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Performing Art
Director of productions, Chris Van Alstyne, takes a quick break from planning this year's Opera Festival.
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 5 years ago

SPOTLIGHT: Sarasota Opera Festival: Pieces of the production puzzle

by: Mallory Gnaegy A&E Editor

Planning for the four-production Opera Festival is akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle backstage. Operas “Turandot,” “King for a Day,” “The Pearl Fishers” and “Of Mice and Men” rotate simultaneously for more than a month. Sarasota Opera’s director of productions, Chris Van Alstyne, is the brain responsible for putting the pieces together.

The loud chaos of chords from a full orchestra of practicing musicians filters down the hall into Van Alstyne’s office. A man stops in to ask him about buying batteries; a woman pulls him away to talk about spray painting; Maestro Victor DeRenzi pops his head in. And this is all within 40 minutes. In one week, Van Alstyne has misplaced two pairs of glasses.

“It’s nuts!” he says about the week before the festival begins. When people are watching an opera, they don’t realize the work that goes on behind the scenes — they see the product, but they can’t see how it’s made.

“We’re an opera factory,” he says.

Numbers and Facts:
During the Opera Festival, there are about 250 employed crew and technical members, artists, orchestra members, chorus ensemble, principals and designers.

All four sets have to fit in about 2,400 square feet.

Roughly 16 stagehands have to take down and reconstruct a set in a two-hour time period.

Each multi-set production is allotted no more than a 53-foot tractor-trailer. Last year’s opera festival had six tractor-trailers; this year there are four.

Chris Van Alstyne began planning for the Opera Festival 15 months ago.

Once Van Alstyne has a budget, he can start contracting designers. Then, he and the executives hold planning sessions with designers to map each production. Once they settle on a model, it’s sent out to scenic shops around the country for quotes.

He starts with a sketch from a designer, moves to a white model, makes a painted model and, then, ships the model to where the set is built.

All set pieces must fit on stage, and the Opera House Proscenium is 36 feet wide by 22 feet tall. Many other opera houses average 50 feet wide and more.

There are about eight on-stage rehearsals in conjunction with each opera, to practice moving the sets.

An orchestra of 56 to 78 people must fit backstage in addition to the sets during the opera.

The set pieces can’t be taller than 8 feet when they are loaded on the tractor-trailer because of the door width of the trailer. From there, they have to be under 9.5 feet tall to get through the door of the scene bay.

They can be built up in the set-shop, adjacent to the scene bay, but have to be assembled in the scene bay if larger than the 11-foot door from the shop into the scene bay.

Jeff Dean designed the set for “King for a Day,” and it was built locally at Asolo’s scenic shop.

Michael Wingfield originally designed the “The Pearl Fishers” set, last used in 2003, but because it was “over-loved” by other opera houses that had rented it throughout the years, it had to be completely rebuilt this year.

John Conklin designed “Of Mice and Men” in the 1990s. Sarasota bought the set from Glimmerglass Opera, in New York, where it was sitting in a barn, unused, for 10 years. Van Alstyne personally packed it into the tractor-trailer at the warehouse to get it to Sarasota Opera House.

Michael Schweikart’s “Turandot” set came to Sarasota Opera House from three different scenic shops around the country from as far as Portland, Ore.

The largest set piece sits at 21.6 feet tall. On one side, is a backdrop for “The Pearl Fishers,” designed by Wingfield and on the other side is a backdrop designed by Schweikardt for “Turnadot.”

Sarasota Opera Festival
When: Feb. 9 through March 24
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota
Info: Call 328-1300

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