March 06, 2019

Creating the Vision

A lavish double staircase, furnished bookshelves, a pristine grand piano and a glittering chandelier grace the stage of the Ardis Krainik Theatre. Surtitles are displayed above the screen and a radiant beam of light shines onto the center of the stage. However, the lyrics go unsung. The red velvet seats are empty.

This isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill opera experience, but each summer, during Lyric’s “off-season” the theatre is still very much in use.

So what exactly happens during off-season at the opera? Much like the world of sports, team Lyric is always practicing and prepping for the next line-up of shows. While artists have their own schedules to prepare for the upcoming season, the rest of the opera house undergoes a series of fast-paced tech weeks--one for each show. These highly-intensive weeks include lots of manpower from stage hands and the technical department, and a lot of creativity from the brilliant minds behind-the-scenes of each production. 

A typical week includes transporting large-scale set pieces backstage, building the set as if it were opening night, and testing technical cues for each act — a process that can take two or three days! A technical week is one of the most important weeks for a production, and happens long before audiences step foot in our theatre or before singers even begin to rehearse arias onstage. 

“Basically, at any given time we have two to four shows in the building,” says Lyric Technical Director Michael Smallwood. “We simply do not have room for all eight shows. So each week we completely take apart the sets and store them in shipping containers. We have a yard on the south side where we store over 400 of these [and] each show is usually between four to nine containers.” 

While warmer months involve a lot of long days, the season is just as hectic with multiple shows running at a time. 

“We bring these back into the opera house during the season on days when we have extra time on the stage,” says Smallwood. “Then we put them back together in time for rehearsals onstage.”

Director, set designer, lighting designer, and stage manager come together to watch the concepts of their show become a reality. While no performers are included in summer tech weeks, a group called light-walkers are used to roam the stage as directed, in order to model blocking and lighting cues. 

The production teams spend their days working through a vast array of puzzles and opportunities — whether it be set design interacting with light projections from world premiere opera Bel Canto, the dark, gritty set of Wozzeck, the sumptuous scale of The Merry Widow or the never-before-seen magic of Barbara Gaines’s season opener The Marriage of Figaro.

“Obviously the new productions — FigaroWozzeck, and Bel Canto — present the most construction challenges since they have never been put all together before. Each show, of the eight, has a few special tricks whether it be a fountain, a trap through the floor, an extremely heavy flown piece, or a special lighting setup that won't ever even been physically seen,” Smallwood says. “They all have their special intricacies.” 

As the summer comes to a close, Lyric will wrap up this process and prepare to open its doors to you for the September 26 opening night of the season’s first opera, The Marriage of Figaro.  Come join us and see how the hard work and preparation has paid off!

Behind the Opera with Barbara Gaines: The story of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO


New Lyric Opera production generously made possible by The Negaunee Foundation, the Abbott Fund, Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin, Exelon, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Sylvia Neil and Daniel Fischel.

Figaro Costume Sketches Courtesy of Susan Mickey