Designing an Out-of-This-World Fundraiser for Opera Pacific

Some designers are known for their work in opera, but very few are known for their work at opera balls. You can add to that short list lighting designer Jason Kantrowitz, scenic designer Kenneth Foy, and sound designer Trace Goodman, all of whom collaborated on the outrageously theatrical 2001: An Opera Odyssey charity ball held in February for Costa Mesa, CA — based Opera Pacific.

Now in its 15th year, Opera Pacific is a fast-growing regional opera theatre, based in California's moneyed Orange County. This year's lineup includes The Magic Flute, Der Rosenkavalier, Carmen, and Macbeth. As staged in a series of giant tents in a local parking lot, 2001: An Opera Odyssey was conceived as a gourmet dining/dancing/entertainment/fundraising experience for the company's patrons; the project's creative team turned it into an out-of-this world themed experience.

Working with producer Scott Helmstedter, the designers put all their skills to the test. “We were involved with everything, from the choice of dinnerware to the writing of the script,” says Foy. “To whisk the audience away from Orange County and take them into a fantastic future world full of surprises, we built our own small city in a vast suburban mall parking area,” adds Kantrowitz. “In the surrounding area, we had to build all our support spaces, including kitchens, dimmer rooms, sound amp rooms, dressing rooms, greenrooms, production offices, generators, valet parking, storage tents, and restroom facilities.”

The creative team exploited the outer-space theme to the hilt, as the guests moved through a series of environments, beginning from their entry through the Magnetron Transporter Tube into the Black Hole Bar. “The bar was a 100' × 120' space with black vinyl walls and ceilings,” says Kantrowitz, adding, “There was also a 40' — square bar surrounding an 18' — high scaffolding tower sculpture, where alien Go-Go dancers gyrated on uplit Plexiglas® platforms.”

“We had [ETC] Source Four PARs on the ground, to light the side walls of the Transporter Tube,” he continues. “These units performed continuous chases that pulsated red light forward through the Tube. Inside, over the bar, there was a 40' — square 12" box truss, providing a central location for light fixtures, speakers, and rigging for the scenic ceiling treatment. Clear acrylic spheres were suspended over the aliens' heads; these were lit with Source Four Lekos and [Gamproducts] TwinSpins, to create a feeling of atomic movement. The scaffolding tower was bathed in saturated Congo blues and oranges — we wanted to give the alien Go-Go dancers a very hot, out-of-this-world look. We also had fashion models, wearing Cartier jewelry, posed on podiums that were uplit with pink footlights.The richness of GAM colors was the perfect choice for this intergalactic event, and Joe Tawil at Gamproducts was very generous to donate all the colors and templates to the opera company.”

Speaking of the sound, Goodman says, “In the Teleporter Tube, we had little EAW JF 80 speakers in place, focused upward. We also had EAW SB180 subwoofers, for low-end information. The effects included HAL's voice [from 2001: A Space Odyssey], some low-end rumbles, and some pinging noises, which I think they got from a submarine. [Effects were created by Audio by the Bay]. The sound effects all came from a minidisk playback deck playing a continuous loop.”

After an hour of martinis, hors d'oeuvres, and conversation with strolling aliens in the Black Hole Bar, says Kantrowitz, “A series of alarms and flashing lights cued the segue to the next scene of the evening. A black vinyl wall ripped open to reveal the 140' × 140' space station,” where dinner was served. As guests entered the dining area, “the 65 — piece Opera Pacific Orchestra was on hand to play John Williams' ‘Star Wars Suite.’ The room was glowing with vistas of deep space, projected by from six Pani 6kW scrolling projectors.”

Foy notes that the projections were a challenge, given the project's tight budget. “By the time I worked it out with Anne Johnston [Pani specialist at Fourth Phase Lighting], I could use 14' of film per projection. I called Jason and Michele [Assaf, the director] and said, ‘This is what I can do and be in the budget.’ We literally figured it by the inch.” Working in the computer with his assistant, Stephen Cowles, Foy created his vision of outer space: “I developed a strip that went through the evening. I used this as my excuse to buy every book I could on the universe. I developed a continuous loop of film, working from various NASA sources. The loop featured the starfield, with the earth floating by, and explosions.”

Meanwhile, Kantrowitz says, “The dominant look of the space station was created by the lighting rig, a massive freestanding geodesic dome structure comprised of FlipBox Truss from Morpheus and Thomas trussing from LSD. Mounted within the rig were 152 FaderBeams, 68 PCSpots, 16 PowerSofts, and four BriteBursts, all from Morpheus Lights. Hovering in the center of this 48' — high space, over the 50' — square dance floor, was a 12' — diameter white orb surrounded by a 16' — diameter Saturn's ring truss containing 20 Morpheus FaderBeams. As the orchestra segued into Richard Strauss' ‘Thus Sprach Zarathustra,’ the motorized orb ascended to a mid-trim, while the truss rose to a high trim 40' over the audience. That's when we triggered the first Pani and lighting display of the evening, projecting solar flares and exploding nebulas.”

Goodman adds that the dining area was divided into four seating sections around the 50' — square dance floor. “We put two EAW KF300s in each section, for a total of eight in the audience area. For the dance floor, we had four KF300s, plus four KF650s. The latter were focused on the dance floor, more toward the center, because they have a longer throw. The former, because they have a larger horn pattern were focused on the rest of the space. On the truss, I had KF650s place in the corners and pointing to the stage; in the middle there was a KF300 pointing down toward the floor.”

In addition, “There were some SB528s in front of the dance band [the group Splash, which played after dinner] and a pair in front of the orchestra as well.” For Odyssey of the Cartier Moon, an operetta written especially for the event, an astronaut and a space villain were miked with “a Countryman headband with a Sennheiser MKE2 element inside it. A princess character had an MKE2 in her costume, between her breasts, with another in her hair for backup. The orchestra was also miked, with 54 assorted condensers and dynamics.” Splash was miked with four Shure U2 handheld units, with Beta 58s. The band also had four EAW SM260 and four SM500 monitor units, and a Ramsa 840 monitor console. The front-of-house mix position had a Yamaha TM3500 for the orchestra. It's a 48-channel input console, plus a Yamaha O1V submixer, that handled all the strings for the orchestra.”

Looking back at the project, Helmstedter says, “What was great was the collaboration between everyone on the creative team. You had a complete integration of design; you often didn't know where the lighting ended and the scenery began. We went overboard and did everything, Jason, Ken, and Michele helped write the script and do the voiceovers. People don't realize that designers, if they're creative, can do more than their individual disciplines.”

Conventional lighting was supplied by Lighting and Stage Design. Other personnel included: technical director Tom Lane; art director Aaron King; costumer Sonja Cizmazia; production electrician John Palmer; Morpheus lights crew Kelly Lapping, David Carr, and Brad Bruehler; LSD crew chief Ron Crume; Pani projections project manager Guy Benjamin; Pani programmer Ben Cobb; Pani technician Jason Stelzel; assistant lighting designer John Demous, and stage managers Coy Lea North and Kristen Koop Miles.