Irina was a young pianist when she fell in love with opera and a dashing fellow USC student, who, as it so happened, also fell in love with her.
It was the Puccini opera ‘Manon Lescaut’ where I fell hopelessly in love with the soprano lead…” said Jim Gibbons.
The baritone and his future wife sang the leads to many operas under the direction of Dr. Walter Ducloux, who had been invited to the school by none other than music legend Toscanini.
Wearing a Mickey Mouse tie with a Donald Duck clip one day last month, Jim is not one to take himself too seriously.
Larchmont’s children’s dentist fills his office with toys, talking parrots and trains. Skeletons and ghosts fill a Pirates of the Carribbean room.
“Kids like him. He knows how to relate to them,” says his partner on stage and in life, Irina.
After Jim sang solos in Handel’s “Messiah” backed by a 200-voice choir at Brigham Young University, he won a full music scholarship to the University of Indiana.
Instead, he chose to follow his dad’s advice: “Get your dental degree and sing as much or as little as you wish.”
And, go to USC, his dad added. It was his alma mater, and, where, “dad prevailed on me, I might be able to get two birds with one stone.”
So, he entered USC dental school at 18, the youngest of his class.
He got his jump start thanks to his Mormon parents’ two-year missionary stint in Uruguay. His education there was so exemplary he skipped three years of high school when he returned to the states.
He opened his dental office in 1965 in the Larchmont Medical Building, the year it was built, and later moved to his current site at 411 N. Larchmont. (Drs. Kathleen Siu and Thomas Tanbonliong share the space with him today.) He was the ethics chairman for the L.A. Dental Society and a member of the Southern Calif. Society of Pediatric Dentists, among other posts in his long career.
Early years were difficult establishing himself, he recalls, yet he brightened smiles of some of the rich and famous’ children’s smiles, including Nat King Cole’s and Muhammad Ali’s.
Irina was also a hard worker. Born in Tehran of Armenian and Russian immigrants, she fled Iran with her family during the revolution to the U.S., where her father was able to re-establish his physician practice.
She attended USC on a scholarship and also won a Fulbright Scholarship to the Vienna Academy of Music; James performed “Othello” excerpts with her in the Schubert Hall of the Vienna Koncert Haus.
She went on to win first place in national auditions for the San Francisco Opera. A painting of the city’s famously crooked Lombard Street hangs near a grand piano.
The petite, blonde is fluent in Russian and can play Chopin with ease. “I was a piano major the first four years, then my love of opera took over,” she explains of her two degrees.
She also sang arias with opera companies in Rome, Seattle and Ojai, and she was a judge for the Metropolitan and Pavoroti auditions.
“Our lives were completely intertwined from the beginning by music,” Jim says at their S. Lucerne Blvd. home, which is decorated with chandeliers and Persian carpets, and which they share with their rescue German shepherd mix Ginger.
Having seen firsthand the commitment a music career “required to succeed as well as the countless sets of circumstances over which you have absolutely no control,” James father’s sage advice from years earlier resonates more than ever. “I am eternally grateful for his love, wisdom and guidance.”
He’s had a lot of fun along the way judging from a sleigh he holds with Mickey at the reins and Goofy hanging on in the rear. “It’s a marvelous piece. Goofy steals the show,” laughs Jim.
“You can see why kids like him,” smiles Irina, passing her husband an Armenian pastry.