Austin Opera is revving up for 'Tosca,' its new outdoor performance at Circuit of the Americas
When you think of "Tosca," one of the world's most beloved operas, you might conjure up lofty melodies, virtuoso performances and dramatic action that includes murder, suicide and a good deal of associated suffering.
You might envision, too, elaborate scenery and costumes depicting 1800s Rome, as Napoleon's troops enter a city ruled by Scarpia, the sadistic chief of police who tortures the painter Cavaradossi in order to force the artist's beloved, opera singer Tosca, into his bed.
Did I say it was a melodrama? It is. But a surprisingly effective one.
Puccini's almost Wagnerian score ranks alongside his other operatic zeniths, such as "La Boheme," "Turandot" and "Madama Butterfly."
Put all those customary "Tosca" daydreams aside.
Now imagine the opera at Circuit of the Americas, the vast motor racetrack in southeast Travis County that is home to the Formula One Grand Prix contests. To be more precise, on April 29 and May 1, Austin Opera will stage a socially distanced version of "Tosca" at the track's Germania Insurance Amphitheater, usually host to rock, pop, hip-hop and country acts as well as up to 14,000 guests.
"Our pandemic season began with one singer, one pianist and one video camera broadcasting a recital on Facebook," says Annie Burridge, Austin Opera's CEO and general director. "And now we’ve worked our way up to 'Tosca' at a Formula One racetrack, with a creative force of 150-plus people and performed for a live audience of thousands. It has been quite the journey. If you look at what is going on operatically across the country right now, there isn’t much at this scale — even for companies 20 times our size."
How to put together an Austin opera
The three people behind the scenes most responsible for making any large-scale opera possible in Austin are Burridge, Nathan DePoint, senior director of artistic operations, and Vince Herod, director of production and technical director.
"I am essentially Annie's right hand," DePoint says. "And Vince is my right hand. I oversee all artistic and production elements. Vince has a lot of expertise and experience specific to the technical elements, as well as a longstanding relationship with our IATSE crew (the labor union that represents theatrical stage employees and others)."
What exactly does a technical director like Herod do? Before the pandemic, I had a chance to watch Herod in action. In advance of any show, he searches for the right sets and costumes to rent from other opera companies around the continent. Burridge and DePoint help with the final selections. Herod manages the shipping as well as contract and payroll paperwork for the crews that will work on them. He oversees the rebuilding of sets and costumes, the set-up for lighting and sound, and all the backstage action during rehearsals and performances.
During an actual performance, he is backstage. Communicating via gesture, voice and intercoms, his stage manager and two assistant stage managers "call" the shows. This means they give cues for any planned or unplanned changes to the lights or scenery, entrances of the performers, and the exchanges with the "front of the house," the folks in charge of audience's zone.
The technical director, however, is not a sedentary post. I saw Herod physically help move a heavy piece of three-dimensional scenery during a quick changeover.
"The No. 1 thing I do is to hire the best crew possible," Herod says. "I am very fortunate to work with a talented group of department heads and assistants that has remained basically the same for many years. However, last November, on the same day, in separate situations, two of that group were found to have passed away; longtime co-workers and friends. A very difficult day."
Opera at the racetrack — which sounds like a blend between the madcap Marx Brothers' comedies "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races" — will present numerous traps for technical director Herod.
"One of the largest challenges is to identify all the things we need to arrange, since we are working in a different style of venue," he says. "Typically we do not have to arrange for the construction of a set, along with renting entire lighting, rigging and audio packages. We often need to rent some equipment, but not entire packages. Did I mention the boom lift, radios, pipe and drape, video monitors and wireless comm system? And then there is the tent we have in our parking lot for rehearsals."
Herod: "Everything is a bit different on this 'Tosca.'"
Outdoor opera around the world
Producing a full-scale opera outdoors is not completely novel.
The Italians regularly stage epic operas in the ruins at Rome and Verona, also on a lovely lakeside stage near Puccini's villa and grave in Torre del Lago. Israeli Opera performs at Masada National Park with the famed Masada bluffs as a backdrop and at the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem. The French have been staging outdoor festivals that include operas at the ancient theatre at Orange since 1869.
In the United States, two of the most significant festival-style companies, Santa Fe in New Mexico and Glimmerglass in upstate New York, stage operas in partially open-sided theaters; Glimmerglass also has a fully outdoor venue. Multi-purpose outdoor venues such Ravinia outside Chicago and Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C., host operas along with other fare. Opera Philadelphia puts on an annual performance at Independence Mall called Opera on the Mall.
In fact, a version of "Tosca" much like the one Austin will see was staged outdoors in the ruins of the world's largest flour factory at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis. (In the course of reporting this story, I learned that Mill City Summer Opera, which has been silent during the pandemic, is expected to move to another venue soon.)
Austin Opera has learned a bit from all these outfits. It helps that Burridge's last post was at Opera Philadelphia.
"For instance, we are trying to do everything outdoors prior to the actual performances," DePoint says. "Annie looked for every possible point of failure. Right now, the chorus is rehearsing in a tent in our parking lot. They will wear masks during the show. The principal performers will be masked during rehearsals but not in performance. We are comprehensively testing principals, chorus and orchestra."
The biggest threat of failure might be the variable spring weather. Austin Opera has built in two rain dates, April 30 and May 2.
"The presence of instruments and electronics is of concern," DePoint says. "Additionally, opera is made for an acoustic space, but this venue was built for amplification. It actually has pretty good acoustics. It just needs some enhancements."
What about the potential lack of psychic link between audiences and performers, all socially distanced in a very large, unfamiliar space?
"This is the first time the singers will sing for an audience in a year," DePoint says. "The audience hasn't been to a live, in-person opera in a year. And this will take place in a new space. We'll be coming together to commune over this piece. It will be so great to finally see an audience. It's been a long time coming."
A rare opportunity for opera fans
"The very abbreviated planning and designing period has been part of the challenge, the excitement and the adventure." DePoint says.
Burridge found the right spot for this adventure after an informal search by car.
"This past summer, it was becoming increasingly clear that it would be quite some time before we could assemble hundreds of artists and thousands of audience members in an indoor space again," Burridge says. "While I was excited about everything we had in the works with our digital shows and a new partnership with Austin PBS, I wasn’t willing to just give up on live performance for an entire season. There had to be a way!"
So one day, Burridge put her daughter in the backseat and drove to every outdoor venue in the Austin area.
"I didn’t have any appointments," she says. "I just started pulling up to places to see what the possibilities might be. The last and farthest destination in this somewhat desperate expedition was the Circuit of the Americas. I had never been there before, and the security guard let me drive in far enough to get a good view of the amphitheater in the distance. Its striking scale and scope immediately made me think of 'Tosca.'"
COTA offered 'epic' possibilities
Later in the fall, her team took a much more thorough look at a number of outdoor venues — some still being built — which brought them back to the same idea: "Tosca" at Circuit of the Americas had epic possibilities.
"Performing outside has proven to be a much safer endeavor during the pandemic," Burridge says, "and the Germania Amphitheater has great seating, an essential for opera audiences who may be less eager to sprawl out on a lawn. In February, I made the executive decision that our entire rehearsal process should take place outside as well, and suggested we erect a tent in the Austin Opera Indy Terrace parking lot (a performance space set up at the beginning of the pandemic). The staff thought I had lost my mind, but they figured it out, and we currently have a lovely party tent outside our rehearsal studio."
Previously, Austin Opera had put "Tosca" sets from Kansas City Opera on hold, but they wouldn't fit the amphitheater stage at all.
"We are building scenery that resemble ones from previous version staged by our director, David Lefkowich," DePoint says. "The costumes combine pieces from the wardrobes of Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C., and Eugene Opera in Oregon. You'll see a striking red wall — 100 feet by 24 feet — and the back of letters spelling out: 'Viva Il Duce!' This version will be set in the time of Mussolini in 1943 Italy."
It took very little convincing for the opera trustees to get behind the idea.
"From the start of this pandemic, they have been unwavering in their conviction that we pursue the most ambitious projects possible within the scope of the safety protocols required by the virus," Burridge says. "They have shown up in every way possible — from connecting us with the staff at COTA, to underwriting aspects of the opera, to helping us research rain insurance, and even sending me cases of wine to keep my spirits up! We have an incredibly positive working culture at Austin Opera — the board and staff share a great deal of trust and camaraderie — and it is remarkable what that has made possible over the past year."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go
Tickets for "Tosca" at the Circuit of the Americas start at $39 and are available now at austinopera.org. Tickets include free parking in Lot H; upgraded parking is available at the time of ticket purchase or on site on the day of the performance, pending availability. For more information, call 512-472-5992 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.