Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the work that turned Shostakovich into persona non grata with Stalin, tells the story of a Russian family torn apart by violence and infidelity. When LA Opera presented a staging of it from the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg, the effort ended in a drama nearly as operatic— luckily, with a much happier ending.
Opera companies frequently rent productions from each other, and the same sets, props and costumes that you see in one city may travel all around the world. This means that LA Opera’s production staff is used to receiving a dismantled set in shipping containers and assembling it for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. However, a labor strike was underway at the Port of Los Angeles during the 2002/03 season. After a few days of waiting, the captain of the ship, containing the production’s sets, decided to turn around. Just a week from opening night, all the set pieces were sailing to Tokyo.
Jeff Kleeman, LA Opera’s Technical Director, was on the production staff back then. He remembers that when the company’s leadership learned the sets had left, there was some talk about presenting a concert version. Even though that approach would have been much easier, he was always opposed: “think of how disappointing that would be for patrons and artists.” So Kleeman advocated for the most extreme option: rebuilding every single set from scratch.
The technical director of the Mariinsky Theater, where the Kirov performs, flew from St. Petersburg to LA with blueprints for the sets and spent a few days going over them with the production team— guidance they needed, since everything was written in Russian. The 20-person crew worked for 10 to 12 hours a day to recreate the opera’s large set pieces, down to custom barn latches and even an oversized barrel. Most sets take about three months to build, but after a week of frantic construction, the set was delivered on time—not counting the crew’s work on tech, mechanics and lighting, which was still going on at 5 p.m. on opening night.
At their first dress rehearsal, the cast walked in and was absolutely shocked at the set they saw—identical to the one from Russia. Well, except for one difference. “We had ripped through thousands of feet of pinewood in a week,” Kleeman said. “It was so fresh, when the curtain rose you could smell the wood. It smelled like a sawmill!”
However, the amazing duplicate wasn’t destined to last. Since it was a rental, LA Opera didn’t have the rights to keep the set, and the Mariinsky didn’t need a duplicate version. So, after the run of performances, the entire set was immediately sent to wood recycling. It lasted for “less than three weeks door-to-door.” Kleeman has never heard of another company having to do something like this.
While the occasional stray container may go missing, requiring its contents to be rebuilt, the experience of reconstructing an entire set from the ground up seems to be unique to LA Opera.