The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Production Countdown

The Musical Arts Center, Bloomington, IN
The Musical Arts Center, Bloomington, IN

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It is getting really busy at IU Opera Theater. As far as The Tale of Lady Thị Kính production is concerned, set designer Erhard Rom has finished the drawings including all the technical information about the materials to use. Technical Director Alissia Lauer has gone through them and separated them into pieces for the carpenters to build. Some part of the hard design is taking shape quickly in the shop. And Mark Smith, Head of the Paint Shop, is getting his brushes ready for the soft part. The entire design is expected to be completed – built and painted, right here at Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, IN – by the end of October. It is only appropriate at this point to get to know the very man who is behind this big operation at IU Opera Theater, before he vanishes behind the scenes at the premieres of the show on February 7, 8, 14, 15 of 2014. Where is that, again? – Bloomington, Indiana!

Could I talk about IU Opera Theater without mentioning the Ballet element?

Absolutely. Even though we call it the IU Opera and Ballet Theater, they are two separate entities. Gwyn Richards is General Manager of both and I am Executive Director of Production for both, however, Michael Vernon is Artistic Director of the Ballet Theater. So they are really two different entities, although both are supported by the Jacobs School of Music, and you can discuss one without the other.

What is the role of IU Opera Theater within the Jacobs School of Music (JSoM)?

The IU Opera Theater is really the vehicle through which the voice majors of the JSoM receive opportunities to sing. It is actually odd, because IU Opera Theater is part of the School of Music but it is a separate entity also. For instance, there is a budget just for IU Opera Theater that the School of Music approves each year. So they fund it but it is a separate entity from the school. It really was established for the vocalist and instrumentalist as a learning laboratory so they can come to the stage and sing in an atmosphere that is modeled after the professional opera industry. There also was at one time a technical degree program for scenic, costume, and lighting design students.

IU-0-Tim StebbinsHow many offices and personnel do you have under your supervision?

Within the Musical Arts Center there are several departments. The Technical Department handles constructing the scenery. The Paint Department paints everything. The Electric Department handles all the wiring and lighting for the productions, and the Costume Shop handles all the costuming. We have a Master Electrician, Dennis Long, who handles all the infrastructure electrically within the MAC. Those are the main areas existing within the Musical Arts Center.

In terms of designers and directors there used to be faculty members like David Higgins, Robert O’Hearn, and Vince Liotta. Now that David and Robert have retired, we have guest designers who work with us and also many guest stage directors who work with our production team and student casts. I oversee everything it takes to get the productions from concept to opening night.

Besides myself there is Kevin Murphy who just joined our faculty. He is my music counterpart and oversees the coaching staff and makes sure that everything is done to prepare the singers for their roles on the stage. When we get to rehearsal, if there are any issues musically, maybe a singer needs extra coaching or the orchestra needs extra something, he helps with that. Then we work together at that point to make sure everything’s running smoothly.

With all the personnel and resources and facilities, does that make your job easier or busier?

Both. We do nine productions a year, six operas and three ballets. Of the six operas three of those will be brand-new. So we have to have a designer, we have to build, we have to paint – everything is from the bottom up. If you look at regional opera companies, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Atlanta, you’ll find that they have three or four times the staff that we employ. We basically have one professional department head and then students for each area, so we are understaffed and there is a lot of work to do in a year’s time. Time management is critical to our operation as we try to keep to a schedule and work on productions nine months to a year in advance.

On the other hand, because we employ students and not union labor we are able to do more because the budget goes farther. So we get by with our students a lot. They are wonderful and the work they do for us is outstanding. It is a big operation – definitely much bigger than you’re going to find in most regional companies.

production-16-sleeping beauty
A scene from “Sleeping Beauty” – set designed by David Higgins – Photo: IU Opera Theater.

What is the average cost for producing an opera?

For us, around 150-200 thousand is the budget for an average opera. We have some that are more expensive, and some that are not quite as expensive. But in the outside world, those operas probably would have cost a million or more. We get by because there is no union labor, the average rate we pay students is not what you would find in the professional world. We are able to do the scale of the productions that we do but at a reduced cost.

Can we say that IU Opera Theater productions are comparable to those of the professional companies?

We can say that and we do say that and it is absolutely true. In fact, in many instances, it is better. On one hand we don’t have the professional resources in terms of personnel – one professional head and then students. Most of the people in this building grew up in this building, they came in as students and stayed on as they learned. David Higgins was here for so long, he was a great designer and a former student at Indiana University. Robert O’Hearn who had a big career at the MET and was here for nearly twenty years was also a student. Now the guest artists we have coming in include, Dough Fitch, who just did “The Cunning Little Vixen” with the New York Philharmonic and Robert Perdziola who is top of the line as a designer. So the designers, that we put into those professional roles, are the same that you’re going to see designing for the MET or for the Chicago Lyrics, etc.. We just get it done differently, with much less staff, with our students, and that is an amazing thing.

A scene from “Xerxes” – costume and set designed by Robert Perdziola – Photo: IU Opera Theater.

IU Opera Theater is often compared to the MET, do we compete with the MET?

Nobody can compete with the MET. It is by itself, it is like a different creature in the opera world. It is difficult to say that we compete with them but I think the quality is similar in terms of traditional scenery and the finished product. Where we differ is that while the MET might spend a million dollars just on lighting design, we’re spending 200 thousand dollars for the entire production. So they are able to do more magical things technically. That I think really is where the difference is, besides the singers, of course. But in terms of just producing scenery and being able to run a production on this scale, I think we definitely are right in line with what the MET or any other professional company is producing.

Do we still have a close relationship with MET like we once did?

Things have changed as time has gone. We are going to do a few things coming up in the future, but really it has to do mostly with the students and how to get them connected more to the professional world, and less about our production values. I think we are confident in what we do, production wise.

When Kevin Murphy first came here from New York City Opera and saw what we were able to do with Der Rosenkavalier, he really felt that the rest of the world didn’t know enough about what we do here –he was surprised that we do things at so high a level. So I think it is an educational process that we need to be aware of, we need to promote ourselves more to let the professional opera world understand what we are doing here.

production 16-cendrillon
A scene from “Cendrillon” – set designed by David Higgins – Photo: IU Opera Theater.

Do you think IU Opera Theater has lived up to its potential?

I think it has but in a sort of quiet way. I hear constantly from directors who come in from the professional world about how many Jacobs School of Music singers they are out there, and that they are quality singers. In a sense, we’ve done right by the students – we train them properly, a large percentage of them go on to professional careers, etc.. I think where we have not done so well is that for many years I think we did not feel the need to promote ourselves, we were the Jacobs School of Music and our reputation spoke for itself. But it is difficult for us to attract the same quality of students that we did twenty years ago because the world becomes much more competitive. We have come to the realization that we need also to keep advertising and keep promoting ourselves.

What I want to do, now that our faculty are getting older, retiring, and not being replaced, is to hire professional, not academics, to fill our artistic roles. I want them to be the same names that you see when you go to the Metropolitan or the Chicago Lyrics. And when our add is in Opera News with our new season, I want people to see those same names. I want the students to know that when they work with, for instance, Robin Guarino who is directing our Falstaff, they are also potentially going to work with her at the MET or Chicago. They are going to experience here what they will encounter in the professional world.

Do you think you can realize it?

Yes, and that is one of the nice things about my job – I am in a position where I can make that happen. Robert Perdziola, Doug Fitch, Robin Guarino are all coming to the IU Opera Theater and not just to the benefit of our students but also for our patrons. I’d like the IU Opera Theater to be the opera theater for Indiana. We are collaborating with the Indianapolis Opera by taking our Akhnaten to Indianapolis and I’m hoping that the audiences there see that just 50 minutes down the road we are here producing opera in a huge way. We are a state-funded institution, we should be bringing ourselves more to the citizens of Indiana as a way to give back to our supporters. So I definitely want to see our role expanded.

Phông cảnh trong vở opera La Traviata do David Higgins thiết kế/A scene from La Traviata, designed by David Higgins - Photo: IU Opera Theater
A scene from “La Traviata” – set designed by David Higgins – Photo: IU Opera Theater.

Where do you want to see IU Opera Theater in the next 5 years?

Five years from now, hopefully we will perceive a difference in reputation from what we currently have. Within Indiana, I want to see more people coming down from Indianapolis and from across the state. I want to see us partnering with other opera companies. We are one of the few opera companies that is still producing – we produce three brand-new operas a year and there are not many companies that are still doing that. I hear all the time from regional opera companies that if we want to forge closer relationships we present a lot to offer by way of being able to produce professional level productions whereas they cannot, so I want to see our role in the professional world grow. I want the recognition that we are the best opera producing academic institution in the world, and one of the best in the profession. We have this wonderful facility, we have the kind of funding we need, and we have the talent of many outstanding singers and artists. I think it just comes out to name recognition with the public and if they recognize something familiar then it starts to take on value for them. This is the way I want us to go and there is no reason why we should fail. I think in five years you will see a change.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version.

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