It’s a rare opportunity to get to see Placido Domingo. It is rarer still to see the great artist in a beautiful venue like the newly consecrated Catholic Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s especially rare to see him for free. But all three of these factors converged. So off I went to get me some culture.
I’ve never been to this Catholic Cathedral, which to many detractors, looks less like a place of worship and more like a prison. In fact, its tower-like façade, stretching 11 stories, with its long thin windows, bears more than a passing resemblance to the nearby jail—a jail that the critic Mike Davis immortalized in his apocalyptic treatise, City of Quartz. This may have something to do with the concrete, which lends it an institutional appeal, even as its fabrication (its beige tinting) is supposed to suggest a whispered connection to the adobe–the mud brick–of the indigenous population.
The Cathedral is an intimidating structure but, inside, it is surprisingly intimate. I took my seat among beige tapestries of saints who lined the chamber, all appearing to be walking endlessly in procession to the sanctuary. The saints were machine-embroidered in a hyper-realistic manner to make them also look like murals that were distressed–rusticated–flaking and peeling. And in that evocation of ruination there was also the expression of great wealth and power: for it costs a lot to make mechanical reproduction look like a piece of handiwork; it costs even more to produce an algorithm that takes into account a pattern of decomposition that appears random.
The choir filed in, dressed in shiny black, and then the maestro himself–Placido Domingo with his silver mane of hair–arrived to a standing ovation. I looked around me at the upstanding citizens of Los Angeles in their suits and dresses and shawls and immediately realized I was under-dressed in my jean jacket with its biker patches. I closed my eyes like a child who thinks he is invisible because he cannot see.
The moment before is my favorite part of any concert–the din of the instruments tuning up–it reminds me of Abstract Expressionist paintings from the 1950’s–all color and texture and noise. If you close your eyes when that chaos separates into order, you can imagine seeing the ruby mouth of the soloist opening like a rosebud just for you. Listening to the stillness of that music makes your mind contemplative, allowing it to draw associations, to entertain speculations. I could not help but keep returning to how this building had something in common with its prison doppelganger—a building that is as much a work dedicated to God as it is a mighty civic project.
I only opened my eyes after the chorus, which was by far the best part of the mass, and was shocked by the warm light. The Cathedral’s interior is airy and bright and uplifting: the soft chanting voices–Gloria in excelsis Deo–could be heard in every corner of the building, bouncing off the beige walls and bumping off the wood paneled ceiling—the acoustics were that good.
The program was a favorite of Placido Domingos’, a mass by the 19th composer Gioachino Rossini. Sung by soloists of the LA Opera who stepped away from the spotlight and formed its choir, the mass was accompanied by the Colburn Orchestra from the local arts high school, and anchored by four young unknown soloists—proteges–whom Placido Domingo was mentoring.
The legendary tenor did not bless us with his voice that night. It was a solemn occasion, one dedicated to his deceased sister Maria Pepa and it would have been unseemly to draw attention to himself in the manner of an opera luminary. “My sister was a remarkable woman who loved music as much as I do and I miss her tremendously”–this the opening remark to a paragraph tribute to his sister on the back of the program. It is followed by pictures of her with him, in various stages of life, in black and white, arranged like the squares in a traditional mosaic.
It is fitting that the singer chose not to sing. It was proper. But the hipsters in the Cathedral promptly left after the first Chorus ended. They had not done their research on the event, drawn like moths, only to the megawatt star power of Placido Domingo, the tenor. They neither had the manners to stay once they realized their mistake, nor the appreciation of good music that transcends the electric thrill of a celebrity sighting. They had long ago snapped the selfies that could be posted onto their Facebook accounts.
My wife, a lapsed Catholic, whispered, “This is a really weird cathedral. Everything is assymetrical.” She was right: the floor tilings were like those avant garde dresses by Japanese designers—studies in wabi sabi–that are cut aggressively against the bias. There is no stained glass. You lift your eyes to the ceiling and there are just panels of thin white stone—stone that is back lit by electric lights as strong as the day sky. The only stained glass is in the basement, a relic on display near the bathrooms.
Not many people were happy about the new Cathedral, which replaced the cherished St. Vibiana—a much smaller Cathedral built in 1873 in an Italian Revival style with the kind of old-fashioned scrollwork and vaulted passages that you expect in a venerable house of worship. St. Vibiana’s is a more appropriate setting for the repetition of that marvelous phrase that forms the third part of the mass:
Credo: Credo in unum Deum;
But the structure was badly damaged in the last major earthquake and the Diocese planned to demolish it. Preservationists, however, wanted to keep this relic of the church intact because it is a symbol of history. They’ve got a point: St. Vibiana’s served the city of Los Angeles for over a century when the city was a provincial town–a time when Our City of the Angels was a nowhere place with a smaller population and a laughable national profile.
But I can see the Catholic Church’s position, too—a point of view that is otherworldly, forward-thinking: St. Vibiana has served its purpose and, after its work is done and it is deconsecrated, it is no longer a work of holiness but just another crumbling stone building.
The struggle over this architecture stands in counterpoint to the struggle that is happening in Downtown in general, which is itself struggling to remake this City of Quartz so that it can move into a future where it can take its place among what urban planners call “supercities”—cities that not only service a single country but function as the hub in a webwork of commerce that links the capitals across the globe.
Downtown must house all the people who will work in concert to build this status and so the developments that are occurring in this so-called wasteland that once belonged only to the homeless–the towers and condos and live-work lofts–are necessary as the city remakes itself into a portal to the Pacific Rim.
The homeless—they are simply collateral damage. Like the indigenous people who once occupied humble adobes (people who find themselves hemmed in to smaller parts of a downtown that was once all their own) the homeless are slowly displaced by the web developers, designers, actors, accountants, lawyers, dentists.
All of this was rumbling through my head as the soloists completed their incomprehensible Latin loveliness and my thoughts wandered. What is an Agnus Dei? I wondered. To this, I had only the speculations of elementary school Latin. Placido Domingo is dedicating the concert as a tribute to his dead sister whom he loved dearly, I thought to myself in my most stern mother-voice–the voice that I unlock when I want to lock myself down. But I kept dwelling on the profound irony of this fact: that in this space dedicated to looking forward, here was a spectacle that was all about the act of looking backward.
As we walked out after the concert, we joined the throngs of people who milled around the paintings of the many missions that are the legacy of Father Junipero Serra, the man who settled California, the man who only last week achieved sainthood during the Papal visit. Serra built his missions strategically near water, a precious resource in a climate prone to drought conditions, but this meant that he placed his long network of edifices upon land that was already in use by the native people of the region, placing his cities upon their cities. Then, he enslaved them–a story that is all too easily forgotten.
And what has happened to St. Vibiana? The Preservationists got their way. The Church let the building stand. There is a little plaque to commemorate its previous incarnation as a Cathedral. And now it is a high end restaurant and nightclub that can be engaged for movie shoots. It can also be rented out for special events.