- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Though they won't open their spring stanza until late next month, the Washington Opera and its artistic director, Placido Domingo, are having an uncommonly hectic January. With its home at the Kennedy Center Opera House shuttered for a year because of the extensive renovations under way there, the exiled company has provided major funding for radically updating its temporary digs at historic DAR Constitution Hall, where it will perform six operas in 2003. These modifications will cost the company about $2.5 million, according to Mr. Domingo, with upgrade costs for backstage and dressing-room space to be absorbed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who own the auditorium.
Work on the building was well under way earlier this week when maestro Domingo swooped into town to announce the next opera season. It looks like a winner. "In planning the 2003-04 season," he said, "I adhered to two principles, variety and adventure." The new season offers plenty of both.
After opening with Johann Strauss' fizzy tunefest "Die Fledermaus" ("The Bat") in September, the company will close next season back at the Opera House with the East Coast premiere of Andre Previn's new opera, "Streetcar Named Desire," based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Sandwiched between will be performances of "Norma" and "Die Walkure" at Constitution Hall and "Manon Lescaut," "La Cenerentola" and "La Traviata" at the Kennedy Center.
There also was good financial news from Michael Sonnenreich, president of the Washington Opera's Board of Trustees. Mr. Sonnenreich announced that despite the current difficult financial situation in the arts, the company is still "in the black" and added, "We are confident enough to announce there will be no ticket price increases for the coming season."
After giving the press a peek at the construction under way at the venerable 1929 auditorium at 18th and D streets NW, Mr. Domingo was whisked off to the White House for a luncheon celebrating his 62nd birthday. The Washington Times caught up with him back at Constitution Hall, where an animated Mr. Domingo paced rapidly around the construction site, expressing astonishment at the progress already made.
Pointing to a huge metal grid system suspended about 20 feet above the main auditorium, he marveled, "All this was on the floor just this morning."
The grid system will hold state-of-the-art lighting as well as mechanicals, catwalks and space for the projection of supertitles on three sides, in addition to a series of sound baffles similar to the "acoustic cloud" added to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall during its renovation several years ago.
Constitution Hall was designed originally for the thundering orators of the day as well as the annual meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. While it has been used ever since for concerts and film showings, most critics have decried its cavernous, sound-deadening acoustics. Adding the new acoustic baffles and modifying other aspects of the auditorium will be major improvements, according to Mark Holden, president of Jaffe Holden Acoustics, the firm responsible for upgrading the acoustics.
Contacted in Connecticut, Mr. Holden explained that the baffles and other modifications "are framed in wood to provide resonancy and reflection patterns to improve articulation, clarity and hearing, particularly onstage." The new Constitution Hall "cloud" can be raised and lowered, as in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to adjust the space to different performances. Additionally, "acoustic enclosures and isolation mounts" will dampen the noise from the hall's clattery, drafty heating and air-conditioning systems. Running the fans slightly slower also will help, according to Mr. Holden.
Pointing to the gaping canyon that used to be Constitution Hall's first 18 rows of seats, Mr. Domingo described the new thrust stage that will be built there. "It will include small video monitors and will be open to the audience on three sides," he said. This will make the hall seem smaller.
"Everyone all around will have a good view," he said, and to make things even more interesting, theatrical entrances and exits could happen almost anywhere around the auditorium.
This theater-in-the-round approach could lead to some acoustical problems. The Washington Opera has made no secret that it may deploy a "fail-safe" electro-acoustical enhancement system. "We do not want to use this," Mr. Domingo says, "but with this stage arrangement, sometimes the singers must face different parts of the audience, and we want to be sure everyone always hears."
Mr. Domingo is sensitive to the hackles this might raise among opera purists who demand unamplified sound. "If we have to use this, we will be honest with our audience and always tell them," he promised.
The Washington Opera's next six performances in this newly transformed space are still taking shape, but they are likely to be some of the most unusual in the company's nearly 48-year existence. The upcoming "Aida," which will open Feb. 22, is a case in point.
"We will do many exciting things with electronics, with lights," Mr. Domingo said. "There will be projections and special effects," he said, possibly including optical illusions such as morphing. "Egyptian soldiers might seem to turn into Ethiopians right before your eyes."
He also confirmed that some of the performers will be wearing special fiber-optic costuming developed in Italy. "This will enable us to use many colors and many effects," he said. "It will make it possible to see the characters even if the auditorium is totally dark."
Most of the modifications to Constitution Hall will remain in place after the Washington Opera returns to the Kennedy Center in 2004. Although plans are incomplete, "We may from time to time return here to do some special things," Mr. Domingo said.
He told of one potential blockbuster opera that got away. The company's successful "La Boheme," presented in the autumn, very well might have been what is now Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme on Broadway." On a London flight a couple of years ago, Mr. Domingo suggested to Andrew Lloyd Webber that the Washington Opera might want to engage the popular director of "Moulin Rouge" to update "Boheme," if the British composer would agree to giving it a run in one of his London theaters.
"Mr. Webber was enthusiastic," Mr. Domingo said. Two weeks later, however, the current Broadway smash hit was announced. "It might have been 'The Washington Opera's La Boheme' in London." He smiled wistfully.
Next month, however, all eyes will be on Constitution Hall's new face-lift. In addition to "Aida," Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Beethoven's "Fidelio," which round out this season, the final opera of the company's Constitution Hall era will be its first performances in 29 years of Wagner's epic "Die Walkure," with Mr. Domingo singing the taxing role of Siegmund, doomed father of the hero, Siegfried. The special effects for those performances are still being worked out, according to Mr. Domingo.
Will the Washington Opera mount a postmodern "Walkure" as the Deutsche Oper Berlin did at the Kennedy Center in 1989, with Brunnhilde and her sister Valkyries dressed up as leather-clad biker babes wheeling around gurnies with body bags? "Ah, no, I don't think we will be doing anything like that," he said somberly. Then he brightened, his eyes crinkling with mischief. "But we might be able to project the Valkyries all over the hall."

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