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Boston Lyric Opera’s Upcoming Bernstein Double-Bill Is All About Transforming an Ice Rink Into a 1950s Nightclub

Boston Lyric Opera

By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, May 3, 2018

This spring the Boston Lyric Opera brings its season to a close with a premiere pairing of two Leonard Bernstein one-act operas: Trouble in Tahiti (1952) and Arias and Barcarolles (1988). The music itself is enough to grab your attention with the “B” name association, but BLO has an added element of surprise up its sleeve with a physical production that will dazzle its audience with the splashiest, elaborate, and eye-catching glitz of a 1950s era nightclub. Most amazing of all is that this transformation is taking place at the DCR Steriti Memorial Rink on the North End Waterfront of Boston.

Boston Lyric Opera Bernstein

DCR Steriti Memorial Rink; courtesy of BLO.

In Bernstein’s social piece about marriage (Trouble in Tahiti), disillusionment and reckoning of the “American Dream” in the post WWII suburban lifestyle, the plot remains current and the opera score is never out of style. Both works deal with the currency of love, the cycle of relationships and revelation that only time and age can offer. These are themes presented in modern dramatic theater, but Bernstein’s libretto is more personal, “ There aren’t many operas about suburban families and some biographers have suggested that Bernstein’s choice of subject matter was rooted in his own experiences.”


Boston Lyric Opera Bernstein

The transformation of Steriti Rink to a 1950s nightclub; courtesy of BLO.

In contrast to the “darker” material, the music is a mix of familiar Bernstein styles, combining jazzy elements heard in his On the Town score and with the grand sweeping melodies of West Side Story, which will be played in BLO’s production by a seven-piece ensemble. But the production team, Anna Labykina (production and technical director), David Schweizer (stage director) and Paul Tate Depoo III (set designer) also saw their challenge in creating the experience with the physical transformation of non-theater environment. As stated by Ms. Labykina, “the creative team is very excited by the possibilities of enclosing the cavernous space into an intimate salon evoked by the music.”


Boston Lyric Opera Bernstein

Set rendering for BLO’s upcoming double-bill; courtesy of BLO.

To look at the before and after pictures at BLO’s website, showing a BLO cast in rehearsal in this same space for Carmen (Fall of 2016), and then to see the metamorphosis to an El Morocco-inspired nightclub for their upcoming production, the visual achievement is stunning. Picture the bare gray cement walls of an ice rink, the flat-bed floor surface (without the hockey-check boards), the hanging utility lights, the exposed ceiling metal-grid framework and your imagination has to be very powerful to see what would become an incredible and radical change. As explained by Labykina, the cavernous shell was only an opportunity, “We were NOT disappointed…after all a completely open space is a carte blanche. It’s as if the rink itself was saying to the creative mind: please shape me in any way you’d like, hang any drapes and lights and walls, and make me your own.”

The physical space also offered up the opportunity to include the  audience, not just as viewers but as actually night club goers in the performance environment itself. In a very direct sense, those watching the performance become part of the physical set. Ms. Labykina speaks to this set and stage direction, “the design team knowing the amount of space available to them, took that as a cue to set up this relationship of the stage space and the audience.”


Boston Lyric Opera Bernstein

Model of set for BLO’s upcoming double-bill; courtesy of BLO.

This moment of stepping back in time is further enhanced and created by Somerville-raised, set designer Paul Tate DePoo III, evoking Manhattan’s popular 1950s nightclubs, down to the fine details, “individual lighting on floor tables and along tiered seating drink rails provides a cozy experience. The design’s green and gold color palette, spiked with tropical florals, plays out on the set and seating design, and the chandeliers hang above the action and stage.” This attention to these staging elements will clearly bring the audience into the moment and time period.


Boston Lyric Opera Bernstein

Heather Johnson (“Dinah”) and Marcus DeLoach (“Sam”) in BLO’s Trouble in Tahiti; photo: Liza Voll.

Following-up with this period setting for Trouble in Tahiti, Arias and Barcarolles is a song cycle that “jumps stylistically…from twelve-tone scale, to jazzy scat, to pop, to klezmer – over a 30-minute duration.” Bernstein’s music will meld with the environmentally-inspired setting as the seven-piece band, along with four-hand piano, are centrally featured wearing white dinner jackets, making the atmosphere for the evening complete.

So come be transported to a 1950s nightclub and pretend for an evening you are at the Copacabana or El Morocco with a cocktail in hand enjoying an ever-modern operatic score reflecting on a time when the American Dream was right in front of you. What better way to ride out trouble in paradise?


BLO’s double-bill of Trouble in Tahiti and Arias and Barcarolles runs May 11-20; for more information and to purchase tickets click here.

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Cover: Set rendering for BLO’s upcoming double-bill; courtesy of BLO.


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