Opera's Boxed Sets

With an impressive assortment of stages in storage, and available for rent, Baltimore company builds its reputation and income.

June 23, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Somewhere, in an opera house far from Baltimore, the Temple of Dag has materialized once again, and some newly hirsute Samson is chained to its pillars.

Lusting for righteous vengeance, he sings his heart out in this biblical tragedy of love and death and betrayal. Working himself into a fury, he finally finds the strength to bring these columns crashing down upon himself, his enemies, and especially Dalila, the sexy Philistine wench who got him into this fix in the first place.

Everybody in the audience knows what's coming. Samson strains and pulls. The column to his left begins to wobble, then the one on his right. These pillars are thick as middle-aged oak trees. As the audience collectively sucks in its breath, the columns begin to break into five separate pieces each and come crashing down onto the stage. Two other pillars of equal height break in half. They collapse directly across the stage with a seismic thud.

How do you do this? How do you arrange to have four 30-foot high pillars (granted, they're made of plywood framed over two-by-fours) collapse onto a crowded stage, separate into 14 pieces, and not hurt any of the actors, nor roll off the stage to squash the rich aficionados in the front rows?

How do you do it?

"Very carefully," says Peter Johnson, the production manager at the Baltimore Opera Company.

Cables within the columns hold the sections together while allowing them to appear to fly apart in what Johnson calls "an artistic controlled demolition." They fall where they are supposed to fall. The actors stay where they are supposed to stay -- if they expect to take a bow when the show's over.

The Temple of Dag these days could be playing Detroit, or Seattle. The role of Samson might be sung by John Vickers or Placido Domingo. Wherever the opera completes its run, the set will be folded up and maybe go to some other city there to be re-erected in some other house. Eventually, however, it will return to a large ugly building on a non-descript street in north Baltimore. It's the kind of building people aren't likely to notice as they pass by. Nor could they imagine the peculiar treasures it holds.

Inside this edifice, with its ill-lit 30,000 feet of storage space, is a kind of universe of romantic and dramatic legend. It is a space where heroic and comic operatic worlds lie dormant in the shadows, waiting for some impresario to call them into life.

The warehouse, a vast, unlovely space with a neglected look and that smell peculiar to uninhabited buildings, shelters sets owned or co-owned by the Baltimore Opera Company. Its inventory includes "Samson et Dalila," "Tosca," "Eugene Onegin," "Cavalleria Rusticana," "Pagliacci," "Norma," "Fidelio," "La Cenerentola (Cinderella)," "Regina," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "Salome," "Falstaff," "La Boheme," "Un Ballo in Maschera" and "Hansel and Gretel."

The sets have been purchased directly from other companies, or built in Baltimore by craftsmen employed by the opera company, designed and built abroad specifically for the BOC, or commissioned by Baltimore jointly with one or more companies in other cities.

This is not stagnant inventory: They provide an income stream, one the BOC wants to widen. All of these operas have been performed at the Opera's Lyric Theater over the past six years, except "La Cenerentola," which is one of the five productions planned for the 1999-2000 season. Taken together the sets are worth about $750,000. The annual storage costs in the warehouse can run to $90,000.

The warehouse also holds various pieces of stock, or generic, scenery. Some of these are strewn about the rough and dusty wooden floors. There's a bundle of firewood sticks to load onto the back of a Sicilian peasant in "Cavalleria Rusticana," for instance, and Doctor Dulcamara's carriage from "L'Elisir d'Amore," and a wooden wagon cover from "Il Trovatore." There are stone walls (foam, actually) with vines growing over them piled against corroded pilasters from a veranda, and monumental blocks for castle fortifications, religious or sacramental altars; there are trees that roll around on wheels, and columns.

Columns. If you're going to do opera, you've got to have generic columns for works like "The Marriage of Figaro," "Regina," sometimes "Tosca." They, too, lie about the floor waiting for somebody to come along and find a new and innovative use for them.

Over there is the church at the center of the action in "Pagliacci" and "Cavalleria Rusticana," that fine epiphany of sexual jealousy and sacerdotal revenge, in the Sicilian style. This set is one of the more recently acquired. The part the audience sees was built in Catania, Sicily, for the Baltimore Opera Company. It cost $80,000, and is a gem of a set. Its stone walls are fashioned from a foam substance and painted a color almost impossible to describe: gray, green, silver with a touch of ochre -- a blend that suggests a patina of great age. The supporting structure was built in Baltimore.

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