Some 28 years ago the organization formerly known as Austin Lyric Opera staged Verdi’s "A Masked Ball" as part of its very first season.
Now — recently rebranded as Austin Opera — it’s time for "A Masked Ball" once again, but this time with an ambitious new staging featuring digital projects, the first new production of its own creation in eight years. Previous seasons had offered operas designed and created at other opera companies.
Opening Saturday at the Long Center and continuing for three performances, Verdi’s tale of political intrigue, illicit love and romantic betrayal gets a decidedly contemporary look with a set created from digital projection designs by noted theater artist Wendall Harrington.
Harrington — whose lengthy credits include everything from "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway to "A View from the Bridge" at the Metropolitan Opera to the Talking Heads’ "Stop Making Sense" film — said the luminous and ephemeral qualities of projection make it both immediately contemporary yet flexible enough to remain timeless.
"Projection is a choreographic act," she says. "You can respond to late-breaking creative ideas in the production process. It’s fluid."
Harrington’s participation comes from a collaboration between Austin Opera and the University of Texas’ Department of Theater and Dance, where the designer is the guest artist-in-residence this semester. Theater design students worked under Harrington’s direction.
"I sent (the students) with cameras out on a visual scavenger hunt," says Harrington. They went to the Capitol and to abandoned malls and amusement parks. But ultimately the imagery will be about 50 percent found images from places around the world and 50 percent locally sourced images, all digitally manipulated and blended together.
"We didn’t want it so specific that people would recognize it," says Harrington, who teaches at Yale University. "But rather we wanted something that would look a little more universal."
The production has been two years in the discussion and creation with Harrington, the opera’s artistic director Richard Buckley, director Leon Major and set designer Richard Isackes (who is on the UT faculty).
Based on the 1792 assassination of Swedish King Gustavo at a masked ball, Verdi’s opera has a scene at an official government meeting hall, another in an upper-class residence and one at a carnival.
Early renderings show a modern office-lined atrium as the governmental hall and a windowless suburban study serving as the claustrophobic residence where the governor and his unhappy wife live.
Tenor Dominick Chenes stars in the lead role of the governor, Riccardo, with baritone Jason Howard as Renato, his political rival. Soprano Mardi Byers sings the role of Riccardo’s wife, Amelia, who is also Renato’s lover.
Last month, the opera announced that it had rebranded itself, dropping the word "lyric" from its name, opera leaders said, in an effort to shirk any suggestion of provinciality.
Said managing director Joe Specter: "We want our name to let people know that we are offering the kind of sophisticated opera experience that suits our creative and thriving city."
Specter and Buckley also announced that Austin Opera will introduce a new addition to its regular programming — a season-opening concert. The first, in September 2015, will feature soprano Heidi Melton performing Wagner and Strauss.
And next season will also mark the return of operas by American composers — something the organization had previously championed with such critically lauded productions as Jake Heggie’s "Dead Man Walking" in 2003 and Previn’s "A Street Car Named Desire" in 2002.
With a current annual budget of $3.9 million, the opera has seen an uptick in its season subscribers, says Specter, about 4 percent over last year. That’s something that goes against the prevalent trend that’s seen subscriber numbers plummeting at opera companies and symphony orchestras across the country — a trend attributed to our new user-determined, commitment-phobic cultural consumption patterns. If you can download a movie or music on your own terms, why commit to a live performance?
The opera "is the thing you can’t really do in Austin anywhere else but with us, and it’s only a few times of year," says Specter. "I think that’s what sets us apart. Even when we’re doing a digitally projected set, it’s still a live show."