'Wild Things' Will Make Opera Party Sing

It's one thing to stage an opera, another to stage a gala, but to try and combine the two is as complex as any Verdi plot. The Music Center Opera has decided to risk the complications and hold its June 8 benefit gala amid the extravagant scenery for the opera "Where the Wild Things Are."

Designed by Maurice Sendak from his children's book, these sets are, well, wild. Smoking volcanoes and sea storms as well as 10-foot-tall Wild Thing characters will surround the 500 guests. (But no fire-breathing dragon. It appears in the opera; fire marshals nixed it for the party.)

"The opera is the most amazing translation from book size to giant size. Very vibrant, very alive," production stage manager Chari Shanker said. "If nothing else you'll go out whistling the scenery." "Wild Things" opens June 7 on a double bill with Sendak's "Higglety Pigglety Pop."

It will be a Music Center first to have an on-stage, in-the-sets gala. "Having the party on stage will give it a fantastic, whimsical quality," said Joan Hotchkis, who co-chairs the gala with Carol Henry. "In a sense its a non-opera, opera party because it's a children's opera, but it should make it a lot of fun."

It is a unique challenge for a company accustomed to putting on operas, not parties--as well as social planners accustomed to putting on parties, not stage shows.

For the opera company's technical people, situating the guests on stage presents the curious problem of reversing all the procedures that usually go into setting up a stage.

The sets, the lights, and the orchestra must be arranged so they can be best enjoyed from the stage, not the auditorium. And what is usually the flow of actors will be the flow of waiters. It's an exercise opera company technical director Wally Russell likens to "mental reversal."

"It's going to be like theater-in-the-round except the audience will be in the center," Russell said. "This is such a unique environment, it should be very different for people used to going to banquet halls."

There's a performance of the opera that afternoon, leaving only a few hours to dismantle the sets, refigure them for the party, and arrange the tables for dinner. "You have to do a lot of prep work to minimize the actual work," Russell said. "That, and plan, plan, plan. We run dry scenes, what we call 'dry tech.' Run through all the scenes, see who's going here and there, do a plan of action so there won't be any problems.

"And since they're coming on stage for their dinner we want them to be able to wander around backstage a bit," Russell said. "We're making sure the backstage is all lit up. It's kind of an interesting place with all the ropes and cables you normally don't see."

It's this chance for the guests to experience a diva's-eye view from the stage that gala chairs hope will make $350-a-ticket event-- which is being underwritten by Dorothy Brown--a sell-out that would raise $175,000 for the opera.

"I was on stage after 'Don Carlo,' " said Hotchkis, "and it's such an incredible feeling to look out at the audience. We want the guests to feel the same excitement."

The co-chairwomen and their committee have been spending time off stage choosing which sets will be used for the gala. Complicating matters is the fact that the sets didn't arrive from Minneapolis until May 25 and weren't scheduled to be installed until late this week.

This forced the organizers to work with blueprints and videos. The Opera Company has put the information on the sets and the placement of the gala's tables into its computer system to create a computer picture of the event.

"We've made preliminary choices already on what sets we'll use from photos and videos," said Henry.

"And when they put them up, 'the scenic loading' they call it, we'll see which ones are best and finalize our decisions."

No matter which sets are chosen, opera company manager Robin Thompson is confident the guests will enjoy them because "there are adult ideas couched in these childlike fantasies. It's a fabulous place to have a party."

Or an opera.

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