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

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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

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Alltech, UK Opera join forces to help Haiti

June 12, 2010

About 10 days after a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, Pearse Lyons decided to go take a look. He flew to the Dominican Republic, then took a helicopter into Haiti. “You don’t need to be there long to see the tragedy,” he said.

Like so many others, the founder and president of Alltech wanted to help. But he knew it would do little good in the long run to throw more aid money into one of the world’s poorest, most-beleaguered countries.

What Haiti needed, Lyons thought, was sustainable economic development, jobs for its people and hope for its children. And because he is a businessman, Lyons thought that helping Haiti could also be good for his company, which mostly sells natural animal nutrition supplements in 120 countries.

Pearse Lyons

Pearse Lyons

After four months of work and a lot of help from friends, Lyons and Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program, sat down Friday to discuss their plans for Ouanaminthe, a city of 100,000 people near the border with the Dominican Republic in northeast Haiti.

Lyons’ company is buying 10 acres of land and plans to construct a new building for a local school with about 350 students. A new medical clinic and an Alltech factory that will initially employ 20 or 30 Haitians also will be built.

McCorvey and his graduate students plan to create Haitian Harmony, a music training program for the school’s children. Haiti has a strong music culture, and Alltech employees found when they visited the school that each classroom wanted to welcome them with a song.

McCorvey and his students plan to have a choir of 35 or so Haitian children organized in time to bring them to Lexington to perform at the opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Sept. 25.

He hopes the choir will eventually become like the African Children’s Choir, a touring ensemble that can draw global attention to Haiti’s needs — and potential. “These kids could get to do something for themselves and their country,” he said.

Lyons, who has made two more trips to Haiti since January, will be going back later this month with McCorvey to work on the project. UK Opera students Eric Brown, the first winner of the Alltech Vocal Competition in 2006, and Manuel Castillo also will go to begin the Haitian Harmony program. They will be joined later by other UK voice students.

Alltech has a long history of setting up businesses in distant lands. This venture makes sense, Lyons said, because although Alltech has no facilities in the Dominican Republic, it sells about $2 million worth of products there each year. Most of those products are made in the United States or Brazil, but there is no reason they couldn’t be made in Haiti instead.

“When could you find a situation where your first order is for $2 million?” Lyons said. “That’s the sustainability part of it. And I think that $2 million will quickly become $4 million, where otherwise it might have become just $2.2 million without this focus.”

Everett McCorvey

Everett McCorvey

Alltech chose Ouanaminthe for its efforts on the advice of local business contacts and Catholic missionaries. Because the city is in a part of the country less damaged by the quake, it is more ready for economic development.

The Alltech plant will begin by hiring Haitians to mix animal nutrition supplements from concentrates. “It’s a pretty manual process,” said Dan Haney, Alltech’s director of manufacturing. The company already has the equipment it needs, sitting in a warehouse in Springfield.

Lyons envisions other Alltech business opportunities that could employ Haitians. For example, the company buys several hundred pounds of coffee to produce its new Bluegrass Sundown bourbon-and-coffee drink. “Why couldn’t that coffee be grown in Haiti?” he said.

“There is a branding opportunity here, and it is a branding opportunity with a cause,” Lyons said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Alltech’s initial business and philanthropic investment in Haiti will be about $500,000, which includes $100,000 donated by Alltech employees and matched by the company. Other money is coming from Alltech suppliers and customers. Lyons also is getting help from a fellow Irishman, Denis O’Brien, who owns Haiti’s main telecom company, Digicel.

Lyons and McCorvey see the potential for creating close ties between Lexington and Haiti — economic, cultural and human. “This project could be life-changing for them,” McCorvey said, “and maybe for all of us.”

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