A Grand Palette


Opera SLO's conductor brings grand productions and fresh ideas to the county

It just so happens, of all the places to live in San Luis Obispo County, the internationally-recognized conductor of opera, ballet, symphony and musical theater, Brian Asher Alhadeff, chose Atascadero to raise his family. There he lives with his wife, Luana Gerardis, a Kings Mortgage loan officer and former director of hospitality for Vina Robles, 4-year-old Montessori-schooled daughter Eva and a baby on the way. 
Alhadeff has been the artistic director and conductor of Opera San Luis Obispo since 2011. He is also principal conductor of the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo and and State Street Ballet of Santa Barbara, but his claim to fame has been the concept creation of the Citywide Arts Collaboration, a model (and process) for the grand opera productions he produces in San Luis Obispo County, by collaborating with complimentary arts organizations. 
San Luis Obispo Opera is now one of four operas in California producing full-scale operas to full orchestras: There’s San Diego Opera, LA Opera and San Francisco Opera, “And here we are, this little nugget of love here in San Luis Obispo,” Alhadeff laughed. 
Alhadeff enjoys the fact that he was able to come to San Luis Obispo and grow the small opera company into what it has become today and he’s especially proud of bringing together other arts organizations to bolster the power of the musical arts. 
Before Alhadeff, operas such as Bizet’s “Carmen” were strictly San Luis Obispo Opera productions. Now the opera posters display an impressive list of collaborators: the Central Coast Children’s Choir, Civic Ballet San Luis Obispo and San Luis Obispo Symphony, among others. 
Before Alhadeff, the dancers from the Civic ballet performed to a CD. Now they dance to a full professional orchestra. Before Alhadeff, opera stuck to strictly opera. Now, under his direction, the next production of the San Luis Obispo Opera will be a musical theater production of Broadway’s “Oklahoma!” 
Alhadeff sees San Luis Obispo as a field of musical opportunity. The transformation of the Vina Robles Amphitheater into a concert hub, including the SLO County School District’s popular children’s production of “Peter and the Wolf,” is Alhadeff’s creation as well. Alhadeff has grown Vina Robles Amphitheater into his own little Hollywood Bowl. He’s all for the “white jacket, people outside drinking wine, and sometimes you hear a bottle drop in the background — that’s quintessential Alhadeff — grand, “Golden Age-style” performances with big, professional orchestras and many moving parts. 
“As an artist, I like to paint the big palette,” Alhadeff said. The conductor has accomplished such feats as an eight-year tenure as director and founder of the Hradec Kralove International Summer Opera Festival, that partnered with the Eastern Bohemian Philharmonic, and the Czech State Opera and Ballet, as well as growing a little known Gilbert and Sullivan opera from a small playhouse in Southern California, to a three-city tour that ended at SLO Opera — a tour so impressive, it eventually landed him his current job. 
Alhadeff calls his work a “vocation of need” and an “addiction.” As long as he is given full autonomy, he will grow a production from a shoestring budget into a sold out tour. “Sign me up,” he says to most artistic projects. He starts with a conversation and after the concept has been generated, has a full-proof way of finding outstanding casts and orchestras. 
When Alhadeff came to SLO Opera, the costumes for the operas were literally kept in someone’s garage, with props in public storage. After he was given “the keys to the kingdom,” he moved the opera to the Camp Cuesta base, home of an old WWII training camp. Now he has three buildings and more than 5,000 feet of storage with a costume shop and space for all the props for his productions. He is glad to be in San Luis Obispo and certain that it is the perfect place for a blossoming opera company, as he is one of those conductors who creates his own opportunities. He would like to put his “opera juju” into this county simply because he believes in it. Not to mention, he’s ready to work for it. 
Alhadeff is an admitted work-a-holic and what he called a “city-slicker cowboy.” He’s “crazy, coo-coo about every western movie.” 
“I love the costumes,” he said. “I love the language. I love everything,” he said. 
This is another reason why he has chosen “Oklahoma!” as SLO Opera’s next production. 
“My motivation for the whole production of “Oklahoma!” is to use the Hollywood 1955 movie as a guide and inspiration,” he said. “You don’t get much grander than a Hollywood movie. Nobody can make that level, but an opera company has a better chance than a small 100-seat theater or musical theater company.” 
Alhadeff’s intention is not to put opera singers in “Oklahoma!” Instead, he’d like to cast outstanding Broadway singers, because as history progresses, the older musicals are having more in common with the operatic style and tradition than the newer musicals. He’s not trying to do small theater productions like “Rent” or “Hamilton” or “Avenue Q.” This production will be more in line with his very successful production of “Show Boat” in 2014 — fascinating classics, made for opera. 
Musical theater, Alhadeff said, is within his same skill set as a conductor. 
“A lot of conductors say, ‘I want to do symphony and that’s it.’ And that’s okay. But I need to have a lot of different apps,” he said. 
Alhadeff’s love for 1955 Hollywood movies like “Oklahoma!” comes from a love of the performance style — that  “Golden Age” of classical music. His said his heart gravitates toward the period of time between 1940 to 1970, when Hollywood was at its peak and composers like Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann were creating the scores to all his favorite films. One of Alhadeff’s biggest idols is the founder of the California Opera Association, one of the most famous mezzo-sopranos of the “Golden Age,” Edna Garabedian. She and Alhadeff worked together when she directed Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” for SLO Opera. She is now working with him as director of “Oklahoma!” 
“I worship her,” said Alhadeff, who can’t get over the fact that she’s been on stage with such opera icons as Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. When he calls and she says she has time to answer his questions on his productions he says he just wants to cry and says he thinks, “the Suzuki to Mirella Freni has time for this lowly boy from Long Beach!”
Alhadeff grew up through the public school system in Los Cerritos, Long Beach, starting piano lessons at age 7. The son of Sephardic Jewish American father and prominent Los Angeles prosecutor and Italian-American mother, Alhadeff grew up as an only child until his half-brother came into the picture at age 17. Alhadeff was always interested in playing music, but his fingers were too thick for the violin, he said, so he stuck with piano. His father, who played the violin, had perfect pitch, according to Alhadeff, and as a young boy, he developed a love for classical music from his father’s extensive classical music record collection. He would ask his parents to take him to classical concerts, and began his own classical record collection as a young man.
In public school, he played jazz piano in a jazz group and percussion in all the orchestras and bands.
When he was 17, his inclination to become a conductor began. 
He would later find wonderful mentors to hone his craft, but early on, the rebellious youth was not too enamored with his band teachers, especially one student teacher. 
“We didn’t get along,” he said, remembering like it was yesterday that she was more interested in getting her degree than in teaching. “She was not very kind,” he said.
One day in particular the student teacher was frustrated. She said aloud she didn’t know why the students in Alhadeff’s class would not listen to her like they did the band teacher, Mr. Frasier. Alhadeff straight up said to her, “because you don’t know how to conduct.”
He remembers he had never held a baton in his hand before in his life, and admits he was just being rude. She replied, “Really?” and he said, “Yeah, you’re awful.” 
And so, as punishment, the student teacher and band teacher planned a day in the next week when Alhadeff could be the conductor of the 106-person symphonic band of wind instruments. Without panic, Alhadeff went home to prepare. He planned his scores on his piano and had his mother buy him a new baton. When the day arrived, he said he was ready.
“Little did I know that the teacher had told the band, ‘Whatever Brian does, you play something else,’” he recalled. “So I get up on the podium ready to conduct and Iook out onto the band, the wind ensemble, and I see Mr. Frasier in the back with the biggest bass drum mallet that exists, that we never use, and he’s looking at me with a smile.” 
Then he saw, next to Mr. Frasier, the student teacher holding the cymbals. He didn’t get what was happening until he put down the beat and the student teacher started with a ‘Boom!’ 
“She’s just crashing. Trombones. Elephant sounds. Total cacophony,” he said, laughing on and on. However, Alhadeff said within the band of more than 100, there were ten students who were actually following the page in all the noise, and even more importantly, following him, simply because, he explained, “that’s all they knew to do.”
And that was enough to get inside Alhadeff’s soul. So he said to himself, “This is what I got to do the rest of my life.” 
The next time Alhadeff would pick up a baton was in his late teens when he began putting together chamber groups, which earned him many scholarships, and progression as a pianist. He formed the Long Beach Orchestra, a string orchestra that met in the theater of a memorial hospital, and went on to Loyola Marymount University for a Bachelor of Arts. Later he would receive a Masters in Music from California State University Los Angeles, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from UCLA Herb Albert School of Music. 
From 1997 to 2007, he was Associate Conductor of the Beverly Hills Symphony, and some of his guest conducting highlights include the Tulsa Ballet, Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Karlove Vary Sinfonie, San Luis Obispo Symphony, UCLA Opera Program, South Florida Opera Company, Eastern Sierra Symphony, Bourgas State Opera, Rio Hondo Symphony, Long Beach Opera, Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco, California State University Los Angeles Opera Theater, California Polytechnic State University Opera Theater Workshop, and Grand Valley State University (MI) Opera, Ballet and Musical Theater.
OperaSLO, Opera San Luis Obispo Grand Orchestra and Chorus will present Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Saturday and Sunday, May 12 and 13, and Saturday, May 12 at 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. The production will be directed and conducted by Alhadeff, with stage direction by Edna Garabedian, choreography by Andrew Silvaggio, choral direction by Paul Osborne, set design by Rick Adamson and costume design by Randon Pool. Tickets may be ordered by phone at 805-756-4849.
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback. 
Photo Courtesy of Mike Collins

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