Call it the MTV Factor.
Every lime a rock group like the Rolling Stones tours with a show like “Bridges to Babylon,” The Dallas Opera is forced to juice up its own offerings. The Stones’ 1997 concert at Texas Motor Speedway will be remembered not for Mick Jag-ger’s umpteenth take on”Honky Tonk Women” or Keith Richards’ slick guitar playing, but for the 150-foot bridge that emerged oui of the darkness and extended over a sea of screaming Stones fans to connect the main, million-dollar stage with a smaller 15-by 25-foot satellite stage in the middle of the audience. That alone was worth the price of the $75 ticket.
The Dallas Opera’s 1997 production of Billy Budd-Benjamin Britten’s piece based on the Herman Melville book-will be remembered not for baritone Rodney Gil-fry’s Budd or tenor Peter Kazaras’ Captain Vere but for the six-ton. 46-by 48-foot “ship” that rocked as if tru ly negotiating the high seas, rather than the 52-by 40-foot hole of a stage that is the Music Hall at Fair Park. That alone was worth the price of the $85 ticket.
It’s true. The newest generation of opera goers feels cheated if it hasn’t been sufficiently dazzled by the end of a performance. The opera company thai used to get by on the ability to offer a Maria Callas to an audience of opera purists knows-now- that its survival depends more on an ability to appeal to the sensibilities of a generation that grew up with about a dozen different media vying for its collective attention at any given moment.
’’We are in competition with all the other ways you can entertain yourself.” says John Gage, director of production at The Dallas Opera. “Most of the opera goers today grew up on rock V roll and the Rolling Stones, with these huge lighting effects and smoke and super-intense colors and Jumbo-trons. We have this stage, this 52- by 40-foot hole. What we put in there has to measure up to the newer sensibility.”
In other words: This isn’t your parents’ opera anymore. Particularly in Dallas. “The Dallas audience is very discriminating,” notes Gage. “We’ve got a lot of people who have been around and know good from bad. The upper echelon of long-term opera goers usually has the capacity to travel to other ciliés. They regularly go to the Met, Chicago, San Francisco. But the new opera goers, in their 30s and 40s, are less inclined to be fussy about the specific qualities of the singer. They are more demanding that the whole production really say something to them.
“So we have to up the ante. We have to have illusion. We can’t just do hanging drops anymore. The public won’t stand for it.”
Indeed, the days of spending an evening at the Music Hall and watching Placido Domingo sing against a backdrop that looks like something ou: of a high school production of Showboat have been relegated to the history books. Witness last season’s production of Billy Buda. Staging Britten’s opera-about a British seaman who is impressed into service and ultimately court-martialed and hung after inadvertently killing an officer-was nothing short of an engineering feat. The Dallas Opera leased the sets from the Royal Opera in London and then set about adapting them for the Music Hall,
By the time Bitty Budd opened. The Dallas Opera had spent more than three years in negotiations with the Dallas Fire Department and other City officials securing lite necessary permits and demonstrating that the fire curtain at the Music Hall could descend over the mammoth piece of scenery. Ultimately, a special hydraulic dump system was installed.
Consider this: Some 27 percent of The Dallas Opera’s $10 million budget is earmarked for scenery, costumes, and related personnel. The company mounts four performances of five operas each season. Half are typically leased from other companies; the remaining half are built specifically for the hard-to-fit Music Hall. Take, for instance, this season’s production of Handel’s Ariodante. The Dallas Opera commissioned the scenery for the piece and then leased the Michael Stennett-designed costumes from the Santa Fe Opera.
The production featured arguably the most ornate, baroque costumes of any Dallas Opera production. In the first act. Ario-dante, the prince, emerged in a wine-colored doublet with matching tights and a silk cape with gold leaf trim; it was the first of five costume changes. Princess Ginevra made her entrance in a 10-pound confection of taffeta and velvet covering layer upon layer of petticoats. The Dallas Opera leased the production’s 75 costumes for about $22,000 from the Santa Fe Opera, which had invested about $ 100,000 on the ensemble.
Once The Dallas Opera decided to include Ariodante in its 199&7’99 season two years ago. director of artistic administration Jonathan Pell enlisted London-based director John Copley and New York scenic designer John Conklin, who had rendered the piece for the Santa Fe Opera.
The challenge with Ariodante: Because the stage at the Music Hall is larger and operates differently than that of the Santa Fe Opera, the pieces of scenery had to be recon-ceived. The colors, too, had to be recon-ceived because the Music Hall doesn’t have the benefit of Santa Fe’s open-air setting.
“The object is to get this trompe l’oeil look so that it can provide background for very’ elegant costumes,” says Gage. “This has to be a fairly neutral backdrop because of the costumes, which are probably the most elegant you*ll ever see in your life.”
And Gage knows, as much as anyone, thai opera has to be as pleasing to the eye as it is to the ear. Copley and Conklin had worked with The Dallas Opera before, so they knew about the limitations of the Music Hall, They knew that pieces of scenery must be able to roll around because the Music Hal! has no traps in the floor. Because the stage is lacking in depth, they knew that Conklin needed to incorporate optical illusion into his design. They knew that scenery couldn’t exceed 28’/: feet because the annex room at the back of the theater is only 30 feet high. They also knew that the Music Hall, which hasn’t been renovated since 1972, isn’t equipped to lift any piece of scenery weighing in excess of 950 pounds.
“If we rent scenery from another company, frequently things arrive that weigh up to 2,000 pounds,” says Gage. “That means we have to make other arrangements to lift a ion. We have to motorize things, and motors take up more space. You start running out of space when you have to put temporary motors overhead.”
Last March, nine months before Ariodante opened in Dallas, Conklin submitted sketches of each scene, as well as a set of drawings detailing how each piece of scenery would be built. Gage took the set of drawings to the scene builder to make sure they could be rendered for $150,000 (the average budget per production for scenery). Conklin then got the OK to build the model.
Once Gage received the doll house-like model a month later, he and Plato Karaya-nis, the Opera’s general director, checked to see how each piece of scenery-four 28-foot faux marble walls; four scrim backdrops; three 10- to 12-foot capitals, and a number of architectural pieces–fit together onstage. Soon after, Conklin sent individual drawings of how the doors would swing open and how the windows would go up and down. By July, the shop builder at Dallas Stage Scenery had what he needed to begin construction.
“Sometimes we have problems with European designers,” says Gage. “They live in a cold, damp climate, so they’ll speck materials that rot when they’re stored in the Texas heat. I had that problem several years ago on The Elixir of Love with several English designers who had never worked in the U.S. before. I said, ’Look, this has got to sit in a warehouse in 100-degree heat for months on end.’ They didn’t understand until they flew to Dallas and spent a couple of 100-degree days here. They said, ’Is it like this always?’And we said, ’Well, yes.’”
But that wasn’t the case with Conklin. Not only had he designed scenery for The Dallas Opera before, he’s also worked all over the world.
After Ariodante closed on Nov. 28, the scenery was dismantled and stored, along with the rest of the Opera’s inventory, in its new 26,000-square-foot storage facility at Fair Park. The Dallas Opera owns nearly 30 operas-Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, and The Marriage of Figaro among them- and brings in about $175,000 a year leasing sets and costumes to opera companies around the world. Right now. The Dallas Opera’s Tosca is just back from Toronto; its Vanessa is on the way to Seattle; The Flying Dutchman, just back from Milwaukee, is en route to Columbus.
Ariodante, meanwhile, is going nowhere. Until the end of this year, anyway, when the New York City Opera, a junior partner on the production, brings it back to life. New York, you see, also likes to be dazzled.
Call it the MTV Factor.