Warner Henry, remembered: Local luminary, a founder of LA Opera, died Aug. 1

| September 2, 2020 | 0 Comments

WARNER HENRY, June 2003, Santa Ynez wine trip.

He was a larger-than-life personality, a man of dramatic contrasts. His favorite artists were Claude Monet and Hieronymus Bosch. He was a connoisseur of the world’s finest wines, but his favorite meal included meat loaf. His always-ready wit and sense of humor covered a very deep seriousness, like his preferred president, Ronald Reagan. In his free time, he watched the news, played solitaire with his iPhone, or both at once.

On August 1, Windsor Square lost one of its own. Warner Henry was born to “Pop” and Fran Henry on March 26, 1938 and was raised here, first on Ingraham St. (in Wilshire Park) and then on the corner of First St. and Plymouth Blvd. in Windsor Square. That was a residence Warner subsequently occupied with his own family before moving three blocks south to the corner of Fourth St. and Plymouth Blvd.

Warner Henry became a luminary. His history is known, and there is no need for me to recount it here. The Internet has the volume of space that it requires.

Rather, I offer my personal testimony, adding it to the long list of those who have done so already and others who, with time, defying the muting effect of COVID-19, will join in. Mine is a personal homage, to a man who destiny brought into my life only 15 years ago, but one whose spirit and essence made me feel as if I had known him all of my life.

Family, wine and song

HENRY FAMILY lived in Wilshire Park at 4053 Ingraham St. in the early 1940s. Wilshire Park Elementary School has replaced the Henry home (and others) on the north side of the street.

The pillars of Warner’s life were his wife, Carol; their children, Katie, Mike and Will; and his nine grandchildren. Along with his family, he valued his friends, amongst whom my wife Jennifer and I were fortunate to count ourselves.

His work in his “second career” was also a labor of love and his passion: bringing fine wines into the lives of many. His favorite wine was said to be the one that was in his glass at the moment. If you pinned him down for something more specific, he would cite the wineries of his sons: Acre and Lumen. Like many wine lovers, France was his favorite vacation place. He and Carol loved Paris. They owned an apartment there on the Place de L’Alma where, later, I was fortunate enough to reside on some of my many visits after I moved back to the U.S. from France.

And he loved music. I know of very few individuals who have tirelessly given back to classical music what it had given to them. We bonded immediately over Mozart, his favorite composer.

The persistent attraction to that art form is what brought us together. When I was invited to Los Angeles to become Music Director of Los Angeles Opera, Warner, who together with Carol was a founder of the opera company, was one of the first people I met in Los Angeles. What was first an almost obligatory acquaintance quickly became a friendship, and so Warner and Carol were some of our very first friends in Los Angeles. Although I didn’t know them before, they knew me, from my years as Principal Conductor of the Paris Opera.

101 S. PLYMOUTH Blvd. was where two generations of Henry fathers (Warner White
Henry, “Pop,” and son Warner Wheeler Henry) raised their families. When the senior Henrys moved to The Talmadge Apartments on Wilshire Blvd. in 1970, Warner and Carol Henry moved with their children to the family home on the corner of First and Plymouth.

Windsor Square can claim him, but it had to let him go, just as Salzburg relinquished Mozart. The Henrys moved to distant Pasadena in 1994, as Mozart to Vienna. Mozart went on to conquer the world. Warner became a Maecenas of Los Angeles. He put his money where his mouth was, and he put his mouth where his heart and intellect led him. He was a man with strong views and no fear in expressing them. But he had an impish sense of humor and, I am told, more than the vestiges of a youthful prankster.

Man of few words

He was a man of few words. His trademark utterance was “Oh là là,” itself a classic Francophone exclamation. Its utility was its extensive flexibility. It could mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” “sorry,” “you’re welcome,” “that’s great,” “nice to see you,” “that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” “I’ll be keeping my thoughts to myself,” “thank you and goodbye.”

An anecdote illustrates Warner as a man of few words. When Edgar Baitzel, at the time LA Opera’s Artistic Director, told Warner, confidentially, that he had engaged me as the new Music Director, Warner, his initial disbelief transforming into enthusiasm I am told, blurted out … “Holy sh…”

Arts patron

403 S. PLYMOUTH Blvd. became Warner and Carol Henry’s next home, complete with a new wine cellar, in 1977. Today, the house is the residence of the consul general of Argentina.

Warner Henry was one of those persons whose love, support and sustaining passion for music joined him to the great tradition of patronage of the arts, going back to the powerful families of Renaissance Florence (also known for their love and cultivation of wine). It linked him to those who, through the centuries, had felt that their city, their town, their country, had to have music and the arts as an intrinsic part of their evolution. Warner, as 20th- 21st-century exemplar of philanthropy, understood that it should not be reserved for one class or for an elite. His was a contemporary, democratic understanding that classical music belongs to everyone and is not the possession or playground of a small exclusionary segment of the population.

He was a philanthropist who was omnipresent. No absentee landlord, he involved himself in both the great arc as well as the nitty-gritty. No fair-weather friend either, he was present through thick and thin, in good times and in bad.

He understood the importance of sharing classical music. Although he listened critically, his love for music was totally devoid of elitism and snobbery. He understood that the raison d’être of the musical institutions he supported was to present music to the public. They were not meant to be commercial establishments for whom the music was a vehicle for ticket sales.

And so, Warner Henry supported his organizations: Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), Colburn School, Master Chorale, Camerata Pacifica, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was a philanthropist in the etymological sense of the word: one who loves mankind, just as he was an amateur in its original French, and now rare, sense: one who loves. After Mozart, he was devoted to Bach. His favorite singer was Placido Domingo, and Allan Vogel, decades-long solo oboist of LACO, was his favorite instrumentalist. Ogden Nash was his preferred poet, and Warner loved to quote the world’s perhaps shortest poem:

Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

He loved to sit in the front row of the opera house, right behind the conductor, and his spirit will be there for some time to come. I can assert that there was nothing more wonderful for me, than to come into the pit, turn to the audience, and to see his beaming smile, his shining and radiant face, conveying warmth and love to all of us in the pit. When it was a Mozart opera, he had a special glow, and when it was “The Magic Flute,” there was a transcendent luminosity.

I see Warner reflected in the mirror of G.K. Chesterton’s observation:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes … our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.”

Warner no longer walks among us. He understood the preeminent importance of the tradition of the arts in our lives. Los Angeles, rightly, celebrates him. He is now a distinguished denizen of the abode of the tradition that he championed.

©James Conlon 2020

Windsor Square resident James Conlon has been the Richard Seaver Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera Company since 2006.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: People

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *