Allen Charles Klein was just 21 when he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1962 to take his first job as an assistant designer at the Washington Opera.
While his duties were anything but glamorous — painting scenery and furniture, assembling props — the move resulted in a professional and personal journey that would span more than 50 years.
It was in Washington, working on Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, that Klein met Bliss Hebert, the new general manager of the company, who would become partner both on stage and off.
Together, director Hebert and designer Klein have become one of the most celebrated creative duos in the opera world, collaborating on more than 70 productions. This weekend, Florida Grand Opera will open their production of Verdi’s classic La traviata at Miami’s Arsht Center.
“Living together helps in dealing with any artistic problem,” explained the soft-spoken Hebert. “We begin to read each other’s minds, especially when you have the same aesthetic sense.”
Without missing a beat, Klein finished Hebert’s thought: “I’ve worked with other directors and Bliss has worked with other designers. You may have meetings when you’re working with them… We’ll be doing the dishes after dinner and discuss it right then and there. We can change the entire creative process of how the production might take shape.”
While opera in general has struggled over the years to attract new audiences, their works continue to thrive. Their production of Turandot, one of Puccini’s masterpieces, premiered in 1981, has been used by nearly every regional opera company in the U.S. and continues to generate income for its creators.
“We have to take a certain pride in its longevity,” Klein said. “It just won’t die.”
They credit their success to a shared aesthetic.
“Traditionalist is a bad word. We’re classicists, collaborators with the composer and librettist. Even if the composer is dead, he is still a partner,” Hebert said.
Added Klein, “We like to be a mirror to the music.”
Unlike many actors and other artists, the couple has not been forced to live the extremely closeted life required to maintain their careers.
“The only word I would use is ‘discreet’. Fifty years ago, any gay person was discreet and we never discussed our relationship with anyone other than other gay couples,” Hebert said. “We never were in a strictly gay environment, but even in those days people knew we were a couple.”
They didn’t purchase a single bed for their Manhattan apartment until the late 1960s, opting for twin beds, like many other gay couples. This was a lifestyle particularly familiar to Brooklyn native Klein, whose gay uncle lived in a relationship for more than 50 years.
“They always had separate bedrooms, but their lives were gay lives, their friends were gay friends. They had a second home in Cherry Grove on Fire Island, the only place at that time gay men and women could find total acceptance,” he elaborated. “We never had that sense.”
It may have been serendipity that brought the couple together so many years ago, but Hebert suggested something bigger. Like most grand operas, there is the element of fate. He should know, he grew up in a small Adirondack town in New York ironically named, “Faust.”If You GoGiuseppe Verdi’s La traviataFlorida Grand Opera
April 20, 21, 23, 24, 26, 27
Arsht Center, Miami
May 2, 4, 5
Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale
For tickets and showtimes, go to FGO.org