writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Revamped in Red
The Kennedy Center Opera House is Back in Action

Opera House Preview Performance
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

by George Jackson
copyright © 2003 by George Jackson

[The Opera House at Kennedy Center closed for major refurbishing in December 2002. It reopened 11 months later for this performance, which Michael Kaiser, the Center's president, referred to in his introductory remarks as a "test". Kaiser said of the renovation that it was "nearly completed", and he also emphasized that a major goal was to make the Opera House more accessible. An organization for "promoting the creative power in people with disabilities", VSA Arts, was co-presenter with Kennedy Center of the three part program. ]

Thinking of the Kennedy Center's Opera House in its original guise, what comes to mind first and foremost is red. It was a very red theater when it opened in 1971 and neither time nor wear and tear altered that. The red was medium in tone, and the cloths that bore the color covered walls, ceiling, seats and floor. The stage curtain, on which a golden yellow pattern seemed woven into the red background, looked texturally festive. The other red fabrics didn't.

The Opera House is still a very red theater, except that now not all the reds match.The curtain seems to be the same one as before. Most of the walls are covered in a darker shade, a deep burgundy that makes the entire house more dusky than before. There's more wood showing, neat cherrywood, particularly on the seat backs. The seats themselves are hard, which is good because you'll not doze off for long. Their total is 2374 seats, 60 more than before. Standing room capacity at the rear of orchestra seating is 24, with a new rail for leaning support. The chandeliers, from Lobmeyr in Vienna, still cluster on the ceiling like starfish in a breeding pool. More elaborate now is entry into the house. From the lobby you used to pass through one of several outer doors into a small vestibule and then an inner door. That arrangement has been replaced by low-ceiling lobby passages that join some of the formerly discreet spaces between each set of doors.

To see and hear what happens in a performance, the original Opera House was good. There were no dead spots in the audience portion of the theater and even seats in the high balcony didn't seem terribly far away. Comparing it to the theaters of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center Opera House was and is -- in respect to capacity -- more like the New York State Theater than the vast Metropolitan Opera House. As a setting for lyric theater, though, it turned out to be distinctive. I never saw George Balanchine's Vienna Waltzes look better than from the Kennedy Center Opera House balcony. That ballet has a backdrop of mirrors, and in Washington they reflected not just the stage picture but the conductor and behind that personage you could also discern the audience, the contours of the house and even a hint of its red color. The effect was devilish, far more so than that of the more mundane reflection at the State Theater for which the ballet had been designed.

It was the end piece on Wednesday's program, Leonard Bernstein's Mass (Excerpts), that tested the Kennedy Center Opera House with some stringency. The stage had been opened to its extreme depth. On stage was a sizeable force: orchestra, choruses, solo singers, dancers. The sound that came to my seat was clear and you could locate where it came from. Nor did I have to strain my neck to see any part of the crowd of performers. There's not much incline in the front part of orchestra seating (I was fairly close to the stage, Row L, in the first seat to the right of the left aisle), yet the heads between me and the stage were well staggered and allowed for unobstructed views.

This was my first real acquaintance with Mass. It has emotional force despite and because of the shameless mixture in it of Gustav Mahler, West Side Story, Roman Catholic liturgy and Hebrew prayer. The cast—mostly Catholic University students conducted by their dean, Murry Sidlin, and joined by professional singers Douglas Webster and Harolyn Blackwell—took unreservedly to Bernstein's obvious contrasts and subtle surprises, giving them their due. Stage direction was credited to Michael Scarola and choreography to Dan Knechtgest. There was, of course, an awareness in the house that Mass had been commissioned for the opening of Kennedy Center and that now, 31 years later and 40 years after President Kennedy's assassination, others associated with the original production—Bernstein, Jacqueline Kennedy and choreographer Alvin Ailey among them—were also deceased.

The program's midpiece, Solo , showed that a single person can hold the Opera House stage. The dancer Homer Avila—with his proud carriage of the head, muscular arms and single leg—summoned control and did not always hide anger as he did what his profession has to do: pursue dance . Avila's choreographer was Victoria Marks, and Miguel Frasconi supplied the music and musical composition. What did not fare well was Deaf West Theater in excerpts from the Huckleberry Finn musical Big River. The staging would likely have gained needed intimacy in a smaller theater and, as Kennedy Center admits, the Opera House's sound system needs more adjusting for intensely amplified fare.

It will take some time and a varied repertory to bring out the renovated house's advantages and drawbacks. We will have to wait until December and the Kirov/Maryinsky companies to learn how the Opera House functions for fully staged opera and ballet. A "sprung" wooden floor placed over the regular stage floor will still be installed for dance performances. And, will it take a season or years to grow used to those mismatched reds?

The photo is of the Kennedy Center Opera House in its reconstruction phase. Your can find more photos and more information on the project the Kennedy Center's web site.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 9
November 24, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by George Jackson




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on November 24, 2003