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Setting The Stage For Nights Of Berlin Opera

September 05, 1985|MARC SHULGOLD

Backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, work crews are busily hanging and focusing lights and moving scenery into place. A familiar sight during the summer.

But something is different here. This is no ordinary road show being set up. This is Deutsche Oper Berlin, which opens its first full-scale visit to Los Angeles on Monday night.

From every corner of the vast stage area, workers call to each other in English and German--plus mixtures of the two. High above looms an imposing, 2-ton set piece (for "Die tote Stadt"), while onstage sits a massive re-creation of the roof of a forbidding prison (for "Tosca"). Across the street, in huge crates, even more scenery (for "Le Nozze di Figaro") waits to be brought into the Pavilion.

Despite the complexities of unloading three full productions transported from Germany to America in a dozen 40-foot crates, despite the inherent language problems and despite a set-up time of only three days, there is a surprising aura of calm backstage.

Give credit for the smooth operation to skillful planning on both sides of the Atlantic, to the experienced technicians at work and to the cool leadership of the sponsoring Music Center Opera Assn.'s technical coordinator--an Englishman named Pip Flood-Murphy.

"We're pretty confident we can cope with any problems that might suddenly come up," Flood-Murphy noted during a luncheon conversation recently.

The inherent problems are plentiful enough. For instance, scenery in general is far bulkier than the pieces Royal Opera brought over for its engagement at the Pavilion last summer; "Die tote Stadt" requires an onstage lake; with a minimum of offstage storage space (compared to Deutsche Oper's theater in Berlin), ways must be found to maneuver the "Figaro" sets quickly, smoothly and quietly; sets for "Tosca" and "Tote Stadt" must be stored simultaneously--double-hung, in theater lingo--since the two run on alternate nights the first week; and, of course, changeovers from one opera to the next must be made overnight.

Flood-Murphy remains unconcerned. Planning, he says, has been the key: "To help the American crews work smoothly with the German crews, our master carpenter (Jerry Schaub) and master electrician (Larry Dean) went with me to Berlin to get a feel for their productions. We returned with all the lighting and set schemes and began adapting everything to the Pavilion."

Quite fluent in German, Flood-Murphy is comfortable with producing German theater in America. In fact, that's how he got the job.

"I was with Pina Bausch in Wuppertal until the end of last year," Flood-Murphy explains. He accompanied Bausch's company on its Olympic Arts Festival appearances here last summer. Dealing with an eccentric choreographer who insists on a stage covered with leaves or dirt or dozens of tables and chairs gave him valuable practice in crisis-solving.

Eventually tiring of the Wuppertal experience, and lured by an invitation from Music Center Opera Assn. Executive Director Peter Hemmings (with whom he had worked at Scottish National Opera in the early '70s), Flood-Murphy has returned to Los Angeles--but only for the Deutsche Oper engagement: "My sole project here is the visit of Berlin Opera," he says. After the company returns to Germany, so will Flood-Murphy--back to Dortmund, where he is technical adviser with the opera company there.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the first onstage rehearsal, Music Center production manager Joe Ward observes German and American crews lighting the prison roof from Act III of "Tosca" (which will open the engagement).

Has the language barrier been a problem so far? "Theater is theater--wherever you go," Ward replies. Of course, he points out, there are some minor differences: What is called "stage right" in American theater is just the opposite in Germany. "As long as everyone keeps looking at the drawings," he says, "I think we'll be OK.

Thus far, no technical hurdles have appeared. Even the need for that 10-inch-deep lake that occupies half the stage in "Die tote Stadt" (the second production, to be unveiled Tuesday) didn't raise any pulses. "We'll just hook up to a nearby hydrant," Ward explains, "and pump in 1,500 gallons. Then, we'll just pump it all out."

As Ward speaks, Heinrich Hollreiser, who will lead "Die tote Stadt," arrives backstage. The conductor, looking intent and quite disinterested with activities onstage, asks to examine the orchestra pit. Expressing displeasure over a tiny platform that barely supports his chair, he sends Flood-Murphy and Ward scurrying in search of a solution.

Down in the bowels of the house, the 15-member costume crew has been hard at work for a week and a half amid the 500 outfits brought over for the engagement. Dressed in pristine white calf-length coats, the male and female tailors have been busily altering hems and seams to fit the Americans in the cast. (The choruses for all three operas are drawn from the Los Angeles Master Chorale.)

After a quick elevator ride, Flood-Murphy steps onto the grid area, high--very high--above the Pavilion stage. At the rear wall, he climbs a series of steps ceremoniously etched with the names of crew members and strolls onto a newly installed 80-foot-long lighting bridge built especially for this engagement. "This is a permanent addition to the house," he notes with pride. "I'm sure when they do the Academy Awards here, they'll be using this bridge for some fancy back-lighting effects. These lights will also be helpful in future operas here."

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