Computer Issue Derails Huge L.A. Opera Premiere

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Computer Issue Derails Huge L.A. Opera Premiere

Post by Ralph » Fri May 26, 2006 7:31 am La Reve ... 9046.story
Computer Gremlins Delay Opera Premiere
Elliot Goldenthal's "Grendel" has gruesome creatures created by acclaimed artist Julie Taymor -- but the real monsters are in the machines.
By Diane Haithman and Chris Pasles
Times Staff Writers

6:19 PM PDT, May 25, 2006

For the first time in its 20-year history, Los Angeles Opera is postponing a premiere.

Saturday night's hotly anticipated first performance of composer Elliot Goldenthal's new opera, "Grendel" -- directed by his life partner and frequent artistic collaborator Julie Taymor of "Lion King" fame -- has been canceled because of computer-related troubles with a massive mechanical set piece central to the action, the company said Thursday.

The $2.8-million show, a co-production with New York's Lincoln Center and an undertaking that L.A. Opera general director Plácido Domingo has called the company's most ambitious to date, will still go on. But the official premiere has been pushed back until June 8, at a cost to the company of more than $300,000.

Two previously scheduled intervening performances, June 1 and 3, will be designated "previews." However, the price of tickets will remain the same.

"Grendel" has been plagued with delays throughout its approximately six weeks of rehearsal at the downtown Music Center, in part because of a freak accident. Last December, Goldenthal suffered a fall in his and Taymor's New York home and sustained a head injury that impaired his speech and caused him to lose more than a month from his composing schedule.

Yet as opening night approached, "Grendel" was undone not by Goldenthal's last-minute musical revisions but by a 21st century wrinkle in operatic production, the demands of its sophisticated special effects.

"Grendel" tells the story of a man-eating monster from the monster's point of view. But from a staging standpoint, said set designer George Tsypin, theater's new "monster" is the computer.

In this case, the production ran, quite literally, up against "the wall" -- an imposing 48-foot-long, 28-foot-tall, 20-ton set piece, run by 26 assorted motors, on which about 80% of the opera's action takes place.

More formally known as the "ice-earth unit," the set piece is designed to move back and forth and to rotate to show two seasons in the opera's version of the Anglo-Saxon epic "Beowulf": one representing frosty winter and the other an earthy spring. All these movements are computer-controlled, but because of computer malfunctions, two motors and a piston broke down.

"This scared us beyond belief," said L.A. Opera artistic director Edgar Baitzel. "Until then, this central unit was working properly all the time. But after this, our security concerns were tremendous."

The motors and piston were repaired, but the computer software programs driving the movements were still being revised Thursday.

The show contains other spectacular effects including a massacre scene in which dancers "fly" above the stage, and a giant dragon puppet with moving mechanical jaws and nostrils that spew carbon dioxide smoke. But none of those effects are computer-dependent, said L.A. Opera technical director Jeff Kleeman.

"Theater is unthinkable without computers these days, and unfortunately we are hostages to this mysterious beast," set designer Tsypin, who was also Taymor's collaborator on "The Lion King," said at a Thursday news conference at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"I've done a lot of operas, and usually they have a kind of static, stodgy feel," he said. "But this is conceived as a very dynamic show."

Baitzel said the short rehearsal schedule common to opera raises special problems when it comes to such elaborate stage effects.

"In an ideal world, we would have it onstage and run it for three weeks or four weeks or five weeks," he said of the giant wall. "You can do this in Vegas, and you can do this on Broadway."

Director Taymor has complained that, in opera, the creative personnel don't have the out-of-town tryouts and weeks of previews that typically precede Broadway openings. However, in the case of "Grendel," the Los Angeles Opera is incorporating theater tradition by calling the two scheduled performances after the canceled opening night, "previews." The opera will receive six performances in all, the last June 17.

Baitzel said that preview tickets would remain full-price and that refunds would not be offered but that preview ticket-holders might be able to exchange their seats for a later performance.

On Thursday, members of the "Grendel" cast expressed feelings of letdown and resignation.

"Even though we're going to disappoint a lot of people who had tickets for Saturday, we owe it to the opera public to put our best foot forward and make sure all the computers are online, so we don't have to bring down the curtain and stop the show," said Eric Owens, who will sing the title role. "At certain times, computer problems ate away at our rehearsal time. And it's live theater -- it's not like a movie where you have all this post-production stuff. We have to be in the moment."

L.A. Opera Chairman and Chief Executive Marc I. Stern was also philosophical about the postponement. The only time anything similar has happened at the company is when it canceled the first night of a production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We jointly own the production with Lincoln Center. We can mount it again any time we want to," Stern said. "If this turns out to be a big success, and we have great hope and expectation that it will, there will be more than ample opportunity to make up for this latest shortfall."

Speaking by phone Thursday, Lincoln Center Festival Director Nigel Redden said, "It's very brave on the part of Los Angeles Opera -- which is going to incur some real losses -- to postpone the premiere. This the first performance of a major new opera by a major figure in the theater world. It's essential that this performance goes well. This piece of mechanical equipment doesn't quite work at the moment -- and it will."

"Grendel" is scheduled to receive four performances at the Lincoln Center event, the first on July 11.

"Frankly speaking, we would not have gone ahead without the Los Angeles Opera producing 'Grendel,'" Redden said. "Los Angeles Opera is one of the major opera companies in the country. We're very proud that it's happening."

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Post by Haydnseek » Fri May 26, 2006 9:08 am

Imagine the look on the face of the Tech Support guy in Bangalore when he got the call.

"Our man-eating monster keeps crashing!"

".... have you tried turning it off, waiting a minute, and turning it on again?"
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Post by Corlyss_D » Fri May 26, 2006 1:18 pm

Reminds me of the joke that went around during the early 80s about the ROH mounting of Idomeneo for Janet Baker. The technical rehearsals for all the complex stage machinery and monsters were taking forever and it was getting closer and closer to the premier. Some wag quipped that the actual premier would be held at the ENO while the technical rehearsals continued at the ROH.
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