Millicent Jordan despairs when preparations go awry for the elegant dinner party she planned. A few blocks away, people wonder where they will get their next meal. Set in 1931 New York, when the Great Depression took its toll on everyone, the new opera by William Bolcom (score) and Mark Campbell (libretto) that premiered at the Minnesota Opera last year, is based on the Kaufman-Ferber play, Dinner At Eight. Read Part One first.
“The other issue was it was very much like a movie or even a Broadway musical,” says set designer Alexander Dodge, noting that there are many scenes and locations that change rapidly—these had to flow seamlessly. “Even the music was hinting toward a Broadway style, a mix of Broadway and the time period, the art deco 20s and 30s.”
Director Tomer Zvulun says Dodge’s experience doing Broadway musicals brought a good deal to a “piece that straddles the line between classic opera and musical theatre. Multiple units needed to flow effortlessly. Alexander was perfect.”
A touch of surrealism dominated transitions, too. A maid dusts the upper floor and continues dusting below as a new scene slides on. Wierzel says Bolcom helped by adding or taking out bars when needed to accommodate the length of transitions.
Lighting designer Robert Wierzel says Dodge’s “brilliant 3D relief map” of Manhattan on the upstage wall created a sense of excitement. “The buildings were upside down and on the side,” he explains. Wierzel used LED strips to give the streets a glow, “as if you were hovering above the city and seeing the lights, abstracted slightly,” he says, adding that this suggested the modern art of the times as well as the city. He lit different streets at different times, to show audiences where characters were going.
Wierzel used practicals as well as theatrical lighting, including an art deco wall sconce and chandelier. He slowly focused lights on stage so they dissolved from scene to scene and used indirect lighting, “a new hip thing as electricity was becoming more sophisticated in the 20s and 30s. “The wall is seven times larger than a real house, Hollywood scale, but it has to feel like it’s a real room,” says Wierzel. “We played with that.”
When the team started working in Minnesota, the production was already slated for two other companies with spaces that are different sizes and styles, one in Wexford Opera in Ireland, the other the Atlanta Opera Company, where Zvulun serves as both general and artistic director. “The theatres cannot be more different. We’re moving from the cavernous Minnesota Ordway to the intimate beautiful Wexford. In Minnesota, we were the exclusive show in the theatre. In Wexford, this will be part of the repertory of a small theatre,” Zvulun says. Atlanta is also large. “The real challenge is going to be in Wexford. The modular set that Alexander designed will allow us to move from theatre to theatre in an effective way.”
“It had to be moveable and flexible,” says Dodge. “Our surround was a series of old-fashioned towers with boards that expand or contract. Having things automated with tracking in the floor would be tricky, so it was all Busby Berkeley style, with people behind the larger platform moving things on and off. We wanted a Broadway look to it, but the realities of where we were going weren’t going to allow us to do that. We managed to make it look good and flow.” Audiences never saw the stage hands, though sometimes a maid or butler pushed something on.
This was sound designer Kevin Springer’s first experience doing an opera. “Sound has to be very careful about not competing with the orchestra and working in the same sound world,” he notes. He found there was no reinforcement involved, but there were many effects: Telephones ring, and so do doorbells. And the sounds as well as the props had to be period-specific. “Some specific sounds were written into the script. When a washed-up actor commits suicide by turning on a gas fireplace, the librettist was afraid if you couldn’t hear the sound of a gas valve turning on and the hiss from gas spilling into the room, you would miss what was happening. The opera fell completely silent. There was the squeak of valve, then a hiss of gas, and then it grew in loudness until it wasn’t very realistic,” says Springer.
Robert Swedberg saw the Minnesota production before mounting his own production at the University of Michigan, where Bolcom is professor emeritus in music composition.
Stay tuned for Part Three, where we’ll look at Dinner At Eight on a university budget.