UK’s Porgy & Bess: great sets, even better music

January 29, 2011

I’ve never been to an opera before where I wanted to applaud for engineers almost as much as singers and musicians.

Friday was opening night for University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of the classic George and Ira Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. The show was professional-level outstanding, as UK Opera’s productions usually are. The large, all-African American cast drew from UK’s students and faculty, as well as those from Kentucky State University in Frankfort. They were backed by UK’s terrific orchestra.

What makes this production unique, though, are high-tech stage sets developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. Brent Seales, the center’s director, worked with Atlanta-based set designer Richard Kagey to create something theaters have been trying to do for years: image-projection sets good enough to enhance a show rather than distract from it. Click here to read a column I recently wrote about the project.

After watching the opening-night show, I was pleased (and relieved) to see that the sets were as good as promised. After UK’s production ends, the sets will be rented by The Atlanta Opera, and other opera companies also are interested. More importantly, UK hopes to commercialize the technology for other applications in theater and beyond.

In the photo above, the cast took a bow Friday night. After the show, below, Kagey gave a backstage tour to show UK Opera supporters how the system works.  The video images shown in the last photo helped make for a realistic hurricane scene.

If You Go

‘Porgy and Bess’

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at singletarytickets.com.

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UK collaboration creates high-tech ‘Porgy & Bess’

January 22, 2011

When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera.

They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.

Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won’t be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.

These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.

“The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn’t happened before,” said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.

Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected “virtual” sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.

“If you were in the balcony, it didn’t work at all,” said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.

“I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.

To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.

Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is “calibration” software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.

As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. “Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen,” Seales said.

The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy’s shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. “But we won’t have those huge pieces that we’ve had to build before to make it believable,” McCorvey said.

Three-year collaboration

McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation’s top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.

But Seales and McCorvey didn’t meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.

“As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing,” said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. “As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater.”

McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.

“It’s a work near and dear to my heart,” McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.

McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House’s stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.

McCorvey’s problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK’s Porgy and Bess.

After UK’s last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.

UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.

“Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about,” Seales said.

While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK’s vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.

“I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time,” McCorvey said. “Len Heller looked at it and said to me, ‘This is going to be really big.'”

  • If You Go

    ‘Porgy and Bess’

    What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera

    When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at singletarytickets.com.

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Aria man has advice for entrepreneurs

February 1, 2010

Everett McCorvey performs at "A Prelude to A Grand Night for Singing" in May 2008. The "Prelude" and "Grand Night" events have become big fundraisers for UK Opera Theatre and popular community events. Photo by Tom Eblen

Everett McCorvey isn’t a businessman; he’s a musician and a teacher. He has started a lot of companies, but not the kind you usually associate with entrepreneurs.

McCorvey is a skilled entrepreneur nonetheless, having accomplished the unlikely feat of turning Lexington — a city best known for developing racehorses and basketball players — into a center for developing opera singers, too.

Since McCorvey came to Lexington in 1991, he has transformed the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program by attracting public support and private donations. He said the program he began building with a $20,000 loan now has an annual budget of more than $1 million and an endowment approaching $5 million.

In his spare time, McCorvey started the American Spiritual Ensemble, which has toured the world and recorded several albums in an effort to preserve music inspired by slave melodies. The group began another tour last week with a sold-out performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre.

McCorvey recently formed Global Creative Connections to produce opening and closing ceremonies for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He said he wants those productions to include as many Kentuckians as possible.

Last week, McCorvey, with backup from the American Spiritual Ensemble, gave a lecture at UK about entrepreneurship. He offered many insights into the attitudes, behaviors and strategies that have helped him succeed.

Some of them might work for you, too, even if you have little interest in business — or opera. That is because entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily about making money; it’s about figuring out ways to achieve your dreams.

McCorvey, 52, was born into segregated Montgomery, Ala., and lived around the corner from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother was a librarian. His father worked overnight for the post office, ran a grocery, dabbled in real estate and sprayed homes for bugs. Plus, he was active in church and the local civil rights movement.

“My father was a tremendous role model for me,” McCorvey said. “My only problem was that I didn’t have the energy to keep up with him.”

McCorvey’s interest in music was sparked by a student trumpeter at Alabama State University who rented a room in their home. McCorvey persuaded his father to rent him a trumpet so he could learn to play. Performing in school bands, he later switched to baritone horn.

When McCorvey auditioned for the University of Alabama, he mentioned, as an afterthought, “Oh, by the way, I also sing.” Professors soon convinced him that his primary talent was singing, so that’s where he focused. “I had to work very hard to develop that talent,” he said.

McCorvey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Alabama, then spent years in New York and abroad, performing in a wide variety of genres and venues — opera houses, Broadway theaters, TV commericals. That’s when he met his wife, singer Alicia Helm McCorvey.

He learned a lot about the business of show business before returning to Alabama to earn a doctorate. “And because Alabama was not like New York, I learned that if I wanted to do something in music, I had to create the opportunities,” he said.

McCorvey joined the UK faculty after teaching at a small college in Knoxville, Tenn., but a mentor warned him that opera would never be appreciated in Kentucky.

“I don’t know if I took that as a challenge, or what,” McCorvey said. He knew that creating an outstanding program would require recruiting the best singers available and producing professional-quality operas to train them.

While serving on the UK Athletics Association’s board, McCorvey studied the basketball program’s strategies and applied them to his goals.

“I thought that I needed my own athletics association,” he said. “Babies here leave the hospitals in UK sweatshirts. I thought that what I need to figure out is how to make Kentucky babies grow up loving the arts.”

He noticed that Lexington was filled with amateur singers and others who appreciate music. So he convinced some of them to create the Lexington Opera Society, which raises money and rallies support for UK Opera Theatre.

Entrepreneurship, like an opera production, is all about collaboration, he said. It requires engaging people who have skills you don’t have and creating a vision others want to share.

McCorvey said his job was best described by the late comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly, an opera lover he met while spending time with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“He said, ‘If it’s important to you, your job is to make it important to them,’ ” McCorvey said. “That’s basically what I do.”

  • McCorvey’s advice for entrepreneurs:

    • Enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, do something else because life is too short.
    • Surround yourself with positive spirits.
    • Celebrate the amazing talents of others.
    • Be patient, be persistent and pray constantly.
    • Don’t try to do things that aren’t in your skill set.
    • Work harder than anyone else at the things you do well.
    • Engage people who have skills you don’t have and collaborate with them.
    • The more collaborative you are, the more you can achieve.
    • Engage your community in every way possible.
    • Find the good and praise it. (A tip from his friend Alex Haley, the late author of Roots.)
    • Stay away from ‘energy vampires.’
    • Embrace your fears and go with them.
    • Stay focused on your dreams and goals. Stop doing things that don’t support them.
    • Be good and kind to everyone; you never know when it might come back to you.
    • When a door closes, a window opens. Some doors should close; celebrate that.
    • Expect good things, and look forward to the next opportunity for something special to happen.