When The Washington Opera had to find a new home during renovations to the Kennedy Center Opera House, the company knew it would face enormous challenges‹challenges that would inevitably affect every aspect of producing opera for its patrons. In some ways, the move into DAR Constitution Hall during 2003 provided the operatic equivalent to boot camp‹one hurdle after another‹yet not only did the company flourish under the hardships, some of the innovations will be part of the company's life as it settles back into its refurbished permanent home.
"I think the biggest thing we faced was creating a theater inside another theater," says Joan Sullivan-Genthe, the company's resident lighting designer. "Constitution Hall is a concert hall and we made it into a thrust stage theater. There was a lot of infrastructure we had to put in, in order to support opera, as opposed to concerts. Constitution Hall has dimmers and circuits, but it didn't have enough, so we had to temporarily install it all. Things like dressing rooms also weren't there on a scale that we needed them to be."
Some of the changes were immediately apparent to the audience. Eighteen rows of floor seating were removed to make room for the large, raked, thrust stage. Since the hall had no orchestra pit, the musicians were located at the back of the stage‹behind the singers‹and separated from the playing area by a scrim. Television monitors around the perimeter of the stage allowed singers to see the conductor, who, in turn, could follow the movements of the singers via monitors near the conductor's podium.
"There's no doubt that having the orchestra behind us and getting used to the monitors were the biggest challenges for the singers," says tenor Robert Baker who has sung more than 200 performances with the company. "The first day or two of rehearsals you really just had to hit your spots, figure out which monitor you were going to use, and make that part of your staging and acting."
But for Baker, the new stage configuration also offered an enormous plus. "Being that close to the audience is always a bonus. I find it really exciting to have an almost visceral, physical connection with the audience. You wouldn't think that in that big old barn of DAR it would work out that way, but there was a real connection between us."
That was an unexpected feature that stage director and designer John Pascoe found tremendously exciting as he worked on his production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. "Plácido Domingo told me, 'It's going to be very intimate. It'll be very exciting having that contact between the singers and audience.' But until I stood on that big cruciform staging I didn't get the emotion of it. Standing there, I felt like I was in the palm of people's hands, even though it's a very large space."
That sense of intimacy and being thrust into the audience is something Pascoe looks forward to trying to achieve as well in his staging this month of Puccini's Manon Lescaut on the proscenium stage of the Opera House. But there were numerous ways in which the limitations of Constitution Hall forced Pascoe to change his plans for Don Giovanni. For instance, at the end of Act I, the Don throws a huge party that begins with a couple of ascending chords in the orchestra. "The music is so big, you can just see a curtain rising on some glimmering, 18th-century world," Pascoe says. "Of course, in DAR we had no curtain to raise, so to create this sense of arriving at his house I thought we'd bring in a set of magnificent chandeliers right with the beginning of the music. Well, it turns out the track was too heavy, and we couldn't fly the chandeliers overhead, so the chandeliers were cut. Thank God I was in a team of incomparably intelligent and supportive people!"
Moving the scenery on and off the stage not only took place in full view of the audience, but the lack of backstage area meant stagehands often had to weave their way through audience members milling about the lobbies during intermission. "The only access to the stage that we had for scenery was two doors that were double-door size," notes Paul Taylor, the company's technical director. "Normally we have a backstage area that allows us to take a whole set on and off the stage without any problems. In DAR, most of the sets for every show had to remain onstage the whole time. The pieces we brought in had to fit through a smaller door than we've ever had to fit through."
What does Taylor most look forward to having back in the Kennedy Center? "A curtain to bring down for the scene changes, so the guys can call back and forth to each other," he replies. "My crew felt like they were really on display in Constitution Hall. They were very good and very professional about it, but we'll all be relieved to have a curtain there. Once or twice we'd have someone lean over and say, 'Excuse me, can you tell me what that is you're doing? It looks interesting'‹as the guys are racing around trying to get the scenery together."
Taylor is also looking forward to having the flexibility that comes from being back in the Opera House environment. "We had to plan things very stringently with the directors and designers," he says. "We were so constrained by the limits of the building in DAR. For instance, we couldn't move the back wall in Fidelio downstage a foot and a half, because that would put it out of the engineered area. In the Opera House we have a full overhead grid so we'll be much more able to do all the little tweaking, the little finishing touches."
Patrons, too, had to make some adjustments to attending opera at Constitution Hall, and not only in the frustrating arena of trying to find parking spaces. Performers sometimes made their entrances and exits through the audience, which caused some concern. "We didn't want patrons to get run over by singers carrying swords," explains Beth Krynicki, principal stage manager. "It could be a nightly battle to get folks to understand that, no, it's really not safe to stand there. There was only one injury I know of‹a patron stood up by mistake during Fidelio and got hit by a riot shield that one of the extras was holding."
Krynicki agrees that one of the best advantages of being back in the Opera House is simply having space backstage. "Not just wings and storage space offstage," she says, "but space to have an office, so you don't have 15 people in a room made for three. Having space for the dancers to warm up, rather than having them warm up elsewhere, and then take a shuttle bus ride for 15 or 20 minutes to the theater."
"We couldn't keep all of our support equipment with us all the time," points out Sullivan-Genthe, "there just wasn't room for it. So if someone said, 'I've got a new idea,' it was sometimes a matter of 'Well, that equipment is in Baltimore. When's the truck going to Baltimore next?' But one of the biggest things we learned had to do with the experiences with automated lighting fixtures. We used a good bit more of this kind of equipment than we've used in the Kennedy Center. But I'm really looking forward to being back in the Kennedy Center and having everything I need there, within my grasp."
Members of the orchestra are looking forward to playing in the Opera House's new, expanded pit. "We'll have over 1,200 square feet of performance space and it is space we desperately need," says assistant principal bass Frank Carnovale. "In the old pit we were hitting each other with our bows, hitting stands. It was like playing in a straitjacket. Acoustically, the Opera House has also opened up the front wall of the pit that faces the audience. They have panels that cover about half of it and sitting in the orchestra section of the audience now sounds like you're sitting in a concert hall. Plus, the Opera House added two huge doors that make getting in and out of the pit much easier."
"I'm excited to see how everybody is charged up with the new facility," says tenor Baker. "The patrons went with us to DAR, and I'm looking forward to the opening of Manon Lescaut when we can get the whole family back together again in our home."
Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.