There are many people—myself included—who think of Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland where only movie and TV stars count in any way, shape or form. A recent visit to the City of Angels helped to disprove that theory by concentrating on the arts far removed from the clichéd stars on the sidewalks on Hollywood Boulevard.
Probably the biggest instance of culture shock for this New Yorker was arriving at the glamorous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—yes, that’s the place where they used to hold the Oscars—for a 7:30 LA Opera performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at 7:20—and being pretty much the first people in their seats! Isn’t anyone coming, we thought, or is everyone else in a fabled L.A. traffic jam? Neither of those, it turned out—by 7:35, when the opera began, the seats were filled as the famed laid-back attitude of West Coasters again reared its head.
Although not my favorite Britten stage work by a long shot (Peter Grimes and Death in Venice are his best), the LA Opera’s Screw was a riveting and dramatically powerful evening, thanks to Jonathan Kent’s psychologically astute staging, first-rate music-making by the small orchestral forces under conductor James Conlon, and a superb cast led by the always penetrating vocal presence of Patricia Racette as the governess who tries to save her charges from malevolent spirits.
Along with the opera, a trio of museum visits rounded out our L.A. cultural jaunt. Our first visit was to The Huntington in nearby San Marino, which comprises the Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Walking through the sprawling and beautifully-kept gardens—Desert, Japanese, French, Rose, even Shakespeare—is enervating in itself, especially when it’s one of those clear, blue-sky L.A. days. Then, after that, going inside and wandering through the Library—which includes copies of The Canterbury Tales, the Guttenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and Thoreau’s Walden—and finally the galleries, which house spectacular examples of British, European and American art like Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and Mary Cassatt’s Breakfast in Bed, make this a perfect oasis amid the sprawl of the city. If you can, spend an hour in the Huntington’s intimate tearoom for afternoon tea with scads of scones and other delectable edibles.
Pasadena is home to the Norton Simon Museum, quite simply one of the best small museums in this country, on a level with—if larger than—New York’s own Frick Collection. Approaching the museum entrance, one sees the many striking Rodin sculptures on display, and once inside, the museum doesn’t disappoint. There’s Botticelli and Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt, Monet and Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso, with a huge collection of Degas bronzes strewn about. There’s even a lovely terrace and garden with pieces by Moore and Maillol nearby as you eat at the café.
Finally, there’s the Getty Center, set into the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Along with jaw-dropping views of the city below, Richard Meier’s magnificent quartet of buildings house thousands of pieces of amazing art from Brueghel’s exquisitely detailed miniature The Sermon on the Mount to Van Gogh’s multi-million-dollar Irises. Remember that, although admission to the Getty is free, there’s a $15 parking tariff, so if you’re going, fill your vehicle with as many art lovers as you can, because that’s the only way to get there. (Supposedly you can get there by bus or train, but let’s face it, who would do that?)