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 Volume 14, Issue 95  |  November 29, 2022


Laguna Beach Live! introduces Opera Laguna with tenor Arnold Livingston Geis and soprano Oriana Falla

By MARRIE STONE

Longtime locals may remember the days when the opera scene was alive and thriving in Laguna Beach. It all began in 1961 with a dinner party discussion between Velma Sun Fletcher and part-time resident Sylvain Robert, a European baritone in Paris’s Opera Comique. The following year, they staged Carmen, La Traviata and The Barber of Seville in the Festival’s Irvine Bowl with the Orange County Symphony serving as their orchestra. 

Over the course of the next 10 years – with financial backing from the city, the Festival of Arts, Nellie Gail Moulton, the Irvine family and others – Laguna enjoyed such popular productions as Madame Butterfly, Pagliacci, The Devil and Daniel Webster and Die Fledermaus before Opera Pacific moved to the Orange County Performing Arts Center. (In addition to coordinating the opera in the Irvine Bowl, Fletcher also created the live orchestra for the Pageant of the Masters.)

This month, Laguna Beach Live! is bringing opera back to our town with talent normally reserved for Los Angeles or New York stages. Opera Laguna, a two-part event, will both educate and entertain its audiences. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis and soprano Oriana Falla recently made Laguna Beach their home. Although the singers are often on tour, they’re excited to reintroduce the opera scene to our residents through the Laguna Beach Live! series. 

But before we get to these distinctive performances, first a brief introduction to the musicians. 

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis (standing) and soprano Oriana Falla (far right) perform together for the first time in a 2015 production of Saverio Mercadante’s “I due Figaro” at UCLA

From humble beginnings: the soaring star of soprano Oriana Falla

Oriana Falla fell in love with opera in high school. The Columbian soprano is a first-generation American who had no early access to opera. Nonetheless, music ran through her DNA. Falla’s maternal grandmother had long dreamed of becoming a singer, but that path was closed to Latin-American women of her generation. “‘Decent’ women weren’t allowed to become entertainers,” Falla said. “They were meant to get married.” 

Falla, however, followed her grandmother’s passion and began playing piano when she was small, though she never thought of herself as a singer. Around the age of 12, the Los Angeles Opera offered an outreach program for low-income youth and gave Falla the opportunity to see Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. When Falla experienced opera for the first time, together with her mother, they both were smitten. “I remember thinking, ‘What is this?’” Falla said. “I wanted to be that lady on stage. She looked so beautiful.” 

Falla eventually studied with renowned baritone Vladimir Chernov at UCLA. There she was the featured soprano soloist for Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem in Royce Hall, Orff’s Carmina Burana with the UCLA Philharmonia and La Fée in Massenet’s Cendrillon. Since then, she’s been a soloist with the Long Beach Camerata singers and has recorded for the new Disney film Encanto (among several other roles).

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

Columbian soprano Oriana Falla studied opera at UCLA where she performed as the featured soloist

Falla has been praised by Opera News for her “palpable purity” and by LA Opus for her “large, lovely, and vibrant [voice].” In December 2020, she sang Mimi in Pacific Opera Project’s drive-in performance of La Bohème. Opera News hailed the performance as sung with “rare clarity” and referred to her performance as having “plumbed the character’s emotional depths…the most heart wrenching moment of the performance.”

I assumed her immersion in Spanish helped Falla tackle the Italian required for opera. “It should help me, but it’s also been a bit of a crutch,” she said. “I learned French in high school, so I speak French pretty well. But because I spoke French and Spanish, I never fully learned Italian. I got away with it, but lately I’ve had to start studying Italian because you can’t say what you really want to say unless you truly speak the language.”

This insight is a glimpse into what both Falla and Geis say is the career’s biggest challenge. “Opera is all consuming,” Falla said. “There’s no separation between your life and singing because it’s so much work. There’s so much memorization and studying. It’s always present. You’re an opera singer even when you’re deciding what you can eat or what you want to study. So finding balance is the hardest part of the genre.” 

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

Oriana Falla sings across a wide variety of mediums and venues, from film to theater

Born to perform: Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis came from a lineage of opera

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis’ background could not be more different from Falla’s. Born to two European opera singers who met in Vienna and started their own opera company in Washington State, his parents’ story wasn’t the fairytale it superficially appeared. Estranged from his father since the age of 7, Geis lost his mother to breast cancer while he was still in high school. 

“Of course, I hated opera when I was little,” Geis said. “I wanted nothing to do with it because that’s all my parents did was sing all the time. I wanted to be an actor when I was young, but life had other plans.”

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Geis’s adoptive parents recognized his talent. “Music became my refuge,” he said. Geis performed with his brother in Les Misérables. “I decided then that I really wanted to go into theater and perform as a career. Until this day, I sing for all different kinds of productions, but opera is really my passion.”

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis was born into opera, a genre he initially resisted until it became his refuge

Whether it’s nature or nurture, Geis was made for opera. He will perform as a tenor soloist at the Hollywood Bowl on July 28 in Carmina Burana with Gustavo Dudamel. “It’s a full-circle moment for me,” he said. “One of my first professional gigs as a singer was singing this very piece in the choir at the Hollywood Bowl. I stood a few feet from the tenor soloist that night and I dreamed of someday standing where he was. Here we are, nine years later and I’m singing the solo part in the Hollywood Bowl on their 100th anniversary. It’s a dream come true for me.”

In addition to the Hollywood Bowl, Geis has performed at Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Walt Disney Concert Hall and countless other prestigious venues. He’s also recorded vocals for several television shows and film soundtracks. With rave reviews from several classical and opera publications, Opera Today called Geis’ performance as Tamino in The Magic Flute “polished” and “quite simply as good as it gets.”

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

The world premiere of tenor Arnold Livingston Geis performing as Miles Zegner in “Proving Up” at the Washington National Opera in 2018 

The Voice as Instrument: An educational experience on July 26

On July 26, Geis and Falla will present “Why Opera: The Voice as an Instrument.” This educational evening is designed to demystify the experience and make opera more accessible to every audience. They’ll address such questions as ‘What’s the difference between singing opera, jazz, pop and musical theater?’ and ‘Where did these styles originate?’ That first evening is a lecture-based presentation accompanied by musical examples. 

“We plan to educate people about opera and why it’s so amazing,” said Falla. “We’ll take people on a journey through the history of voice. Why did the voice become operatic? How did the voice change with the advent of microphones? How did that technology impact the different singing styles? What is it that you’re hearing when you hear Andrea Bocelli versus Luciano Pavarotti? And what’s the difference between them? Then we’ll do a little singing at the end. And, of course, allow the audience to ask questions.”

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

Geis and Falla perform together in Pacific Opera Project’s 2020 drive-in production of “La Bohème”

One recurring question often seems to arise around opera. Film buffs of a certain age might remember Richard Gere’s iconic line in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman: “People’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” Is that true, I asked them.

“We always say that opera chooses you,” Geis said. “You don’t choose opera.”

“Well,” said Falla, “I thought that too. But, you know, with time my father has learned to love it. When I was younger, he’d say, ‘What is this loud noise?’ Now, with the stories involved, and with my skill improvement, he really enjoys it. So I think it can be something people learn to love because the stories are so relatable.” 

Opera Laguna in concert 

Later this year, Geis and Falla will perform together in the sanctuary of The Neighborhood Church on St. Ann’s Drive. Featuring works by Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Britten and Schumann, the two will take audiences on an intimate journey through their lives using the lyrical style of opera.

“We’re telling our stories, Oriana and I, through music for Opera Laguna,” said Geis. “It will include both our backgrounds, how we got into music and then how we met. We’re doing the repertoire we were doing when we met each other, and the repertoire we plan to do in the future. It’s a great program.” 

Opera and a global pandemic brought Geis and Falla together under the most unlikely conditions, but I won’t spoil their surprise. The story is theirs to share, through song and it promises to be a good one. 

“We always talk about how lucky we are,” said Geis. 

“It feels like a charmed life,” Falla added. “It’s a lot of work, but it feels very charmed, getting to sing and do what we love.”

The operatic duo plans to schedule more events around Laguna Beach as their busy schedules permit, and to bring additional talent to town. In the meantime, don’t miss this unique opportunity to catch them live this summer at close range and in an intimate atmosphere. Perhaps a Pretty Woman moment awaits you. 

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Courtesy of Arnold Livingston Geis and Oriana Falla

Geis and Falla together in “La Bohème”

For more information and to purchase advance tickets, visit the Laguna Beach Live! website by clicking here. “The Voice as an Instrument” lecture on July 26 begins at 7 p.m. at the Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach, 286 St. Ann’s Drive. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door. Children 12 and under are free. 

For additional information on Arnold Livingston Geis, click here and for Oriana Falla, click here. Their upcoming performances are listed on the websites.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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