treasurer of the LA Opera Board of Directors and is a great friend and supporter of the Opera League. He and Ann shared a deep commitment to the artistry on LA Opera’s stage and to ensuring that opera extended across the community through the many programs offered by LA Opera Connects, LAO’s community engagement and education department.
The Opera League is honored to present Robert with this year’s Peter Hemmings Award at our annual Hemmings Award Gala Dinner on May 21, wherein we recognize an individual who, over time, has made significant contributions to the development of opera in Los Angeles County.
Robert recently sat down for a discussion about his life in and love of opera. Be sure to read the full interview on our website, operaleague.org, and to buy your tickets for the May 21 Hemmings Dinner.
BRAVO: Have you always been an opera fan?
Robert Ronus: I was not brought up in an opera family. My father was Swiss and not musical at all. However, my mother was quite musical.
In my teens, I became interested in cultural stuff and started to go to all sorts of things, particularly the theater and artsy films. Initially, I must admit that I preferred ballet to opera. I found opera a bit long and hard-going. Remember, this was before supertitles, while ballet-–beautiful girls, dancing, Tchaikovsky… What’s not to like?
I am a bit of a hoarder who keeps performance programs, and the earliest one [opera program] I have is from Aida in March 1962 at Covent Garden. I was 19 years old, and I guess I liked it. The next one, while visiting Hamburg in September 1963, was an unlikely choice for a newcomer: Salome. However, I vaguely recall being impressed with it for a variety of reasons, including, no doubt, [German soprano] Anja Silja in the leading role.
A few years later, I took my wife, Ann, to see Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. I guess it was the first time I had heard an opera in English, and some of it sounded rather silly. I always remember this one scene: a character sings, “Knock then, Bella, and enquire within,” and Bella replies, “There’s no knocker, but a kind of bell.” Ann had a great laugh over that, but I think the experience turned her off opera for a while. She was a very good pianist and much more into classical music: symphonies and piano. Her mother’s whole family were professional musicians. Her mother became a professor of piano at the University of Queensland and had earlier played a piano recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.
Ann and I were married for 53 years until she died in February 2022. Fifty-three years with only one wife – very good by L.A. standards!
BRAVO: I’m curious about your involvement with the Opera League.
RR: Well, as LA Opera Board Treasurer, I thought I should support the Opera League. It’s our major volunteer support group with very devoted members. I felt somewhat guilty with all of these volunteers doing great things and me just being a passive consumer.
I began to attend several of the League’s programs and always enjoyed them. You have some excellent lecturers. I joined a trip to San Francisco Opera that [past Opera League President] Kathy Crandall organized some years ago, and more recently I joined [Opera League board member and fellow Hemmings honoree] Brita [Kohlfürst-Millard’s] trips to San Diego and to Austria and Switzerland last summer. It was fabulous, absolutely fabulous. Brita’s trips are the best! She is such a good organizer. And the cost is a lot more reasonable than many of the major travel companies, and just as good, if not better. I’m so pleased you are honoring her with the [inaugural] Hemmings Volunteer Award this year.
BRAVO: Speaking of the LA Opera Board of Directors, how did your involvement with that come about?
RR: [LA Opera Board Member and past Hemmings honoree] Gene Stein was a colleague of mine at Capital Group, and he was the treasurer of LA Opera and very active on the board.
When I retired from fulltime work at Capital in 2006 and went parttime, Gene, who knew I went to the opera, told me I should join the board. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, but it has been a wonderful experience.
I joined the Education Committee, now known as LA Opera Connects, under Stacy Brightman, who was just fantastic. We learned all about the programs for schools, Opera Camp and many other marvelous programs. One time, Stacy arranged to bring a group of homeless veterans to see Verdi’s Macbeth. Of course, all these guys could identify with a mad, ambitious general. We got these amazing letters back: “Never been to an opera; never thought of going to an opera; never dreamed I’d like an opera; but I loved it!”
BRAVO: I’m always curious to ask fellow opera lovers about their favorite opera.
RR: Well, if I had to choose one—and it is not easy, there are about six others very close behind—I’d say Rigoletto is my favorite opera.
As someone who does not have the musical ear of many of my opera friends, the theatrical and visual sides of opera are very important. I like operas with a good story, and Rigoletto fits the bill, with wonderful and memorable characters. Visually, it lends itself to great sets and costumes. And then there is Verdi’s marvelous music, full of drama and excitement. There is a reason why “La donna è mobile” is one of the best-known arias in opera, although I always think it is unfair to women, and “L’uomo è mobile” makes more sense.
Ann was much more musical than me. Her favorite opera was Der Rosenkavalier, which I just saw again at the Met, and I can see why. The music is gorgeous!
BRAVO: You were born and raised in London during World War II. That must have made for a challenging childhood.
RR: Yes, indeed. I was born in November 1942. My father managed a leading hotel, The Dorchester, one of the many Swiss hoteliers you find around the world. My mother was English and had been the head housekeeper. The hotel never got hit during the war, but the Egyptian Embassy next door did. I remember, after the war, playing in bombed-out buildings because it took quite a while to rebuild the city.
I went to Oxford and studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), which is a general course at Oxford for people who don’t know what they want to do. It’s produced quite a few prime ministers, actually. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I took the exams to enter the British civil service.
However, between school and university, I had spent most of a gap year Greyhound-busing my way across the U.S. I got a job as an elevator operator in the Savoy Hilton Hotel in New York City, on the site of what is now the General Motors building opposite the Plaza Hotel. An extremely boring job. I was staying with a young real estate developer who was a friend of my father's. Every night he worked on real estate deals. There were no computers, so I would help him with the calculations.
After graduating from Oxford, my New York friend offered me a job, but after a year, I received a telegram from the British civil service reoffering me a job, so I went back to the U.K.
Working in government was interesting in many ways, but I decided I did not want to spend my whole life in the chain of civil servants drafting and redrafting papers without any guarantee that I would get to the very top and become a key decision maker. Also, I got married, and a civil service salary, although quite good, was not going to support Ann in the way in which she would have liked to become accustomed.
BRAVO: Tell us about your journey to Los Angeles.
RR: I saw an advertisement in the Financial Times for an investment analyst for a firm in London. Investment research was still very new in England, and there were few analysts, so I was able to convince them that my real estate and civil service experience had trained me to be an analyst. After four years, I took a similar position in Geneva, Switzerland. Although half-Swiss with many Swiss cousins, I had never lived in Switzerland and liked the idea of doing so. My parents were no longer alive, and I had no close family in the U.K., so we moved to Geneva in 1972 and stayed there for eleven years.
The firm was Capital International, a subsidiary of the L.A.-based Capital Group. I managed investment portfolios and did research on a global basis in a challenging period with double-digit inflation and interest rates (today is child’s play in comparison) and learned a lot. It was a good experience, both professionally and personally. Our children had their formative years in Geneva and are bilingual. My son is now an artist in the Cotswolds in England, and my daughter lives just outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland.
In Geneva, Ann and I went to the opera quite a bit as it was a good regional company with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. The orchestra had benefited from an influx of excellent German Jewish refugee musicians before and even during the Second World War, and many were still around. I remember one Carmen with a small live pig onstage (I don’t remember anything else!). I used to go to Australia quite a bit, partly for work, and partly for Ann, whose family was there. We went to the Australian Opera in Sydney a few times.
BRAVO: Were you then transferred to Los Angeles?
RR: In 1983, international investing was still in its infancy, and Capital Group was one of the pioneers, so I was asked me to come over to help build our international business. Ann liked the idea, as the Los Angeles lifestyle was much more similar to Australia than Geneva. Today, global investing is standard practice. I was fortunate to be part of this trend, which has taken me to visit companies and investors all over the world. I was also lucky that much of my career coincided with the great bull market from 1982 to 2021, when U.S. interest rates fell from 15% to less than 1%.
BRAVO: Let’s look to the future for a moment. What would you like to see for the future of LA Opera?
RR: We need to build both our audience, which would enable us to increase the number of performances, and our endowment, which would make it possible to increase the number of productions. At one point we were doing eight productions a year, and we had to cut back. With all these successful actors in town, you would think many of them would enjoy opera.
We would also like to attract younger people. They loved Omar and our Midwestern Lucia di Lammermoor [both staged in the autumn of 2022], but equally important is to attract more 50-year olds with grownup children and more time and money, especially to more than replace the 80-plus-year-olds sadly leaving us every year. People say the problem is prices, but we do offer some $20 tickets, and I hear about people paying $300 for a pop concert. The main problem is that Los Angeles just doesn’t have a tradition of people going to the opera.
Vienna has a population of just over 2.1 million, and the whole of Austria under nine million. The population of Los Angeles County is just under ten million, and the whole metropolitan area is about two Austrias. The Staatsoper in Vienna produces 50 to 60 different operas a year and ten ballet productions for a total of over 350 performances, usually sold out. The Volksoper (People’s Opera) produces 300 performances a year of 25 German-language productions of opera, operetta, musicals and ballet. And there is a third opera house, MusikTheater an der Wien, – more experimental – which I think puts on about 70 performances a year.
LA Opera does 36 performances of six mainstage operas a year, plus a small number in the Off Grand series [e.g.the annual Halloween production at Ace Hotel]. On a much smaller scale, Long Beach puts on about four, and Pacific Opera Project does about four. The Vienna opera houses receive very generous government subsidies which obviously help and keep ticket prices down. Nevertheless, LA Opera should be able to attract a much bigger audience with our population. The big difference is that everyone in Austria is brought up to go to the opera; it is what everyone does. L.A. is a movie town with no tradition of going to the opera. Of course, the sprawl and the traffic does not help.
So, we need the Opera League, which does great work spreading the gospel of opera, and it is much appreciated.