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Lyric Opera heads toward last show in longtime home

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Ah, theater folk. You’ve probably heard how superstitious they are -- how you can’t say or do certain things in a playhouse without inviting disaster. But perhaps less well-known is how sentimental they can be.

Indeed, many of them seem haunted by the very words "The End," because, after all, no show runs forever. And every playhouse has a lifespan. Eventually all those evenings of make-believe, high drama, low comedy and soaring music that enthralled theatergoers and transformed a brick-and-lumber building into a place of magic come to an end.

Sooner or later, there must be one last show and one final performance. And then the theater goes dark.

Which brings us to the Lyric Theatre, where next weekend the Lyric Opera opens its final production, Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro." It will almost certainly be the last opera staged at the 1926 structure, which has been a playhouse and a movie theater.

So the folks at the opera company, which next season moves into the state-of-the-art Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, wanted a fitting swan song for the old theater. The acoustics are faulty, the roof leaks from time to time and the shallow lobby creates a sardine-can feeling, but still -- nobody really pictures locking the doors and turning off the lights without feeling an unsettling mix of nostalgia and sadness.

"I have a lot of affection for the old theater," said scenic designer R. Keith Brumley, who began his professional career there in the 1980s. "We’ve done some amazing things with the building and in spite of the building. We’ve done productions that looked effortless to the audience but from our point of view bordered on the miraculous."

For almost everyone involved, it seems, leaving the Lyric is an emotional experience.

"The choristers’ last show was ‘Norma,’ and I remember after the final performance there was a knock on my door," said Ward Holmquist, the Lyric’s artistic director. "And the choristers were all standing out there and they were kind of teary and I said, ‘What’s the matter? We just closed a great show!’ And they said, ‘This is our final performance at the Lyric Theatre.’ And I hadn’t even thought about it."

Holmquist surmised that audiences and artists alike measure their lives by productions they’ve performed or seen at specific theaters at certain times. Kansas City’s only resident opera company has produced those sorts of memories in the Lyric since 1970, when what was then called the Capri Theater became the company’s home.

"It feels like we’re leaving our mother," Holmquist said. "You know, the Lyric Theatre has sort of been our maternal symbol. It’s been our womb. It’s been our only home."

A recent visit to the company’s rehearsal studio at 18th and Charlotte streets revealed immediately that this was not going to be a standard-issue production of "The Marriage of Figaro." As director Mark Streshinsky watched, his performers worked on a raw-lumber set of three vertically connected rooms that looked ideal for a slamming-door farce.

And on one wall, Brumley’s renderings showed more curious details. The first image in Brumley’s architectural drawings showed a scene not from Mozart’s comic romp, but from Puccini’s "Tosca," which concludes with the heroine throwing herself to her doom from a parapet. And the final image depicted a bare stage, save for one object: a ghost light, traditionally placed at center stage after everyone has left a darkened theater.

The ghost light has a murky history -- some think it began in Shakespeare’s day as a burning candle left onstage to banish spirits -- but it serves a practical purpose. When all other lights in the theater have been turned off, the ghost light ensures that anyone walking across the stage won’t fall into the orchestra pit. But because superstition holds that it either keeps ghosts away or provides light for the theater’s nocturnal spirits to perform, it has acquired a certain mystical aura.

"It’s a very romantic thought," Brumley said. "And I think if you’re going to be in this business, even the most hardened cynical person you could run across in any company is just a failed romantic at heart."

Brumley takes credit for the final image of the ghost light, but it was up to Streshinsky to figure out how to construct a production around it.

"What was most important was that it was a production to say goodbye to the theater in a very reverential way, a fond way," Streshinsky said. "And Ward said something like, ‘What if all the scenery went away and we were left with the ghost light?’ So I thought that was just beautiful. Any time I’ve told people where the impetus for this idea came from, everyone just thinks it’s so sweet. It’s such a nice way to say goodbye. And Keith said it’s a valentine to the theater, which I think is wonderful."

Streshinsky came to Kansas City several months ago and, as he described it, spent about four days in a room with Holmquist, Brumley and others, going through the score and text note by note and word by word as they laboriously transformed "The Marriage of Figaro" into a modern-day backstage comedy, in which all the upper-class and lower-class characters in the original were transposed into present-day counterparts without grossly distorting the material.

Mozart’s four-act opera was first performed in 1786. Librettist Lorenzo De Ponte adapted a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais that satirized the aristocracy. Streshinsky’s task was to translate the material, in which the servant class outwits the nobles, into a piece that made sense to a supposedly classless modern American audience.

"I thought this was kind of a cute idea, but it scared me right away," Streshinsky said. "Because it means there’s all kinds of plot points and details that you have to translate from 18th century into whatever period we’re gonna do. And Ward did encourage me to go modern. He told me he thought Kansas City was ready to see a piece done outside of the period it was written for."

But there was more: Holmquist and general director Evan Luskin told Streshinsky that they wanted the piece set specifically at the Lyric Theatre and that the fictional opera company onstage should be the Lyric Opera. A highfalutin word, the idea would be "postmodern" or, if you prefer, "metatheatrical," but what it boils down to is a self-referential sort of theater in which no effort is made to conceal the artifice of stagecraft.

"For once we’re just gonna have fun with the nuts and bolts and watching the cogs turn," Brumley said. "We’re not gonna be spending much time hiding anything. That’s why turning it into a backstage drama made sense."

Thus, when Tosca throws herself to her death in the opening sequence, the audience will see her fall onto a backstage mattress.

"We decided it’s the closing day of a show," Brumley said. "So we asked, what is an instantaneously recognizable final moment of a show? And it very rapidly weeded itself down and there were few things more iconic than the ending of ‘Tosca.’ We had just done ‘Tosca,’ and some of the set pieces were near the top of the heap (in storage)."

The Lyric will stage the opera in two acts, with one intermission. But the curtain will remain up during the break, allowing the audience to watch the stage crew change the set.

After all is said and done, though, Streshinsky said the audience will still see a "Marriage of Figaro" that is true to the spirit of the original.

"My reasoning for doing modern dress is not to do something different, not to shock the audience, but actually to bring the audience in and really connect them to what’s going on," he said. "I always do (updates) very strictly to tell the story. I never veer from the story. I never do anything just to be weird or strange. It’s always about the story."

But the updates can also be fun and enhance the comedy. "And I love comedy," he said.

Yet, the comedy may have sharp aftertaste.

"It’s all about this being the last show," Brumley said. "And in a way, when this show ends, we do sort of walk away from this theater. And there are few things in life that are lonelier-looking than an empty theater with a ghost light on the stage."

ON STAGE

"The Marriage of Figaro" opens Saturday; additional performances are April 13, 15 and 17. Brenda Patterson sings the trousers role of Cherubino. Troy Cook sings Count Almaviva.

For ticket information: 816-471-7344, www.kcopera.org.

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