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Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

Small Biz

SmallBiz//mike1st/mark2nd By FRANK SWERTLOW Staff Reporter Looking for a biography of the haunted diva Maria Callas, or perhaps a poster from “Madam Butterfly,” or Placido Domingo’s latest CD? There’s only one place you can get them all under one roof. It’s the Opera Shop of Los Angeles, which bills itself as the only such store in the country that’s not affiliated with a particular opera company. The irony of the nation’s only independent opera shop being located in a city known more for pop culture is not lost on owner Larry Rappaport. “To be around for 11 years says something,” he said, “but it was a gamble.” Indeed it was. Los Angeles, the world’s epicenter for film and TV production, didn’t even have its own opera company until 1986, right before Rappaport opened his doors. Before that, the only time opera was seen in L.A. was when touring companies came to town. To roll the dice on a store that sells opera souvenirs, recordings, videos and books was risky. But Rappaport and a friend, Ray Crenna, decided to test their luck by mixing business with their passion for great music. “I loved the opera,” said Chicago-born Rappaport, 59. “I knew it would be a gamble but it was a pleasant way to spend the day, talking about opera. I was a weirdo as a child. I used to sit on a (steam) radiator in Chicago and listen to the (New York) Metropolitan Opera on the radio.” Rappaport arrived in Los Angeles in 1960 after the death of his father in Chicago. His sisters were already here. At first, he worked in a food distribution business, but a friend introduced him to an acquaintance who managed opera singers, and he quickly switched careers. He became the West Coast rep for New York-based Robert Lombardo Associates, one of the top managers of opera stars. Rappaport left that company 14 years ago when he was asked to move to New York. “I was too entrenched here,” he said. “I walked away.” At the time, there was an opera shop in San Francisco that Rappaport and Crenna often frequented. “It was badly run,” Rappaport said, noting that the staff was too large and the salaries too high for the shop to be profitable. The shop went out of business, but Rappaport and his friend were struck with the idea. “Something just clicked,” he said. The shop opened its doors on Beverly Boulevard just east of La Cienega Boulevard and nine long miles from the world of tenors and sopranos at the Los Angeles Music Center. Convenience for the owner, not opera fans, was the deciding factor. “I wanted to walk to work,” said Rappaport, who studied voice in Chicago and Los Angeles. “Opera is really a strange obsession. It must be a weird gene or something.” At first, things were slow for the two men. “We opened in September and it was a terrible two months, but around Christmas things picked up. We grossed $35,000 in sales,” he said. Since then, sales have steadily trended upward. Last year was the company’s best ever, $247,000, and Rappaport projects another record gross this year, $265,000. The store is now a one-man shop, since Crenna moved to Santa Fe, N.M. Rappaport keeps his eye focused on the bottom line. “I saw what happened in San Francisco, the costs killed them,” Rappaport said. “The manager used to take home $60,000 a year in salary.” Rappaport bolsters his business by selling souvenirs to opera fans in the lobby of the Music Center during opera season. Those sales account for about 10 percent of total revenues and, perhaps more importantly, they call attention to his shop. “I give out about 100 business cards a night,” he said. Back at the small store, where recorded opera music fills the air while shoppers browse, a broad array of merchandise is jammed onto shelves Mozart T-shirts, trays emblazoned with opera posters from “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “La Traviata,” and opera-themed coffee mugs. Then there are lamps with musical-note designs on their shades and ties that sport operatic names like Aida and Carmen. For readers, there are biographies of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. The late Maria Callas, the lover of Aristotle Onassis and one of the most popular voices of 20th century opera, is the store’s No. 1 seller in music and in print. Hollywood, too, has discovered the Opera Shop. A set designer from NBC’s “Encore, Encore” a sitcom about a renowned but temperamental opera star bought a batch of small furniture items to decorate the set. “‘Jeopardy’ called last week and asked a question about Mario Lanza,” Rappaport said. “I guess it was going to be a question (on the show).” The shop’s unusual theme often draws passersby. Craig Fields dropped in last week when he spied some angels that he wanted to give as a present. Rappaport had plenty, priced from $10 to $20 each. “I found the mother lode,” Fields said. “The owner is very helpful.” Garth McLean was more pointed in his quest. He wanted a pair of opera glasses for a lady friend. What better place to find real opera glasses, rather than merely settling for clunky binoculars? “I’ve been by here many times,” he said. “There is a flair to this shop and eccentricity. It’s eclectic, which is what opera is all about.” Opera Shop of Los Angeles Year Founded: 1987 Core Business: Opera-related souvenirs, memorabilia, books and recordings Revenues in 1987: $54,000 Revenues in 1997: $247,000 Revenues in 1998 (projected): $265,000 Employees in 1987: 2 Employees in 1998: 1 (plus 2 part-timers during holidays) Goal: To remain profitable and spread opera Driving Force: Love of the art form

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