One can only imagine what the first performance of “The Nutcracker” at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg was like.
In 1892, theaters were just starting to transition from gaslight to electric light. Stage effects, like a growing Christmas tree, were crude at best, and a considerable amount of suspension of disbelief was required from the audience. How times have changed.
Devon Carney, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, now has an amazing toy box of technology at his disposal, and he has used it to its fullest potential in his production of “The Nutcracker.” The multimillion-dollar extravaganza will begin its second year at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday and will run through Christmas Eve.
Let’s start with the lighting. Not that long ago, lighting designers were limited to overhead and side lighting, which would have a single color gel slide in a tray in front of it. More complex color changes were made possible through the use of scrolls, a continuous roll of up to 25 colors that could be scrolled in front of a light.
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“It could be a little tedious,” Carney said. “If the lighting wasn’t called at the right moment, you’re going to get all these funny colors splashing on the stage. And they made noises, so you couldn’t do a scroll change while the music is quiet.”
But now there are LED lights that can easily change colors.
“The amount of different colors just blows my mind,” Carney said. “And we have automatic lights, which are lights that move from one place to another on the stage. That’s another technology we didn’t have 15 years ago. It’s like having a guy holding a spotlight and telling him to point here on this count and then point over there eight counts later.”
Another gasp-inducing special effect in Carney’s “Nutcracker” is the balloon that carries Clara to the Land of Sweets.
“When I rode the balloon in the ’80s, we had two guys, one would operate the vertical rise and descent and the other guy the horizontal sideways movement,” Carney said. “It could be challenging. There were always good fly guys and not-so-good fly guys. You always hoped for a good pair of fly guys. Especially when you’re the one being flown.”
Now Carney uses a programmable motorized flying unit. “Everything the balloon does is memorized from last year,” he said.
And nothing less than a three-dimensional, fully lit Christmas tree would suffice for Carney.
“We built a tree,” Carney said. “I wanted something that was real. I wanted the audience to feel that this was an honest-to-goodness real experience that was occurring. It’s powered by a hydraulic lift that raises it up. All the leaves are a rubberized, three-dimensional material with ornaments that are real that hang off of it. The candles in the tree are all LED lights, which gives us a greater variety of colors we can use. I love the tree.”
But many of the effects are old-school and have hardly changed since the first performance of “The Nutcracker.” The “snow” is simply pieces of paper (although now fire retardant to satisfy stringent codes) that are gently dropped from a snow bag operated manually by two crew members.
And the gorgeous sets designed by Alain Vaës are all hand-painted.
But no matter how spectacular the sets and lighting, “The Nutcracker” is still about the dance. And it’s the ballet’s choreography that is getting most of Carney’s attention.
“It’s exciting to come back to it,” he said. “I’ve taken a few steps out and replaced them with other steps. It’s just refining. I want it to be as effective as possible in communicating the energy and the mood of the piece, so any little thing I can do to clean that up a little bit, I’m all about that. I want it to be the best it absolutely can be.”
The last ‘Messiah’
The Kansas City Symphony and the Independence Messiah Choir will celebrate 100 years of performing George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” with four performances at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts beginning Thursday.
The Independence Messiah Choir gave its first performance of Handel’s masterpiece in April 1916 at the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints General Conference’s Stone Church. After going through a rocky financial period that almost ended the annual tradition, the Messiah Choir partnered with the Kansas City Symphony, which has kept the performances going since 2005.
Unfortunately, the Symphony and the Independence Messiah Choir have announced that this will be the final year they present Handel’s “Messiah.” Citing “logistical and artistic challenges” in a written statement, both groups expressed admiration for the other but noted that the church-sponsored Independence Messiah Choir was unable to offer the additional financial and administrative resources needed “to raise the artistic standard to the next level.”
Jazz at Lincoln Center
The Harriman-Jewell Series will bring some New York holiday magic to Kansas City when it presents “Big Band Holidays: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra” with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and special guest Catherine Russell on Thursday at Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
Marsalis’ silvery trumpet will add sparkle to the brassy yuletide concert, and versatile jazz vocalist Catherine Russell, one of America’s musical treasures, will sing songs that alternate between holiday bliss and heart-rending nostalgia. This year has been hard for Russell, who at one time was a backup singer for David Bowie. She reflected on a year filled with loss, sorrow and strife.
“We absolutely did lose so many people, including Leon Russell, Mose Allison and Gwen Ifill,” Russell said. “My philosophy is if we’re nice to each other, then the world will be a better place. Just try to spread love and joy with one another and respect each other. That’s how we can make things better.”
Russell, Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Orchestra are doing their part to end the year on a high note. “Big Band Holidays” features rousing arrangements of favorites like “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Let It Snow” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And only a full-throated singer like Russell could pull off an arrangement of Mahalia Jackson’s “No Room at the Inn.”
“Music is a great creator of bridges between people, so this is what we can do to bring joy into people’s lives,” Russell said. “I have found lately that people are very happy to have music in their lives. I know I’m very blessed to have music in my life.”
The Ten Tenors at JCCC
What’s better than 10 lords a-leaping? How about 10 tenors singing?
The Performing Arts Series of Johnson County Community College will present “The Ten Tenors: Home for the Holidays” for two performances on Saturday at Yardley Hall.
Founded in Brisbane, Australia, in 1997, the Ten Tenors usually sing everything from opera to AC/DC to Leonard Cohen. The group’s Yardley Hall concert will, of course, focus on holiday fare, with unique arrangements of traditional favorites and contemporary Christmas tunes. But there will be some non-holiday music, too, including a medley called “On Broadway.”
British choristers sing carols
You can count on the Friends of Chamber Music for a classy Christmas concert. This year, the British choral group Stile Antico will perform “A Wondrous Mystery: Flemish and German Carols” on Friday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Although Stile Antico sings without a conductor, these highly skilled choristers, steeped in the tradition of British cathedral music, perform the most complex Renaissance polyphony with aplomb. “Wondrous Mystery” will include Christmas works by some of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, like Michael Praetorius, Clemens Non Papa and Orlandus Lassus.
Come early for a little choral stocking stuffer. Kansas City’s own Te Deum Chamber Choir, conducted by Matthew Shepard, will perform a selection of holiday hymns at 7 p.m.
Christmas With Spire
The Spire Chamber Ensemble, led by Ben Spalding, will present two concerts of carols lit by the warm glow of candles on Saturday at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Sunday, Dec. 4, at Village Presbyterian Church.
Christmas With Spire will feature a wide variety of music ranging from Gregorian chant to Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols to a world premiere by Spalding himself.