With sets shipped from Europe stuck on a boat that can't dock because of coronavirus disruption, LA Opera went to work building new sets, cramming months of work into ten days.



Having closed down during the coronavirus pandemic, the LA Opera was all set to reopen this month. But its upcoming production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Il Trovatore" hit a snag waiting for rented stage equipment to arrive from Europe. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the drama that's been unfolding behind the scenes.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Verdi's opera "Il Trovatore" is about passion, secrets and revenge. The LA Opera is adding to its version a story of resilience.


DEL BARCO: Stage sets and visual effects that were shipped over from the Opera de Monte-Carlo in Monaco were supposed to arrive in LA three weeks ago. But delays caused by the pandemic have disrupted shipping supply chains, and there are bottlenecks at seaports around the world. So instead of getting unloaded, the ship carrying 40-foot containers marked for the opera company sits anchored off the Port of Los Angeles.

JEFF KLEEMAN: They were diverted back to the open ocean to wait in a line of currently something like 38 other container ships.

DEL BARCO: Jeff Kleeman, the opera's technical director, says he was told the ship wouldn't dock until next week.

KLEEMAN: Which puts it well past our window of opportunity to get it in the theater, build it, light it and have it ready for opening night.

DEL BARCO: So Kleeman says they decided to build new sets from scratch.


DEL BARCO: At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, carpenters, electricians and painters are now on a tight deadline - sawing, drilling, screwing in and painting new wall panels and floorboards for the stage.

KLEEMAN: A normal new build for us is anywhere from three to six months.

DEL BARCO: And you're having to do this in...

KLEEMAN: Ten days.

DEL BARCO: Oh, my God.

KLEEMAN: Yeah - 14 hours a day, 45 people, 10 days straight to get back on our original schedule.

DEL BARCO: Meanwhile, the company is rehearsing the opera, including the famous "Anvil Chorus," which they sang for a virtual concert in June.


LA OPERA: (As characters, singing in Italian).

DEL BARCO: Kleeman's been with the LA Opera for more than 35 years. He remembers something similar happened when dockworkers went on strike in 2002. Sets for a production of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth" were supposed to arrive from Russia.

KLEEMAN: Same thing - ship's stuck out on the ocean, probably within sight of here, and we just can't get to it. So it all had to be replicated from scratch as well.

DEL BARCO: Sounds like this whole production is like an opera itself.

KLEEMAN: Without a doubt.

DEL BARCO: But this time, there was a new problem to solve. LA Opera didn't have blueprints for the "Il Trovatore" stage sets, just some rough assembly notes. After her initial shock, design manager Carolina Angulo immediately got to work trying to decipher a few photos and videos of the European production.

CAROLINA ANGULO: Basically, I needed to go back to the drawing board and start figuring all those pieces and modules on how to put this together with the tools that we have in-house, trying to recreate what it needs to be on this space with the materials that we work in the U.S. Because it came from Europe, it's all in a different even metric system.

DEL BARCO: Luckily, the costumes and props arrived by air months ago. But the company had to rent 240 feet of LED equipment for visual effects, and a pyrotechnics expert is putting together propane gas fire effects with live flames. Angulo says she's still working out all the details.

ANGULO: I've been trying to generate drawings - construction drawings at the same time that I'm supervising actual construction. So it's been (laughter) a little bit of a mad race, but that's what it takes. And it's also kind of the thrill of the theater. And you know, we're all excited to make it happen.

DEL BARCO: The opera company had to work through various travel bans and visa issues to assemble all the players, and they've put COVID precautions in place. Kleeman says this last-minute construction is just one more challenge.

KLEEMAN: I mean, our goal here in coming back into the theater this season was to provide that recovery for our world, the healing that comes from live art. And that same drive is what caused us to very quickly pivot without really even a second thought.

DEL BARCO: He says they'll be ready when the curtains rise September 18.


LA OPERA: (As characters, singing in Italian).

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.