Munro: Grand Opera goes to the barricades

The Fresno BeeDecember 21, 2013 

Peter Lockyer will play Jean Valjean.

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Fresno Grand Opera is hoping — in spectacular fashion — to live up to its middle name.

The company's budget for its new production of "Les Misérables," which opens Jan. 17 at the Saroyan Theatre for a four-performance run, is a whopping $800,000.

Big things are planned, including:

A cast of national-tour veterans as principals, including two who will go directly from the Fresno production to the new Broadway revival opening in March.

Scenery originally designed for a London production and national tour of the musical.

Original video projections in conjunction with that scenery. The company hired the man who designed the original projections used in the most recent North American national tour.

A bevy of New York designers with "Les Misérables" national tour experience. They're flying in to handle key creative tasks, including lighting design, sound design, conducting and orchestral sound programming.

Overall, the scale of the production far exceeds anything Fresno Grand Opera has done before. (By comparison, the budget for its big "Turandot" production in 2005 was about $375,000.) The royalties alone to perform the material are $28,000 a performance.

That translates to Broadway prices. Good orchestra seats at the Saroyan are $130.50, about the same as the top $139 price when "Les Misérables" reopens in March on Broadway.

If Fresno Grand Opera can pull the Fresno production off creatively and financially, it'll be a coup for the company, which in recent years has been trying to calibrate what works in the Fresno market in terms of opera.

It also marks a return for the company to the Saroyan Theatre for a staged production after venturing last season to the smaller Shaghoian Hall on the outskirts of the city to stage more intimate productions — a move that turned out to be disappointing creatively.

And with the company focusing its production efforts this season on a Broadway show and no traditional opera titles, opera fans wonder what it means for the future in terms of programming.

Ultimately executive director Ronald D. Eichman and associate director Thi Nguyen, both known for their assertive entrepreneurial arts philosophies, want to package the Fresno "Les Misérables" production as a revenue stream.

"We hope that the original product we are creating for Fresno will live on in future regional company productions throughout the country," Eichman says. "We will rent the video projections, and also provide technical consulting services to other companies seeking to produce at the same scale, and we hope to be able to profit from this."

Even with the prospect of such long-term returns, there are risks to staging such a big and expensive "Les Misérables." The central Valley saw no less than four local productions last year. Is there a danger of oversaturating the market?

The show is competing for discretionary Broadway dollars with the national tour of "Wicked," which is returning to the Saroyan April 2-13 for 16 performances.

There's a residual wariness in Fresno, too, of ambitious arts plans that are too ambitious. Memories linger of getting burned by the overzealous expansion and crushing fall of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum.

The real test, of course, will be the box office. Music Theatre International, which controls rights to the show, based its $28,000 per show royalty on the size of the hall. With four performances at the Saroyan, the company needs to sell about 9,200 tickets.

"We have great belief in our central Valley audiences, as fees for the show are based on capacity audiences," Eichman says. "It's very important for us to fill the hall."

As of Dec. 19, approximately 6,700 tickets had been sold, Eichman says.

Here's a further rundown on the production.

Production history. Since first storming the barricades on Broadway in 1987, tours of "Les Misérables" have criss-crossed the country. The national tour, with its trademark turntable stage, visited the Saroyan in 1993, 1996 and 1999. A reworked 25th anniversary tour hit the road in 2009, minus the turntable and heavy with digital projections, but inexplicably never made it to Fresno. It played its last performance in Las Vegas in August in preparation for the musical's revival in March 2014 at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.

After the movie version of "Les Misérables" in 2012, regional and community theater rights were released and a flood of local productions followed not only here but all over the country. This past summer in the Valley, productions were mounted by StageWorks Fresno, Reedley's River City Theatre Company, Visalia's League of Christian Actors and Playhouse Merced.

The budget. Fresno Grand Opera is thinking big with its $800,000 production budget, which puts it in line with productions from far larger regional companies such as Opera Philadelphia and Palm Beach Opera, says Patricia Kiernan Johnson of Opera America, a trade group.

The principal cast. Peter Lockyer performs the role of Valjean. Lockyer sang the role on the national tour for four years and "and is considered one of the world's leading Valjeans," says Nguyen. Performing as Javert is national-tour veteran Andrew Varela. "Interestingly, Andrew played Valjean on Broadway in the previous version of 'Les Misérables,' " Nguyen says.

Two of the Fresno principals — Max Quinlan as Marius and Jason Forbach as Enjolras — will join the Broadway production as ensemble members.

The scenic design. The scenery used for the Fresno production was originally designed for the 2009 national tour but used for just a few performances in the U.S. (It was replaced by a new design.) "We discovered that the original scenery was stored in Pittsburgh, where it has remained for the past several years," Nguyen says. "Because the original scenery required projected video images that were licensed exclusively to the producer of 'Les Misérables,' the original scenery has not been used since its debut performances. We found the sets first, then discovered the need to have original projections created that will debut in Fresno."

Those projections are being designed by Zachary Borovay, who designed the projections that were used for the original scenery.

The rest of the design team. The lighting designer is John Demous, who designed lighting for previous national "Les Misérables" productions. The sound designer is Steve Rogers, who designed sound for the national tour. The conductor is Brad Haak, who has conducted extensively on Broadway and for "Les Misérables." James Harp, who worked on special effects sounds for the national tour, is the sound programmer, augmenting the live orchestra with technology. Lockyer is the stage director.

The ensemble. About 40% of the cast of 44 is from the central Valley.

Representatives of Fresno Grand Opera traveled to local productions this past summer. Principal artists from local productions in the ensemble include Brian Lummis of Fresno; Limuel Forgey, Marina Amos and Seth Vasquez of Visalia; Roberto Vasquez of Hanford; and Alina Gonzales of Reedley.

The future

Call it the Top 10 dilemma: People in the Central Valley market are attracted to the most popular operas — and not so much lesser-known works. But audiences have diminished "when we've repeated these same Top 10 operas," Eichman says. "Because our mission is to produce all of our events at the highest levels of quality, our operatic repertoire becomes more limited as the years progress."

The experiment of producing more intimate operas at the Shaghoian Hall will likely not be repeated, he says. "We do not anticipate utilizing Shaghoian for staged productions unless we believe its scale is an appropriate fit."

So what's to come? A good guess is this: If Fresno Grand Opera can successfully package a high-level regional "Les Misérables" production, it will look to other titles that can sustain similar-sized budgets and audiences. How traditional opera titles will be woven into that philosophy remains to be seen.

MORE ONLINE

Countdown to "Les Misérables": Starting Jan. 3, follow the 2-week countdown to Fresno Grand Opera's ambitious local production through daily blog updates at fresnobeehive.com.

IF YOU GO

Fresno Grand Opera's "Les Misérables," Jan. 17-19, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. fresnograndopera.org, (559) 442-5699. $55.50-$130.50.

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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