Set in motion
The Pirates of Penzance
A week before show time, the set for The Pirates of Penzance arrives by truck from Salt Lake City. Early Friday morning, workers squeeze the pieces into the Pioneer Center’s just-big-enough elevator. By 10:30 a.m., the set is ready to assemble. Plywood sits stacked on industrial dollies, and canvas bins are full of rolled-up black curtains. A wooden ship with white fabric sails leans against the scruffy black wall at the back of the stage. Eleven stagehands in jeans and kneepads arrange and rearrange bits of scenery. They carry walkie-talkies and sneak bites of breakfast from single-serving bags of Doritos as they work.
Pirates, penned by Gilbert and Sullivan in 1879, is a raucous potboiler that’s both a spoof on the over-the-top Victorian melodrama and an actual over-the top Victorian melodrama. Traditionally, the pirates carouse and maraud in front of extravagant backgrounds, but this weekend, the actors will be backed by a more modern, minimal interpretation of the set.
Regarding the set’s Utah origins, Nevada Opera artistic director Michael Borowitz explains that opera companies often share resources out of necessity. The Nevada Opera has only three local, full-time employees—Borowitz lives in Manhattan—and, like most opera companies, it doesn’t have a budget to maintain its own set shop. When Borowitz found out that the Utah Opera, which does have its own set shop, was planning a production of Pirates for this summer, he proposed that the Utah company design its set in advance and rent it to the Nevada Opera. The collaboration went off without a hitch.
In the process of acquiring a set for its previous production, however, the opera ran into a nerve-wracking glitch. The set for Tosca was rented last fall from the New Orleans Opera Association. As Borowitz puts it, between the time Hurricane Katrina blew in and the time Nevada Opera officials learned that the set hadn’t been damaged, “we were sweating bullets for a while.”
The set isn’t the only out-of-town resource the opera company is relying upon to stage Pirates. Gary Briggle is an independent director based in Minneapolis who’s visiting Reno just long enough to put the show together before he has to take it on the road. After a whirlwind two weeks of rehearsal time here, he’ll dash over to Sacramento to direct another performance. (This is Briggle’s 10th time directing Pirates, and the level of calmness in his voice when he says, “We’re doing it in two weeks,” is convincing.)
Five stagehands begin to lift a precarious metal framework into vertical position. They put it down, adjust a few things, and try again.
“I’m hoping we can light it to look like a pen-and-ink drawing,” says Briggle. He describes his vision of colored lights behind the steel outline. They’ll allude to English watercolor painting with Turneresque skies, he says.
By the Monday morning before opening night, the steel structure is standing on its own, spanning about half the width of the Pioneer Center’s stage. It looks like an architectural line drawing of a cityscape, with shapes that could be church-like or nautical. The black curtains hang from the wings, hiding the previously exposed ropes, pulleys and catwalks above the stage. Blond wood risers have been assembled, and all is quiet—but only until the piracy, lust and sword fighting begin.