CHICAGO (AP) — The stagehands were having trouble fitting a missing chunk of Carthage into place, but Michael Smallwood wasn't worried.
"That's why we have these technical rehearsals before the singers show up," Smallwood said in an interview last month in the darkened auditorium of the Civic Opera House where he was watching the set being assembled for Berlioz's "Les Troyens."
Smallwood, Lyric Opera's technical director, had overseen the same process a few weeks earlier for another 19th-century epic on the Lyric's schedule this fall: "Das Rheingold," the first installment in Wagner's "Ring" cycle. Because these are large-scale works posing considerable challenges, it's rare for a company to inaugurate new productions of both in the same season.
"Das Rheingold," with Eric Owens as Wotan, opens the season on Oct. 1. "Les Troyens," starring Christine Goerke as Cassandre, Brandon Jovanovich as Enee and Sophie Koch as Didon, premieres Nov. 13. Lyric music director Andrew Davis conducts both.
"It is a lot to bite off," Smallwood said. "But as big of a season as it is, it's also an exciting season. And that has payoffs, the reaction you get from an audience seeing these pieces at the end of the night."
"Les Troyens," directed by Tim Albery, uses a set designed by Tobias Hoheisel made of a steel frame with plastic panels that depicts a circular walled city nearly 25 feet high and 50 feet in diameter. For the opening acts in Troy, the wall is missing big pieces, which are strewn about the stage to show the destruction from 10 years of war. When the scene shifts to the shining new city state of Carthage, the wall is pristine — and plugging the gaps smoothly and quickly during intermission was one of the challenges for the technical rehearsal.
Given the huge forces it requires (18 solo roles, 94 choristers, expanded orchestra) any "Troyens" is going to be expensive. But thanks to the single set, this one turns out to be what Albery calls "a budget production, weirdly."
Lyric's general director Anthony Freud said the decision to do a minimalist staging was made "for both artistic and economic reasons."
"It's possible to make spectacle out of space rather than out of clutter," Freud said. "In a very spectacular, but visually spare way, we are distilling the story down to its essentials."
The set fits snugly onto Lyric's new state-of-the-art turntable, purchased as part of the company's $16.5 million fundraising campaign to upgrade its technical capabilities. (The turntable is also critical to the Lyric's third new production of the season, Mozart's "The Magic Flute.")
"We can feed information from the turntable to a video server and sequence its movements automatically to make sure it turns just the right amount as the action proceeds," Smallwood said. Before, he said, "your most reliable mark was always your two pieces of tape (one on the turntable and one on the stage floor) and making sure they lined up."
The turntable is but one item on a list of upgrades that includes a series of new lifts and traps. Davis acknowledged that previously "we were still rather antediluvian in our technical abilities here." The new "Rheingold," he said, "would not have been technically possible without the work we've done over the past summer."
That's especially true because director David Pountney has conceived his "Ring" as a theatrical experience rich in magical stage effects — with the unusual wrinkle that the audience will be able to watch how many of these effects are being created.
"For instance," Davis said, "the Rhinemaidens are on hoist lifts that will be moved around on stage by the crew in plain view of the audience. And at one point they'll actually be singing above my head, over the orchestra pit.
"It's very effective, and quite whimsical at times, which I think makes a nice change in Wagner."
Whimsy is also evident in the set designs by the late Johan Engels, which include enormous heads for the two giants made of fiberglass shells and inflatable boots and hands made from polyester-coated nylon.
Beyond the three new productions, Lyric is doing something else unusual with its repertory this season. Or rather, not doing something.
There are two bel canto works (Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Bellini's "Norma"), two other French operas (Bizet's "Carmen" and Massenet's "Don Quichotte") and one Russian opera, Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin"). There's also a spring run of Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady" in what has become an annual musical theater presentation.
But, as Davis noted, "no Verdi or Puccini at all!"
"For a company that used to be referred to as 'La Scala West,' it's a curious season in that respect," he said. "But subscriptions are selling very well."