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'Figaro's' big bang theory

Pyrotechnics add stunning visuals to the L.A. Opera's new production.

June 06, 2004|Victoria Looseleaf

They're as American as Mom, apple pie, and the Stars and Stripes -- and the last thing you'd expect at a swanky night out at the opera. Except, that is, if it's Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Ending with a literal bang -- fireworks -- Los Angeles Opera's new production of this 18th century buffa masterpiece is dazzling audiences at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (there are four more performances) not only with silver-throated singing but with eye-popping pyrotechnics.

"It's written into the Lorenzo da Ponte libretto," says Kirk Graves, L.A. Opera's properties coordinator. "It says, 'Now it's time for fireworks,' and our pyrotechnician fires them off."

That would be Steve Newquist. A licensed pyrotechnician, he's designed 16 indoor mines and comets, devices that shoot multiple and single "stars" from a pair of 12-foot-long firing boards. A star, says Newquist, "is a chunk of black powder that's ignited and burns as it ascends."

Upping the awe factor, Newquist patterned 13 multicolored "airbursts" that shoot the presentation from a similar rig -- a "pyro pipe" -- overhead. Each emits a 4-foot omnidirectional burst of sparks that simulates outdoor aerial fireworks.

"I'm pushing the button," says Newquist of the detonating device that resembles a "Jeopardy" buzzer. "I have a 50-shot firing box, but we're only using 13 cues, with two going off at once, for a total of eight seconds." Newquist says that the airbursts contain potassium perchlorate which, when mixed with magnesium, becomes a compound similar to gunpowder, called flash powder.

The pyro artisan adds other elements to achieve color: strontium for red and copper for blue, for example. The airbursts are wrapped in combustible flash paper, a tissue paper impregnated with a chemical mixture that burns and leaves no ashes.

"These are standard devices used indoors, in close proximity to the audience or performer," explains Newquist, whose usual gig is providing special effects for films and commercials. "They're rated at 20 feet, which means they won't go higher than that."

A fire marshal's presence is required at each performance, Graves says. "He stipulates what he feels is acceptable, how close the cast is allowed -- there are 11 principals onstage at that point, who have to be at least 15 feet from the fireworks. There's also a hanging chandelier with red velvet and tassels. We provide a certificate saying it's been treated for flame resistance."

And where there are fireworks, there's smoke. Newquist says the air-conditioning is turned on five minutes before the pyrotechnics ignite, pushing air currents onstage and upstage. An exhaust fan also sucks up smoke so none wafts into the audience.

With the explosives burning at 1,500 degrees, a pair of stagehands are at the ready, armed with fire extinguishers.

Happily, there have been no mishaps -- pyrotechnically or musically. "The fireworks need to go off at the beginning of the finale music," Graves points out. "We started with 15 seconds, then 10, but you couldn't hear the opera's final chords, so we cut the pyros to eight seconds."

But what a glorious eight seconds! Ian Judge, who helmed the production, says he was inspired by Da Ponte's words. "I've seen 'Figaros' ending with a few sparklers. It was pathetic. I wanted a big-bang effect."

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