Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day—But Mtsensk Was

LA Opera may be a young company—but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some legends lurking around the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion halls. where an LA Opera staff member doesn’t just tell them all the best parts of LA Opera’s past, present, and future—they show them, too (you can join at anytime). But this story was too good not to share. So, cast your mind back to a long, long time ago—the year 2001.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at LA Opera (Photo: Robert Millard)

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at LA Opera (Photo: Robert Millard)

LA Opera was getting ready for a production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work that turned composer Dmitri Shostakovich into a persona non grata with Stalin. It tells the story of a Russian family torn apart by violence and infidelity—the usual, at least in the opera world. It was going to be a major company premiere. But things started to fall apart before the set was even on dry land.

Backing up: opera companies frequently rent productions from each other, so the same sets, props, and costumes that you see in one city may travel all around the world. This means, for LA Opera’s production staff, it’s par for the course to receive a dismantled set in shipping containers and then reassemble it for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. However, when the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg, where the production was rented from, put their sets on a boat bound for California, they had no way of knowing that a labor strike was brewing at the Port of Los Angeles. After a few days of floating outside the harbor waiting for a resolution, the ship’s captain decided to turn around—without unloading his cargo. Just a week from opening night, all the set pieces were now sailing to Tokyo.

Jeff Kleeman, LA Opera’s Technical Director, was on the production staff back then. He remembers that when the production team learned that the sets had left, there was some talk about putting the opera on as a concert version. But the general consensus was that, even though it would have been easier, it wasn’t worth the disappointment for patrons and artists alike. LA Opera chose the nuclear option: rebuilding every single set from scratch.

The technical director of the Mariinsky Theater, where the Kirov performs, flew from St. Petersburg to LA with the blueprints for the sets and spent a few days going over them with the production team—guidance they needed, since everything was written in Russian. The 20-person crew worked for up to 12 hours a day to recreate the opera’s large set pieces, down to custom barn latches and even, as Kleeman remembers, an oversized barrel. Most sets take about three months to build, but after a week of frantic construction, the set was delivered to the DCP from the scene shop on time—not counting the crew’s work on tech, mechanics, and lighting, which was still going on at 5 pm on opening night.

At their first dress rehearsal, the touring cast walked in and was absolutely shocked at the set they saw—identical to the one from Russia. Well, except for one difference: “because we had ripped through thousands of feet of pine wood in a week,” Kleeman said. “It was so fresh, when the curtain rose you could smell the fresh wood. It smelled like a sawmill.”

But this production wasn’t destined to last. Since it was a rental, LA Opera didn’t have the rights to keep the set, and the Mariinsky didn’t want a duplicate version hanging around. So, after the run of performances, the entire set was immediately sent to wood recycling. It lasted for “less than three weeks door-to-door,” according to Kleeman.

As far as he knows, no other company has done anything like this. While there might sometimes be missing or wrong containers sent over that need to be rebuilt, the experience of reconstructing an entire set from the ground up seems to be unique to LA Opera.

A challenge—but one our formidable production team was more than ready to face. Despite the long days (and nights) and unbelievable pace, as Kleeman said: “It was fun.”

Learn more legends of LA Opera—join Friends of LA Opera and you’ll be invited on a behind-the-scenes tour of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Walk the backstage hallways, enjoy a front-row view of the orchestra pit, and learn about how our stage is brought to life with the thrilling sights and sounds of grand opera.

For more information, click here or email friends@laopera.org.

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