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A Dramatic Turn of Events for L.A. Opera

October 10, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 10-day shutdown of the ports has idled factory workers, left bananas and other crops rotting and caused retailers great worry over holiday inventories. Now the labor dispute has claimed a new victim: Los Angeles Opera.

For the second time in two months, opera officials are grappling with major headaches in their attempt to present the famed Kirov Opera from St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

In September, L.A. Opera had to cancel the highly anticipated $3-million Kirov production of "War and Peace" because of money problems. Its replacement, slated to open Oct. 23, is another Kirov offering, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk"--about $1 million cheaper, but still big, still impressive, still the Kirov.

But because of the lockout of West Coast ports, the sets, costumes and props for the production are literally on a slow boat to Tokyo.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 197 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera names--A story on Los Angeles Opera in Thursday's Business section misidentified the composer of "War and Peace." The correct composer is Prokofiev. In addition, the story gave an incorrect first name for L.A. Opera technical director Jeff Kleeman.

The company is scurrying to build its own sets from scratch and arranging for the costumes and props to be flown back to Los Angeles on a cargo plane.

On Wednesday night, after intervention by the Bush administration, the ports reopened--but that wasn't soon enough. The ship bearing five 40-foot containers of goods for "Lady Macbeth," unable to unload at Long Beach, was steaming toward Japan.

Edgar Baitzel, L.A. Opera's director of operations, says that, so far, trying to present the Kirov here has been unusually operatic.

"I wait for the moment that the dark cloud disappears and we have bright sunshine," he said.

Paul Kleeman, the opera company's technical director, said the plan had been to load the sets and costumes into the theater Oct. 7. What he learned talking to shipping agents, however, was that the containers wouldn't even arrive in Tokyo until Oct. 13.

He knew that the costumes, which occupy only about one-fifth of the space in one container, could be unloaded and brought by plane back to Los Angeles. The same could not be said of the set pieces, which are too large to fit on a commercial airliner.

The earliest the set could be returned via ship was Oct. 27--four days after opening night. Kleeman knew that if the show was to go on, L.A. Opera would have to start building a new set.

So he contacted Paul Lippe, vice president of Western Overseas Corp. in Los Angeles, who immediately began negotiating to get the containers offloaded in Tokyo and unpacked so that costumes could be removed and reshipped by air. The set pieces will be left aboard ship, eventually to return to St. Petersburg.Under ordinary circumstances, it would take only a few days for the items removed from the ship to clear customs in Tokyo and catch a plane to L.A.--but as fate would have it, a national holiday would add a day's delay to the process.The costumes are expected to arrive at LAX on Oct. 18, more than 10 days behind schedule.

"Then they have to clear customs, and we won't have our hands on them until the 19th," said Kleeman. "That leaves us roughly three days to get it together to open on the 23rd. That's much tighter than we would normally want. It's about fittings and repairs and alterations--it takes time to do that."

The new set should be completed and loaded into the theater at about the same time the costumes arrive.

While Lippe was on the phone to Japan, Kleeman was on the phone to St. Petersburg, making arrangements to get the plans needed to build a set.

Wednesday at 12:45 p.m, Kirov Opera technical director Igor Suvorov landed at Los Angeles International Airport, carrying a 30-pound roll of drawings by Kirov set designer George Tsypin.

The Kirov has been transmitting set designs to Los Angeles Opera and elsewhere via e-mail since 1996, but the "Lady Macbeth" set designs created in the early '90s aren't digitized. The fact that Suvorov also could serve as an advisor in re-creating the set in Los Angeles motivated the decision for him to serve as courier.

And this morning at 7, L.A. Opera's head carpenter, Butch Conroy, and a crew of 16 carpenters were to assemble at the opera company scene shop in Santa Clarita to begin set construction.

Conroy--who affectionately refers to the Kirov Opera as "my problem child"--says the construction will take 10 days.

"It's put everything into a rush--I had to order more tools because of the number of guys who will be working," Conroy said. "I've warned my wife that from now until the load-in on the 19th, I'll be working 14, 16 hours a day. If we get behind, we'll have a crew of 32, split into two crews of 16, and we'll go 24 hours a day.

"This has turned into a full-blown, 10-day grand opera," he said. "Stuff is going to be trickling in right up to the morning before we open. But we're going to do our best."

To avoid another Kirov embarrassment, they'll have to. In late August, L.A. Opera's artistic director, Placido Domingo, was forced to cancel the production of Tchaikovsky's "War and Peace" when mega-donor Alberto Vilar, who was underwriting the production, refused to provide $600,000 in additional funds and to move up the payment on his $1-million pledge.

Even with recent developments, "Lady Macbeth" will be less expensive than "War and Peace." The cost of building a new set and flying the costumes back from Tokyo will add up to about $200,000, said Baitzel.

It's not clear whether the extra costs will be covered by insurance.

"Placido's first reaction was, 'Oh, thank God it's not 'War and Peace,' because there's absolutely no way to make copies of its scenic elements to make it work on our stage," Baitzel said. "Not only would it cost $3 million to copy it, but we would need a minimum of three months to do it."

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