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Dinner at Eight

Dinner At Eight: A University Takes On A New Opera

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. Based on the Kaufman-Ferber play, Dinner At Eight is 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 had a second production at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Read about the Minnesota Opera production.

Robert Swedberg saw the Minnesota production before mounting his own production at Michigan, where Bolcom is professor emeritus in music composition. Swedberg says Bolcom adjusted the score for Michigan, cutting some music that was necessary for transitions in the larger Saint Paul space. Bolcom and Campbell also rewrote the ending after the Minnesota production closed.

Swedberg felt his college-town audience would be “more interested in the little people than the one percenters,” he says, and wanted his design team to find elements that would show how the servants were running things while the rich were concerned about their dinner.

“There were wagons coming on and off the stage. It was a beautiful production but out of the realm of what we could afford,” Swedberg says. He knew set changes could be cumbersome and, with scenic designer Jeff Bauer, he looked for simpler ways to accomplish them. “We discussed a turntable. He came up with a nice concept with two rotating units.”

“Robert felt strongly that rather than looking at it from the viewpoint of the one percent, he wanted to look at it crumbling from the bottom up,” says Bauer, who visited an exhibit at Cooper Hewitt with art and images of the machine age. “Seeing that, it struck me that those beautiful pieces of artwork were set in a crumbling city. It pointed out the disparity between the two worlds. Those in the top of those towers didn’t know what was happening below.”

“We tried to pick furniture that was close to the period and looked opulent,” he says. Because scenes change quickly, Bauer placed four compartments on two spinning walls. To spectators, it looked as if the city broke in half when the painted cityscape upstage split apart and two turntables turned to reveal new scenes after an opening number. One side was platformed; the other was made of walls with furniture attached. “We considered platforming the whole thing, but that turned into a merry-go-round,” adds Bauer.

“The set rotated, and that meant the furniture [including a small bar unit, chairs, tables, and bed] had to attach to the walls,” says prop shop manager Patrick Drone. “Chairs had to have casters put under them. Our lead artisan Dan Erickson built some beautiful dollies for furniture to ride on, a quarter of inch from the floor. From the audience’s point, you didn’t even realize the chairs were castered. The mirrors I supplied for the hotel room matched in color to the fireplace to make sure it all fit in the same world,” says Drone, adding that most furniture was black, brown, and dark grey, with taupe for a hotel room. 

Drone was able to pull the show completely from the university’s huge stock, stored in two warehouses. “There are props from every period. We have 122 phones in stock,” he says, explaining that it wasn’t hard to find the seven rotary phones needed for the show. It helped that they didn’t need to function, since all the cues came from the sound system. Swedberg says Drone discovered a cigarette that looked authentic but wasn’t harmful for singers. They bought gel wax and fabric scrapes to make lobster aspic transparent. 

Bauer had a personal emergency and had to leave the show after much of the design was complete but not finished. The team began without a furniture layout. Lighting designer Rob Murphy found himself guessing at where things might go. But he found it wasn’t a hard show to light and used fewer lights than he normally does, coming in under budget. There were no windows or doors on the set, so Murphy indicated the time of day with a cyclorama and window gobo. “No matter which side you rotated the set, it looked the same,” he says. He mixed the window for each scene with a different color to indicate a different time of day. There was no color in the set. To “try to create a little magic” during transitions interesting, he reinforced the rotational quality of the set with a gobo rotator. Swedberg says Murphy’s lighting “captured the difference between the brighter moments and those on the darker side.”

Scene painter Toni Auletti had to complete a post-apocalyptic image on the floor before any scenery was placed onstage. “Jeff gave me a beautiful elevation, and we started painting reflected buildings in the water,” says Auletti. “We had to make sure they were leaning the right way—in this scene, they lean in, in that they lean out.” She painted the abstract buildings with rollers, never a brush, using more gold at the top than at the bottom.

Jessica Hahn, who designed the clothing, tried to convince Swedberg to let her change the period. “The 1930s silhouette is wonderful on slim women but does not flatter every body type, but Robert wanted to stay true to the period of the play, down to the underwear,” she says. “One of the male characters strips down to his underwear so the shop made period boxer shorts and the look included sock garters.” The majority of the women’s clothes were built, though she bought some blouses from TJ Maxx. Most of the men’s were pulled or purchased. Hahn started costume fittings with pulled items and had to begin working with fabric with no idea of what the set or furniture colors might be. So, she took the lead on color. “There is a line about Kitty’s pink dress. We talked about different pinks, and I decided on watermelon,” she says.

Two performers share each role at the university, which sometimes meant two garments were necessary for actors of different heights or shapes who shared a role. She was inspired by colors she saw as she shopped for fabric, including a rich emerald green. “A number of directors and lighting designers don’t like working with green, but I loved the brilliant green. Another dress was in burgundy, from a vintage pattern to match a vintage dress she owned. She was able to purchase two evening gowns in grey lace. Originally, she wanted to keep charcoal grey and dark brown for peripheral characters but used some of these for the principal men, too. All the women wore wigs created by Ora Jewell-Busche. “It’s easier to style a wig than to have to style a performer’s hair for each performance,” says Hahn. 

Read about the Minnesota production here.

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