carey wong
scenic designer

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HAVE OPERA SET, WILL TRAVEL

by Jen Graves
Tacoma News Tribune
November 1, 2000

Don Pasquale is the latest in a line of stylistically deliberate, well-planned shows by Tacoma Opera that establishes it as a company that takes original artistic and conceptual stands. And it's being rewarded for it.

Opera companies in Columbus, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; Kansas City; Orlando, Florida; and Sacramento have rented Tacoma Opera's 1999 Madama Butterfly set. The funds from those rentals have brought in enough money to cover the production's costs, set designer Carey Wong said at a rehearsal last week. The set from last year's Cosi fan tutte has likewise been seen since in Baton Rouge, Orlando, and Hartford, Connecticut, Wong said. Eugene Opera will use it this season.

"The Tacoma Opera sets are very colorful, evocative for the audience," said Robert Ashens, artistic director of Eugene Opera during a phone interview. "They also, most importantly, are adaptable to a variety of size stages . . . Companies are designing their sets these days with that idea in mind."

Wong and Ashens agreed that lending sets is good all the way around. "It really helps everybody, because the economics of opera are just . . . it's so expensive to stage," Wong said. "It used to be an old joke that you'd determine how much money you wanted to lose, and then determine how many productions to stage to lose that much money."

That's not a workable model in an environment in which arts organizations are competing with each other and with the myriad other entertainment opportunities available to patrons—including, in this market—those in Seattle.

But the 33-year-old Tacoma Opera's budget has grown since 1998 from $425,000 to $540,000. "It's like stepping up to the next plateau, and then you need to get your underpinning in place," said Rod Gideons, the opera's executive director. Securing those funding "underpinnings" will be the project of the next three years, he said.

Ticket sales are up 39 percent from last year's level at this time, Gideons said. That could be a matter of patrons' timing in ordering tickets or it could portend that overall sales will be up. "All indications are that ticket sales and awareness of the company are up from last year," Gideons said.

Growth at Tacoma Opera seems at least in part due to the artistic leadership of David Bartholomew [artistic director], Wong, and musical director Benton Hess.

"In opera, so often you have to rent things," Wong said. "We're trying to become a producing opera company, where you can state your artistic identity in the product you originate. There's so much bad regional opera work being done. A lot of it is what I call 'brown and serve' opera. It all gets thrown up on stage and is catch as catch can. . . . In creating something from scratch, everyone can help create that original aesthetic."

Soon, Gideons hopes, the fact that many Tacomans haven't heard of he season-opening opera, Don Pasquale, won't make a difference. "What we want to do is move to the point where people are buying tickets because it's Tacoma Opera, not because it's Madame Butterfly, though that will always be a factor," Gideons said.

Unique stagings compelling enough to travel the country are a good place to start.

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