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May 2008

Setting the Stage
Written By: 
Stephanie Hunt
Photographs By: 
Roo Way

Go behind-the-scenes and learn how Spoleto Festival USA creates every last detail of its productions

Spoleto Festival USA is renowned for delivering a host of world-class, multidiscipline performances to audiences in Charleston.

What many people don’t realize is that the festival and its immensely talented army of professionals have also produced every detail of its operas—from building the sets to crafting the props to sewing the final stitch in each costume—for more than 30 years.

It’s a gloomy, brisk day in early March, and not much is shaking on upper Meeting Street, where bland warehouses with empty gravel parking lots are standard fare. But inside a cavernous old trolley barn, long ago abandoned, Jim Muirhead is meditating on Buddha. A big Buddha—as in 26 feet tall. He’s attentive to the Enlightened One’s eye; to the gentle, graceful curve of his arm resting just so in his lap; to the revealing, receptive openness of the Buddha’s hand, the peacefulness of his fingers.

Farther up the road and across the railroad tracks, inside a building tucked behind a cement factory, a crew of artisans is hand-casting hundreds of pieces of elegantly exaggerated crown moulding. The big white sections with ornate curly shell patterns are neatly lined up row after row after row, drying on sawhorse tables. Not an unusual sight in a city obsessed with architectural detail, but this meticulously crafted moulding is not intended for the tall ceiling of a grand Charleston house. Rather, it will grace the makeshift walls of an “abandoned mansion,” for four nights only. Such is the high call—and ephemeral fate—of theater.

Watching Muirhead and his crew carve a magnificent mega-Buddha for the musical theater piece Monkey: Journey to the West gives a new appreciation for the term stagehand. Likewise for those crafting moulding for Spoleto’s production of La Cenerentola, or the crew building the set, including a chorus gallery suspended from the catwalk, for six Amistad performances at Memminger Auditorium. These aren’t just extra hands, they are skilled artisans who work for months to create the magical ambiance that occurs for a few hours onstage.

Hundreds of talented artists, almost all invisible to the audience, contribute to crafting the experience, from set designers and architects to sculptors, painters, and construction workers; from costume designers and makers to wig and makeup experts; from lighting designers and sound technicians to the casting director, the chorus master, the conductor, and, of course, the musicians and the soaring voices themselves.

It takes a village to produce an opera—and a far-flung village at that. The original slave ship La Amistad may have sailed from Africa, but Spoleto’s production launched from various points around the globe, with a casting director, wardrobe supervisor, and costume designer all from New York; a wig and makeup supervisor from San Francisco; a chorus master in New Jersey; a musical director who shuttles between Europe and the States; and a stage director roaming all over the country—and that’s just part of the crew.

“It’s amazing what goes into this,” says Spoleto producer Nunally Kersh, who masterfully orchestrates a multitude of major and minute moving parts. “Our wardrobe mistress, for example, runs her own costume shop in New York. She basically has to move heaven and earth every year to get down here to run the Spoleto costume shop for six weeks.”

It’s a tall order, and an expensive one, but the “financial black hole” associated with producing opera is worth it, affirms Kersh, because it distinguishes Spoleto from other arts festivals. “We’re a unique hybrid. We’re not an opera house producing opera year-round. Nor are we solely a presenting festival [i.e., one that calls up a company and invites them to come perform]. We’re a multidisciplinary presenting festival that also produces opera. It’s sort of crazy, in fact,” she laughs, “but it’s been part of Spoleto’s fabric from the very beginning. Gian Carlo [Menotti] was quite brilliant in terms of inventing this model.”

Production Perks

Spoleto’s opera-from-scratch approach is the glue that holds the rest of the festival together, according to general director Nigel Redden. “It goes to the essential philosophy behind the festival, which is to create a real synergy between performances of relatively unrelated things,” he says. “If you go to a chamber music performance, then a dance performance, then a play [all presented by other companies], and then the following day see an opera that’s been intentionally selected and produced, one hopes there will be a certain chemistry between them that will make the experience of each richer.” The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, he suggests. “Spoleto’s not a Chinese buffet. Hopefully it feels like a delicious feast designed with hors d’oeuvres, main courses, and excellent wines,” Redden says. “Opera really does influence the rest of the program, and because we produce it ourselves, we don’t have to depend on the availability of a certain production.”

This year, the festival will produce the comparatively traditional Cinderella story (Rossini’s La Cenerentola) alongside a newly revised version of Anthony Davis’ Amistad, “which will be anything but traditional,” notes Redden, as well as Monkey: Journey from the West, a musical theater piece being coproduced with a French company that will be a radical departure from the two operas. “When people go from one theater to another, we want them to go from one strong experience to another,” adds Redden. “Producing gives us the flexibility to do the broad range of work that gives Spoleto its flavor.”

It also has the added benefit of “creating a festival family,” says Redden, pointing to the orchestra musicians here for five weeks and a chorus of 53 voices—all of whom perform in other capacities throughout the festival—as well as Spoleto’s professional scene shop, which builds the productions and pinch-hits in a crisis. For example, a few years ago when a Spanish dance troupe broke an essential prop in the middle of a performance, the scene shop staff went into EMS mode and quickly rebuilt it between the first and second acts.

The Process

Spoleto’s opera planning process ideally begins a year or two in advance. For this season, the reopening of the newly renovated Memminger Auditorium presented an opportunity to select a piece that would have particular historical and cultural resonance. Anthony Davis’ Amistad (with libretto by Thulani Davis), based on the true story of the slave ship uprising and ensuing Supreme Court trial, had long been in the back of Redden’s mind.

The opera premiered a decade ago at the Chicago Lyric Opera and has not been seen since. It was an important work, but gargantuan, says Kersh. In December 2006, Redden and festival musical director Emmanuel Villaume began informal conversations with Davis to see if he might be willing to revise the score, scaling it down to a size more suitable for Spoleto and Memminger.

“I was excited by the invitation to rethink and revisit it,” says composer Davis, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. “I think it’s healthy for the piece. The way Amistad was initially done, only four opera houses in the country could stage it—it wasn’t very practical. Ten years later, I’m excited to see a new conception of the work, with a new generation of singers.”

That new conception is largely the vision of the stage director, Sam Helfrich, who was brought on board in October. As director, Helfrich, in conversation with Davis and Villaume, began to develop an overall vision for staging the work. He selected a set designer (Caleb Wertenbaker) and costume designer (Kaye Voyce) who started to collaborate and create sketches and a maquette, which they presented for approval in Charleston in January. Meanwhile in New York, Spoleto’s casting director, Lenore Rosenberg, who also does casting for the Metropolitan Opera, conferred with Villaume, Davis, and Helfrich to determine the types of voices the production would require and then began auditions. “I try to accommodate everyone’s desires and priorities,” says Rosenberg. “The challenge is to find singers who can deliver what the role requires vocally and dramatically and will work within Spoleto’s budget. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of singers who want to come to Charleston.”

Details, Details, Details

Then the hands-on fun begins. Once the set designs are approved in December and January, the Spoleto scene shop on upper King Street whirs into action. Rhys Williams, Spoleto’s veteran production manager, has the incredibly complex job of bringing all the designers’ dreams and visions to fruition, and within budget. Here, the rubber meets the road, and the Styrofoam becomes the Buddha.

In the airy loft office of the massive scene shop warehouse, Randy Crabb, scene shop supervisor, keeps architectural renderings for seating in Memminger, 3-D models for La Cenerentola and Amistad, and Excel spreadsheets for the multiple multitasks, all laid out and organized. Crabb oversees a scenic staff of 20-some carpenters, decorative painters, and sculptors, who divide and conquer the various projects. “It’s all detail on detail on detail,” says Williams. The crew bustles about beneath the scene shop “trophy wall” that displays souvenirs from their work on past productions, including a haunting eye cut from the huge mask in Don Giovanni and angel wings from Faustus.

For Amistad, however, the set is not built in the scene shop, but on-site in Memminger Auditorium. Helfrich is capitalizing on the artistic license that a blank-slate, black-box theater like Memminger offers. Made-to-order seating is incorporated into the set design, creating an intimate experience in which audience members sit on both sides of the performance space, only feet away from the singers. “Never in my life have I been asked where I’d like the orchestra to be,” laughs Davis (it’s always in the traditional orchestra pit). “I’m intrigued by the possibilities a space like Memminger holds. Sam’s set design is compelling, evocative.”

And technically challenging. For all its creative advantages, Memminger doesn’t lend itself to set changes. There’s no tidy curtain to fall and hide the backstage elves.

Second Act

After a $6-million renovation, Memminger Auditorium reopens on Thursday, May 22 with the premiere of Anthony Davis’ newly revised opera, Amistad

The long-derelict Memminger Auditorium, once the city’s finest performance space, is poised to reclaim its legacy thanks to Spoleto’s vision and investment. “The festival needed a portfolio of theaters,” says Nigel Redden, pointing to the Dock Street; the 800-seat Sottile; and the Gaillard Auditorium. Making Memminger a black-box theater allows for creativity and flexibility in staging the innovative performances Spoleto is known for. “We didn’t want to hang red velvet everywhere,” adds Nunally Kersh. “It would be a huge mistake to fancify it.”

Edgy & Ephemeral

Spoleto’s production of Don Giovanni in 2005—reprised by popular demand in 2006—demonstrated how edgy the festival could be with the most standard of operas. The magnificent set included an undulating stage of hills and trees and a large pond taking up much of Memminger’s floor space. Stage director Günter Kramer created “an installation as much as a production…another triumph for the Memminger Auditorium,” wrote The New York Times. “It’s definitely the most challenging work I’ve done here—really a highlight of my time with the festival,” says Williams, now in his 25th year. “The sheer scope of it was so ambitious. We started with a building that effectively was condemned and turned it into a beautiful theater with an undulating stage and this giant mask that rose up on a hydraulic lift. It represents exactly what I think the festival is about,” he adds. “We do productions that no other opera company would be willing to do.”

Williams is quick to acknowledge his team of managers, all renowned experts in their respective fields, and his crew of approximately 150 stagehands, both local and national, who work 16-hour days for 49 days. “They’re the invisible force that makes the magic happen,” he says.

Indeed, the festival’s production cast of characters is long and impressive: the props master; the scene shop staff; the scenic artist; the costume makers who fret over every detail of every actor’s attire, down to underwear and bra; the wig and makeup designers; the wardrobe supervisor who organizes, cleans, and cares for costumes between performances and makes emergency repairs; the lighting and sound crew. The list goes on.

Carolyn Kostopoulos, Spoleto’s wardrobe supervisor, runs one of the top costume shops in New York, creating costumes for Broadway shows and major films (she was working on a hat for Meryl Streep during our telephone interview), and yet she packs up and comes to Charleston for six weeks each spring. Same with Lew Mead, the festival’s sound designer, who owned New York’s largest sound company and has done probably 20 Broadway shows. “That may be what I’m most proud of,” says Williams, “the caliber of people who work with us year after year. They’re all so accomplished and could do whatever they want, but they choose to be part of the festival.”

Then, when the shows are over and the lights go out, Williams and his crew dismantle the sets, undress the theaters, store the props, put away the costumes, and rest a bit before the cycle begins again. Some sets for shows that are coproduced get packed and shipped for use elsewhere, but most of the opera sets are too large and costly to store and thus get tossed. “Nigel always says performance art is ephemeral, and it’s supposed to be,” says Williams. “Part of the magic is how short-lived it all is.”

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