Opera's all about singing, right? Wrong.
It’s also about spectacle – the sets, costumes, props and design that create the magic of another world on stage. And that magic can take a long time to put together.
For Tacoma Opera’s production of “Pagliacci/Trouble in Tahiti,” opening next weekend, it took more than seven months from conception to dramatic visual finish – about 192 days of hard creative work by the artists that you don’t see on the stage.
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It’s late August, and TO general director Kathryn Smith has just decided she can spend $9,500 on set, costume and wig design for her company’s double-bill spring production. She doesn’t always do this: Designers cost money, and many times TO can rent set, costumes and props from another company.
And in fact, Smith is planning to rent the costumes for “Pagliacci,” that well-known 19th-century opera by Leoncavallo about a traveling performer (Pagliacci) who suspects his wife of adultery and eventually – well, let’s not spoil the plot. But it’s much cheaper to rent that many period costumes than build them.
“Trouble in Tahiti,” however, is less commonly performed. Like “Pagliacci,” it’s a one-act opera, but written in 1952 by Leonard Bernstein, and although it deals with similar themes (marital discontent), the jazzy score and modern setting allow many design possibilities. It also only has five singers.
Smith contacts Carey Wong, a nationally known designer who has worked for years out of his Gig Harbor home. Turns out Wong has a set he designed for Seattle Children’s Theatre that might be adaptable for “Pagliacci,” reducing the cost. Wong starts drawing.
For months now, stage director Ben Smith has been living and breathing “Pagliacci” and “Tahiti.”
Now an opera director at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, Ben Smith used to work for Seattle Opera, which is where Kathryn Smith saw his work. As soon as she hired him to direct the spring show, he began learning all he could about the two works, and he has a lot of ideas. He and Wong start to Skype, discussing staging concepts while Wong holds up drawings.
“I think it worked out really well,” says Wong, who has designed for most local professional theaters as well as around the country. “Ben is a resourceful and inventive stage director, and we really clicked.”
Constrained by the $25,000 set budget, Wong had designed two succinct but nevertheless dramatic sets. For “Pagliacci,” set in an 1830s village, he reused a blue-sky backdrop and gypsy wagon he’d designed for SCT’s “The Borrowers”; the wagon, with curved roof and ornate red-and-gold swirls, was perfect for the traveling actors in Pagliacci’s troupe.
For their performance area, he designed a movable 12-foot-by-8-foot platform topped with a vine arbor, on which Pagliacci could hang a curtain for his show. Take away the arbor and add a faux-brick wall and the platform becomes the domestic centerpiece for “Tahiti,” hung about with giant vertical drops printed with skyscraper windows and two huge photos of a 1950s-looking man and woman – the ideal life that both characters are unsuccessfully wanting.
“I had to think economically,” says Wong, “both financially as well as visually. The scenes had to be shifted quickly and tell the broad story.” But he didn’t find the budget constraining: “Limits often lead to solutions that are more succinct than when you have more resources.”
Ben Smith travels to Tacoma, and by this time Wong has a tiny scale set model to show him. About 4 feet wide by 2 feet high and deep, the model allows Wong to hang the miniature cardboard drops from wires at the top, and assemble the tiny balsa furniture and cardboard people, weighted with pennies, from the front.
“It’s like a dollhouse for grown-ups,” says Kathryn Smith.
After approval from both Ben and Kathryn, Wong creates detailed drawings of every piece to send to Seattle Children’s Theater set shop. Again, Tacoma Opera doesn’t usually have their set built locally, but this was, Kathryn says, “a good opportunity to keep the work local and avoid trucking costs.”
Wong is dictated by the only window available at the SCT set shop: January and February. He also sends photos and shows the model to the shop manager, discussing practicalities.
DECEMBER 2010-FEBRUARY 2011
The look of the set is complete, and Ben Smith starts going through the opera scores and writing a list of all the props he’ll need. He gives the list to Erin O’Morlan, the props mistress.
“Getting the list is nice,” says O’Morlan, a theater graduate who now teaches elementary school but still freelances as a props director for Tacoma Opera and Tacoma Little Theatre. “Other times I’ve had to go through the score myself and pull out what I need.”
After five TO seasons plus more at other local theaters, O’Morlan has a very good idea of who owns what props in town. Tacoma Opera has a small stock, but for each show she usually has to borrow items from other companies, or rent them from Seattle groups. She has a budget to shop for unusual antiques, and knows which stores will lend new-looking furniture.
Other items she’ll have to make herself in her North End dining room, where her table bears the glue and plaster marks of many prop-making sessions. Her family helps her spraypaint big items in the backyard, and her husband does any necessary artistic painting. For “Tahiti,” she’ll have to refinish some vinyl-seat chairs, and make a mask, banners and curtains for “Pagliacci.”
“It’s a lot of work,” says O’Morlan. “My family knows I cease to exist for that chunk of time. But the pay’s good, and I love the people.”
In Seattle, the SCT crew is getting to work on the TO set in a huge workshop filled with giant statues and odd bits of stage furniture. As well as building the platform and the “Tahiti” house wall, they have to work a little on the “Borrowers” wagon to upgrade it from mouse-home to traveling theater. Painted trim is added, the Dutch door is converted to a regular one, poles are added to support the lanterns and banners that Erin O’Morlan is making, and they need to paint the roof – what couldn’t be seen from the SCT audience is definitely visible from the Pantages boxes. The whole process will take about four weeks, during which Wong will check in often.
“It’s common these days for theaters to pool resources,” says charge scenic artist Kevin Wilson as he supervises the crew repainting the sky backdrop. “Everyone has a library of scenic equipment and props.”
Ron Darling, his Utilikilt stuffed with tools, is busy putting screws on the movable platform, so that stagehands can easily change the black “Tahiti” facings to the rustic “Pagliacci” ones. “The big challenge was to figure out how to lock the platform once it’s in place,” says Darling. “We used a hydraulic lift on wheels, which can then be set down on the base.”
It’s a very different way of building things than in real life. Things are distressed to look old, walls are made of plywood to make them lighter, dimensions are altered to look better from the audience.
“We cheat a lot,” says technical director Mike Hase. “We don’t paint everything.”
Music rehearsals have begun, and on Feb. 12, stage director Ben Smith flies over to join them. Two months ago he scheduled all the rehearsals, and his job now is to guide the singers to their spots on stage (the blocking) and in their acting.
“My work is to help the singers understand the emotional content and get a physical sense of the scene,” he says. As rehearsals progress, he’ll go from stop-and-start corrections to making notes to give to the singers after run-throughs.
It’s similar to any theatrical director, with one big difference: the music.
“In theater, time is something the director can manipulate,” says Smith. “In opera, the music takes time. My sequence of events is going to happen in the time the composer intended. ... It’s challenging, but the music has a lot of information about emotion and timing. If I respect that, it can be honest and strong on stage.”
Smith also is still consulting with O’Morlan and Wong about the set and props, looking at items O’Morlan fishes out of the Lakewood storage trailer or finds elsewhere, the three of them deciding what fits the look of each opera.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and costumer Frances Rankos has just taken delivery of the rented “Pagliacci” costumes and yards of pink silk for “Tahiti.” She and her assistants, Dorothy Kephart and Sylvia Shaw, have worked on TO costumes for decades, in addition to singing and acting themselves, and they work fast as a team. By Sunday, Rankos is ready to start fitting the chorus, and on a Monday holiday, she starts on the “Tahiti” costumes she has spent weeks designing from Wong’s drawings. Her Fircrest dining room is chaotic with fabric and three sewing machines.
On Tuesday she’s unexpectedly ill; Kephart and Shaw take over seamlessly, fitting the principals when they can be spared from rehearsal.
“Hmm, needs to be longer,” mutters Kephart as Hannah Penn, who’s singing Dinah in “Tahiti,” wiggles the tight pink bodice over her head. Puffy and embroidered with flowers, it’s the epitome of feminine, just as the cornflower-blue housedress, with pleated skirt and frilly apron, gets a perfect June Cleaver look. Penn’s delighted.
“What shoes will I wear?” she asks, and she and Kephart discuss slingbacks and seamed pantyhose while Shaw makes notes. After the fittings, the three ladies will take the costumes back home to complete, and make any changes Ben and Kathryn ask for.
Load-in day. The sets are trucked down from Seattle and installed in the Pantages, where everyone will make sure they work.
“It’s the first time I get to see the production come together,” says Wong. “There can always be surprises, good and bad. But I always have things in my sets I can adjust.”
Rehearsals in the theater begin. As Smith is making notes and working with the crew on scenic shifts, O’Morlan is watching how her props are being used, and tweaking if necessary.
“Often things break,” she says. “That can be heartbreaking. I always try to provide extras.”
While the assistant stage manager actually handles the props backstage, O’Morlan is still on call, ready to fix things or shop for edible props like fresh oranges for the juggling scene.
It’s opening day. Rankos’ team will head to the theater in the morning to steam and mend costumes. Ben Smith will review his final notes with the singers and crew.
At the performance, Ben and Kathryn will sit in the audience – their work done, but if anything goes really wrong, Ben will work with the crew to fix it for the Sunday show. As the singers and orchestra work their magic on stage and the stage manager and crew work back stage, the costumers sit in the basement, waiting for an emergency call.
“The worst thing we had to repair was in ‘Faust,’” Kephart recalls. One of the male singers split the crotch of his pants during the show. “We had to sew it up while he was still in it,” Kephart says.
It’s true that while opera visuals help make the magic, a typical opera audience isn’t going to appreciate seven months of creative visual work as much as they’ll love the music.
“Audiences can be very forgiving in opera, because the focal point is the singer,” Wong says wryly. “(They’re not) going to pay the same attention to (the set) as I do.”
But Tacoma Opera’s design, sets, costumes and props do more than just make opera visual: They symbolize the collaboration and generosity of a community-based opera company.
Says Rankos: “We’re doing great opera, often with very little.”