Meet The Man Transforming Opera As We Know It

Drawing on pop culture and technology, Long Beach Opera’s James Darrah heralds a new era for the art form



JAMES DARRAH wearing an ADAM RIGG blazer, VARON jewelry, and vintage boots.


When you get into opera, there’s a point where everyone is like, ‘I guess you’re going to move to New York,’” sighs James Darrah, the new artistic director and chief creative officer of Long Beach Opera. “But I think I’m just enough of a contrarian. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah? Well, then, I won’t!’”

Darrah has made a career of doing the opposite of what people expect. Only the third person in Long Beach Opera’s 42-year history to take the helm, the interdisciplinary director, screenwriter, and Grammy-nominated producer is arguably the most progressive. He is heralding a radical, cinematic new era not only for Los Angeles’ oldest opera, but also for the centuries-old art form itself.

When we speak, Darrah, 39, is in “full recovery mode” at the home he shares with his partner, Alex Black, in Glassell Park in northeast L.A. The world premiere of The Romance of the Rose (Kate Soper’s eclectic reimagining of the medieval poem) just kick-started his first full season at Long Beach, and the Los Angeles Times hailed it as an “operatic triumph.”

“It was a perfect metaphor for the potential of Long Beach Opera,” explains Darrah, who has since wrapped dance-opera The Horse in March and will debut two further operatic experiences this summer in Southern California. “A small company authentically celebrating emerging artists as well as giving established talent the opportunity to do something they might not otherwise get to do.”

Darrah is not new to the opera scene. His career highlights include directing Missy Mazzoli’s breakout hits Breaking the Waves and Proving Up as well as Ellen Reid’s Pulitzer-winning p r i s m. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that everyone from Opera Philadelphia to the Boston Lyric Opera began tapping into his niche of embracing pop culture, video, and electronics.

“A lot of people think amplification has no place in opera,” he says. “I want it all amplified. I want it loud. We live in the age of Beyoncé. Anything other than that is just historical performance. This idea that you just consume it all or not is complete bullshit.”

In other words, why should opera be any different than, say, watching something on Netflix? “If you watch a new TV series, you don’t watch everything the director has made beforehand. So why do we treat opera differently?”


“A lot of people think amplification has no place in opera. I want it all amplified”

James DArrah


Les Enfants Terribles at Long Beach Opera.


Born in Texas, Darrah, a “theater kid” who played the clarinet and read Shakespeare, moved to Southern California with his family as a teenager. It wasn’t until he studied at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television in his twenties and was mentored by Peter Kazaras that he became interested in opera.

Collaboration is key for Darrah, who also studied under Stephen Wadsworth at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. But it’s the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—who spent 25 years as the director of the San Francisco Symphony—who has had the most profound influence.

“I had so much respect for him as someone who had always been out,” explains Darrah. “That ownership over identity and self was refreshing for someone who has achieved the levels of fame and success he had. There’s this elitist, ostentatious side of things, but he was the one who was always like, ‘James, just make a really good show.’”

As for the future, there’s no chance of Darrah abandoning L.A. for New York any time soon. California has always provided inspiration, and Darrah and Black, who is originally from Montecito, love travelling up and down the coast and taking trips to Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. These trips are usually when he starts thinking about his next show. “The vastness of the landscape always feels like a new chapter,” he says, “where you get to wipe the slate clean and start something fresh.”

Staying “on the pulse of keeping yourself accountable at the edge of innovation” is something Darrah considers. “It’s a precarious place sometimes because you’re doing things that don’t have precedent. But I think that’s exciting.” longbeachopera.org.


Feature image: JAMES DARRAH wearing an ADAM RIGG blazer, VARON jewelry, and vintage boots.


This story originally appeared in the Men’s Spring 2023 issue of C Magazine.

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