THE WOODLANDS, TX -- Houston Grand Opera has announced the creative team for the inaugural production of its new Multimedia Modular Stage, and theater people head the list.
The lighting designer is Ken Billington; the Tony Award winner for the revival of Chicago has illuminated 70-plus Broadway shows. The set and costume designer is Kenneth Foy, whose recent work includes the new musicals Galileo at the Goodspeed Opera House, Brimstone at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the upcoming Miracles, by Stephen Schwartz, Sheldon Harnick and Marvin Hamlisch.
The director and choreographer is Michele Assaf , whose credits include Starmites on Broadway, Strides Off-, plus many international productions in musical theater, film, television, and rock concerts. Billington and Foy have ventured in opera before, quite successfully, particularly at Houston Grand Opera; this is Assaf's first attempt.
The Multimedia Modular Stage is the centerpiece of Houston Grand Opera's Community Connections Initiative, an outreach program launched during the 1996-1997 season to expand and diversify the company's audience base by moving the rarefied confines of opera outdoors through video technology and flexible stage machinery. The Multimedia Modular Stage will be unveiled May 30 of this year at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in the Woodlands, Texas, a community about an hour north of Houston, via a new interpretation of Georges Bizet's Carmen.
In the pioneering tradition of Houston Grand Opera and its visionary general director of 25 years, David Gockley, the Multimedia Modular Stage augments the troupe's reputation for innovation. The first of its kind in opera, the Multimedia Modular Stage, at a cost $1.3 million, features a tiered stage of steel and plexiglass, two video screens for live action video (shot by four cameras, including one on-stage portable mini-cam), three screens for still projections (which essentially replace "drops"), risers for an onstage orchestra, four on-stage hydraulic lifts, and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems. With an infrastructure supporting an orchestra pit and considerable fly and wing space, the Multimedia Modular Stage allows full productions to be trucked in; typical outdoor facilities cannot architecturally support such demands. In the Multimedia Modular Stage, the orchestra is situated within the performing area, in full view of the audience. Principal singers wear headset microphones a la Rent.
The Multimedia Modular Stage has been conceived for outdoor theaters accommodating thousands of people at considerable distance from the stage. Minority groups, families, young adults and other first-time operagoers are the target audience. The aim of the Multimedia Modular Stage isn't to duplicate mainstage conditions or aesthetics per se but to make an analogous visual and aural impact within the vast conditions of an outdoor venue. One of the most beloved operas from the canon will be produced each season on the Multimedia Modular Stage over a five-year cycle. Houston Grand Opera intends to use the Multimedia Modular Stage at other sites, indoor and outdoor, in Houston and for nationwide tours.
In a press release, Houston Grand Opera quotes OPERA America's Marc Scorca, "There is a great deal of interest in opera among those who are geographically removed from the city centers where opera houses are traditionally located. With the Multimedia Modular Stage, Houston Grand Opera and The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion are well-positioned to tap that interest . . ."
Wayne S. Brown, director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts, which helped fund the Multimedia Modular Stage, is also cited: "This project is another remarkable step Houston Grand Opera has taken to make opera more accessible . . ." and less elitist, an effort toward participation, democratization and popularization.
The impetus behind the Multimedia Modular Stage came from Cynthia Woods Mitchell, who challenged Gockley to bring Houston Grand Opera to the outdoor venue which bears her name, a casual, affordable setting which seats 13,000. Gockley saw this as an opportunity to meet his own expansive needs as well as Mitchell's more immediate ones. "I think this project will open up opera to thousands of people," Gockley has said. "The audience will experience this powerful art form in a way few people have. I expect them to get the essence of opera through the combined impact of the music, the drama, and the visuals."
Houston Grand Opera's Multimedia Modular Stage will be inaugurated with a new production of Carmen on May 30 at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, Texas. For tickets, $10 - $75, call (713) 629-3700. The Pavilion can be reached at (281) 363-3300; it also has a Web site: http://pavilion.woodlandscenter.org.
-- By Peter Szatmary