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POP Does Opera, Highland Park Style

Working out of a house, and sometimes a tree-house, in Highland Park, Josh Shaw and Stephen Karr are using their years of opera experience to bring the form to a new audience.

For Highland Park singer Josh Shaw, necessity was the mother of an invention.

The necessity? To bring opera to audiences at reasonable prices and provide more opportunities for local talent to perform.

The invention? The Pacific Opera Project, a fully functioning opera company operating out of his home on Annan Way.

"We want to make people feel things," Shaw said on a recent afternoon as he sat at a picnic table in his backyard across from music director Stephen Karr.

Shaw's small compound near the border of Eagle Rock is a testament to the skills he's developed in order to launch the Pacific Opera Project. The skeleton of a set for the company's upcoming production of Sweeney Todd rests on the rear wall of Shaw's house, surrounded by the disembodied heads of mannequins and meat pies whipped up from insulation and spray paint.

Beneath the scaffolding for the Sweeney Todd set is a closet filled with costumes procured from studio auctions across the city, including a pair of purple pants worn by Jack Nicholson during his turn as the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman.

With a mission statement that revolves around producing an affordable opera experience, Shaw and music director Stephen Karr cut costs by doing almost everything themselves.

Karr, who has Masters degrees in organ and conducting from Westminster Choir College and UCLA, respectively, is responsible for scoring pieces originally composed for full orchestras for the project's 10-player bands.

There are other sacrifices, as well. Karr is living 3,000 miles away from his wife and one-year-old child in New Jersey as he helps Shaw prepare for upcoming productions.

He's currently shacking up in a tree-house in Shaw's backyard that has previously hosted traveling baritones.

Both Shaw and Karr say these are sacrifices they make willingly, especially given their experiences working in the traditional opera circuit.

"It was fun, but you really don't earn much money doing it, and a lot of times it's frustrating because you end up thinking, 'I can do it better than that,'" Shaw said. "We decided we really could, and I think we have so far."

The frustrations, Shaw said, stemmed long travels across the Southland that were often rewarded only by wasted hours in rehearsals. Roles with legitimate companies were hard to come by, due to the loyalties of directors to their performers. Other productions were so poorly organized, Shaw said, he often hesitated to invite friends and family.

"There would be times when we would be a week away from performing and I'd still be debating whether it was a good idea to tell people to come," Shaw said.

Informed by those experiences, Shaw and Karr said they are committed to running productions with tight rehearsal schedules and rotating casts.

"We try really, really hard to be careful with people's time," he said.

Shaw also refuses to cast himself in any of the project's productions, an uncommon ethic in an industry where singers often launch companies to provide themselves more opportunities to perform.

"I don't sing in our productions. That's been a stated goal from the start," he said.

Shaw first struck out on his own two years ago while living in Burbank. He reconnected with Karr after placing an several ads in publications seeking a musical director.

"We had worked on a production before, and it was like, 'oh yeah, I remember this guy," Karr said.

Shaw and Karr have been a productive pair since launching the project, putting on successful performances of Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and Trouble in Tahiti. They also recently earned 501(c)3 status, which they hope will allow them to apply for grants and better compensate both their performers and themselves.

They've also made local connections. From Nov. 9-11, the Pacific Opera Project will present a hipster-themed spin on La Boheme at the Ebell Club on Avenue 57.

The updated version of the classic Italian opera tells the story of modern hipster archetypes in Los Angeles struggling with "life, love, jealously and overdue bills."

The small but affordable venue is ideal for a Pacific Opera Project performances, Shaw said, as it will allow audiences to intimately experience opera without breaking their budgets.

In some ways, Shaw's and Karr's guerrilla approach to production could be seen as an attempt to upend opera's extravagance--to realign the power-structure in a world dominated by domineering directors and actual divas.  Karr, however, sees it differently.

The Pacific Opera Project isn't doing anything subversive, necessarily, they're just getting back to roots of the form.

"People talk about music being able to express things that you can't with the spoken word. So, we're just trying to integrate it all and rather than having just a great musical product or a great theatrical product, we're trying to integrate and make sure it is an honest expression of emotion. Whatever the emotion is--whether its rage like in Sweeney Todd, or heartbreak--the guiding principal for us as theatrical artists is to make people feel stuff."

The Pacific Opera Project with present La Boheme at the Ebell Club on Nov. 9, 10 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 11 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $60 for a table of two and $100 for a table of four.

frankruby October 19, 2012 at 04:55 AM
Can some one please tell me what a hipster is and why theres so many now in highland park in nela area. Reason asked artcile says doing shows on 57 with hipster crowds
brendon davis October 23, 2012 at 05:03 AM
Fuck hipsters. Before they are hipsters, they are posers, and Fuck posers. They move into a community from who knows where, and copy the fashion statements of a once subversive culture of a select few individuals by means of emulating the fashion without understanding the purpose. Then after emulating the cool guy, without adopting the attitude, because they are to chickenshit to take real chances and stand for something real, they will become hipsters - dedicated followers of everybody else. After they realize that they have no real sense of individualism, because they have just copied everybody else their entire lives, they become soft, pussified yuppies, bound to increase the cost of property in a newly invaded territory near you and drive out the locals. Eventually you get a community that is just as pretentious and self absorbed as the culture it is supposed to be against.
Nimby pimp October 23, 2012 at 12:12 PM
You are describing human behavior in general. We are herd animals by nature. But if these twerps can manage to increase the cost the property and drive out the "locals," I'm all for them.
Jayne November 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM
All we did was bring a weekend of live music where there otherwise wouldn't have been. No one is going to be moving in or out of the neighborhood because of this. A significant portion of the standing-room-only audience was from 90041, 90042 and 90065, were certainly NOT "hipsters" and they really enjoyed it; signed up on mailing lists for future shows, etc. So please keep some perspective.
David Fonseca November 14, 2012 at 12:09 AM
Brendon, I hope you're not attempting to dismiss POP as "to [SIC] to chickens**t to take real chances and stand for something real." These two guys started an opera company in their backyard with nothing but a their own ingenuity, desire, talent and years of hard-earned skill. For you to attempt to diminish that with a tired diatribe against imaginary hipsters is just lame. If hipsters are guys like Stephen and Josh--i.e. people who DO THINGS--then bring them on.

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