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Opera Carolina uses more tech in "The Pearl Fishers"

April 05, 2013

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    April 05, 2013
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    Opera Carolina News

Opera Carolina uses more tech in "The Pearl Fishers"

Opera Carolina walks a fine line - "The Magic Flute" projection sets were too much for some patrons, so "The Pearl Fishers" opening Saturday promises balance.

Robert Franklin and his wife Cheryl Roberts were thrilled to see the "Magic Flute" on Opera Carolina's schedule for this season. Deeply impressed with Opera Carolina's performance of "Madama Butterfly" last season, the 25-year season ticket holders enjoyed Jun Kaneko's "Butterfly" set and were interested to see how his work would play out with one of their favorite operas.

Like many who saw the production, Franklin found the extravagant light show and technology-heavy backdrops and set design lacking.

"The Kaneko light show for 'Magic Flute' was very off-putting," said Franklin, 70. " 'Ridiculous' doesn't quite convey one's reaction. Uncontrolled ego utterly divorced from tradition. No forest. No fairy-tale. (The set was) utterly boring screen-saver visuals."

Franklin's comments represent one perspective regarding Opera Carolina's use of technology, yet illustrate a challenge for the company. In maintaining and growing its audience, Opera Carolina needs to continue to appeal to traditionalists and look for ways to keep the art form fresh and contemporary to attract a new generation.

Engage, not distract

"At the end of the day, opera is all about the music, the performers and the story," said James Meena, general director of Opera Carolina. "I have to agree with much of the criticism received regarding 'Magic Flute' and the staging. But keep in mind this was a co-production with the San Francisco Opera and the design was produced to play in a much larger venue than the Belk. We always take a risk with experimentation. The set design should be visually interesting and be on balance with the score, the acting and singing - not competing with the performance."

Marc Scorca is president of the national opera service organization, Opera America. He said he is seeing more experimentation with technology, including lasers, film clips and projection in the production of operas nationally.

"For technology to be effective it must inform the way we produce operas," said Scorca. "The eyes behave differently in a dark theater and care must be given to how and where patrons will focus their attention."

Meena, along with long-time colleague Opera Carolina Director of Production Michael Baumgarten seem mindful of Scorca's thoughts. They are on a continual quest to use sets that engage the audience and help keep the focus on stage, yet avoid distracting and taking away from the overall production.

Finance and budget play a role as well - set design costs can be 10 percent of production costs. Of the $2.6 million budget for this season, Meena said, more than 60 percent goes into productions. In addition to main stage productions, Opera Carolina also produces dozens of statewide performances by Opera Express, its educational touring company.

Hidden revenue source

The trend toward projection technology does not offer significant savings and for some companies new technology has increased costs. Opera Carolina spent more than $30,000 for projectors alone, with additional costs for the computers, software and design time.

Laura Lee Everett, Opera America's director of artistic services, said production costs often rise with the use of technology. "Yet when used in creative ways they can have transformative effects."

Everett cited a performance of "Porgy and Bess" by Atlanta Opera that used screened walls set over computer monitors. "Filmed projection of the hurricane in the opera added a dramatic tension and that well complemented the performance, it was an example of technology done well."

Baumgarten said Opera Carolina is frugal in its approach to set design and production spending.

"We've already rented out our projectors to another company and will also use them in other upcoming productions, including 'The Pearl Fishers,' " said Baumgarten. "Opera Carolina realized more than $115,000 in rental revenue from our warehoused sets last year."

Audiences for "The Pearl Fishers" will experience a set that has been on Opera Carolina's stage once before and rented another five times to companies in North America.

"We have received a tremendous return on our original $25,000 investment, it has been a gold mine," said Baumgarten.

He said the use of projection visuals will be much less abstract than those in "Magic Flute."

"Audiences will experience more color and a shifting view of imagery such as the moon over water or sunrises with waving palm trees. It will be more of a subtext and subtle way of enhancing the performance."

By: Michael J. Solender The Charlotte Observer

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