Give us 60 feet, and we'll give you magic," boasted Robert Lyall, artistic director of the New Orleans Opera Association, as he flourished a shopworn goblet. "This dusty old glass may not look like much here on a shelf, but place it in some grand scenery and shine the right lights on it, and it'll be fit for a king."
Lyall's swagger was understandable that day -- almost a year before Hurricane Katrina poured 8 inches of water into the props area of the opera's H. Lloyd Hawkins Scenic Studio in Metairie.
Those days now seem like a golden age to Lyall and others involved in the music and performing arts in New Orleans. The difficulties of dusting off props and creating stage impressions pale in comparison to the reality of damaged sets and props and lost equipment -- the key ingredients in their special brand of magic.
After an early September tour of the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts, where the opera has presented performances since 1972, Lyall initially felt encouraged. There was roof damage, water in the theater and some electrical problems, he recalls. The facility wasn't perfect, of course, but it hadn't been for years. The opera had always dealt with the difficulties that the theater presented and gotten the show on the road.
"I thought we'd be back in there in a couple of months," he says. "I knew we were in trouble with the fall season, Otello and The Marriage of Figaro, but surely, I thought, the theater would be ready for our gala in February and the spring season."
For a moment, there were thoughts that the first two operas might be performed elsewhere, but soon it was clear that all other facilities in the area had suffered similar fates. Musicians of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which provides the opera's music, were scattered across the country, as were members of the opera chorus and staff.
And what would the audience be when so few people had returned to the city? Concern extended to the first opera of the spring season, Czech composer Leos Jancek's Jenufa, a New Orleans premiere, which would balance the final opera, Madame Butterfly. Although both operas were premiered in 1904, would audiences stay away from a "modern" opera, Jenufa, in which, to make matters worse, a baby is drowned?
Rossini's The Barber of Seville, a comic opera that was easily cast, replaced the controversial work. Lyall knew this perennially popular comedy would draw a crowd at a time when the organization had to study the bottom line carefully.
Reluctantly, the board of directors cancelled the fall season and focused on the gala, originally part of the subscription season, which was to honor the company's longtime general and artistic manager, Arthur Cosenza. Lyall had turned his attention to the Municipal Auditorium as a site for the gala, hearing that it might become available.
Then Cosenza died in December, and the board decided to dedicate the 2006-2007 season to him. That opened the way to a more prominent event, one that might draw the top operatic singers to New Orleans as a statement of the importance of music and opera to the revitalization of the city's culture as it rebuilt.
"We all wanted to address the opera's commitment to the city in the most visible and productive way. And this was carpe diem," Lyall exclaimed. "'Seize the day.' We're at a time when not only the eyes of the greatest singers, but also of the entire opera world, are on us, waiting to see what we'll do, anxious to help us in any way."
This Saturday's star-studded gala, featuring Placido Domingo, certainly measures up to those standards.
ROBERT LYALL, HIS FRIENDS SAY, IS A dreamer who knows how to get his hands dirty. He has the contacts to arrange first-class seasons, a deep knowledge of opera and how it should be performed, and a hands-on approach to production that allows him to express his own artistic vision of a work.
Lyall spends approximately three months of the year in Michigan as artistic director of Opera Grand Rapids. John Peter Jeffries, executive director of the organization, credits Lyall with the company's artistic successes in a time of financial stress.
"I've worked with artistic directors for over 25 years," Jeffries says, "and Robert is perhaps the best judge of talent I've ever seen. He has an amazing ability to put together a highly talented ensemble -- a tenor he heard six months ago, a soprano he worked with four years ago, someone he's heard about in Russia. But it doesn't stop there. He's got a clear understanding of the drama of opera, and he's very hands on about making it come through to the audience."
Lyall is in love with the telephone. Like the lead character in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Lyall has a list of opera singers and their contact information that may outnumber the don's list of mille e tre amorous conquests; and he seems to use every one.
But first he wrote to Placido Domingo, the only one of the original Three Tenors still performing (Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras being the other two). Securing Domingo, Lyall believed, would ensure success for the gala, now envisioned as a stand-alone event that would draw international attention to the city.
When Lyall called tenor Paul Groves, a native of Lake Charles who has sung extensively at the Metropolitan and other prominent opera houses, he learned that Groves had just performed with Domingo in Los Angeles and that Domingo had suggested the idea that he and others might want to do something to help New Orleans. Lyall knew he was on the right track.
Soon up on the list was baritone Nathan Gunn, recent winner of the Met's first Beverly Sills Award. Gunn, like other singers interviewed, said there was no doubt he would participate.
"You see a great tragedy like this, and your first thought is, 'What can I do?'" Gunn recalls. "I have a good friend in New Orleans, and my concern was if he was all right. But more than that, New Orleans has given so much to the music of this country, that I knew I had to participate. I really believe we should take care of our own, and I'm doing this as much for the musicians as for the city itself."
Or, as Groves notes, "For anyone interested in music, this is like going to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. You'll get to hear an amazing group of the world's finest singers in one night. And for people who are new to opera, they'll learn that hearing the human voice at the depth and intensity great operatic singers can produce is one of the great experiences of life."
John Peter Jeffries recalled Opera Grand Parids' production of Turandot that Lyall conducted last fall, a semi-staged production necessitated by financial difficulties.
"Robert stage directed the performance as well," Jeffries said, "and you hardly missed the sets."
It's a skill that will serve him well as he prepares the New Orleans Opera Association's two spring offerings for the limited stage facilities of Tulane's McAlister Auditorium.
"My challenge is to maintain the quality of the productions," Lyall says, "which I know we can do. It's only the scale that's going to change."
Jerry Sherk, the opera's director of productions, admits that the stage facilities at McAlister Auditorium are limited. There are no wings, no fly space and a limited orchestra pit. "But any opera production is adaptable," Sherk notes. "What you have to focus on is the things that really matter. The first is the music, and that will be as good as ever. We're lucky that the two productions are ones that we own and that Alan Rusnak, who heads the scenic studio, designed Madame Butterfly. I have to choose what elements to use to make this an effective Barber Of Seville; Alan is redesigning the Butterfly from what we have, so we'll actually end up with two productions of that opera.
"These days, with the magic of lighting and stage techniques, we're going to be able to produce two high-quality productions with wonderful singers."
UNDERPINNING THE SUCCESS OF THE opera's current ventures is its staff, whose support is crucial for Lyall in the wake of his abrupt dismissal in June 2005 by then-board president John Lovell. Lyall was almost immediately reinstated by the opera's full board, whose restructuring ensures Lyall's work in guiding the association through these difficult times. But lingering resentments from those battles, within the board and the executive committee, continue to simmer beneath the surface.
For example, Lovell, whose accounting firm had been hired several years earlier to organize and update the opera's financial and day-to-day record keeping, chose not to stand for re-election. In his place, the board elected attorney Salvatore Panzeca, whom Lovell had previously dismissed as legal counsel -- a position Panzeca had held with the organization for 41 years -- as board president. The board elected Ralph Lupin, former veteran chairman of the Louisiana State Museum board, as vice-president.
It's generally acknowledged that Lyall never ran away from a dispute with Lovell, and they had their share of disagreements. Lyall's close business and social associations with board and executive committee members led Lyall and others to believe that Lovell put the opera's financial interests ahead of its artistic standards and expansion of the company's repertoire and season.
One board, member, speaking on condition of anonymity, observes, "[Lyall] may not be the most organized person, and sometimes he's difficult to find or to get an answer from, but he's brilliant." A moderate on the board sighed when responding to a question about Lyall's relationship with Lovell, "Let's just say Robert's not always the most diplomatic person. There's a touch of arrogance when he doesn't like you, and he just doesn't like John."
The tensions that triggered the board's upheaval dated to the 2004 season and the commission of a new opera, Pontalba, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. Despite dire predictions of a vast deficit by conservative members of the board, the organization actually showed a profit that year. But damage had been done. To mitigate board concerns, the season was reduced from four to three productions, with higher-priced tickets for Pontalba. The following season, subscriptions dropped from 2,800 to 2,000, and the opera is still struggling to rebuild its subscriber base.
Yet, even against these odds, the organization posted a surplus for its 2005 season after more dire predictions that its massive production of Siegfried would doom the company.
Throughout the struggle, Lyall maintained that in a nonprofit organization, it's not just financial deficits that threaten a company. "There's artistic deficit as well," he explains. "By last summer, that's what we were feeling, not financial deficits. We've been able to add new staff, and now we have an incredible brain trust here at the opera.
"Every organization has its own dynamics," Lyall continues, "and when you try to run a nonprofit organization strictly by bottom-line business practices, you get into trouble because they distort the facts. A grocer can't sell you a can of soup for one dollar when it costs him two. But that's what we do all the time. We sell a patron a ticket for $25 that costs us $50 to produce. We just have to go out and make up the difference.
"My function is to insist on hiring only quality people who know their jobs, and then to stretch them, challenge them to reach beyond a narrow focus."
Nevertheless, Lyall and other board members such as Treasurer Ted Martin stress that for the immediate future, financial caution is in order. There'll be no Gotterdammerung in 2007 to conclude Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle that the opera has judiciously and economically produced in its scenic studio. Another gala is a possibility, but the coming season will, of necessity, be more conservative.
"We need to know who our audience will be," Martin says, "so that we can build on that and then continue our growing tradition of innovation. But one thing's for sure: This company will only present the finest quality productions, musically and visually, wherever we have to perform."
Martin, like so many others in the performing arts community, sees the reopening of the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts as critical to the revival and continuance of performing organizations such as the opera, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the New Orleans Ballet Association. Martin recently composed a letter, signed by members of the arts community, advising Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu that the restoration of the Mahalia Jackson is the lynchpin of the city's artistic recovery.
Estimates vary widely on that restoration. Perhaps it could be made functional for $100,000 and reopened in several months. Others say that complete restoration, and bringing the facility up to code, would cost $2 million to $3 million and take several years. FEMA, proponents say, would pay 90 percent of the costs, but only in the form of reimbursement of expenditures -- and only for Katrina-related repairs, not for upgrades.
Who would pay for other repairs and upgrades?
Until several weeks ago, opera officials were cautiously hopeful of presenting works in the fall. Then, abruptly, the City of New Orleans terminated its contract with theater manager SMG, which also operates the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
At this point, the theater's future is in doubt. City officials say they don't want to reopen a partially restored facility that might embarrass the city. Arts presenters privately lament that nothing will be possible until after the citywide elections in April and May.
All the same, this weekend's gala is destined to be a huge success. The most expensive seats and tables at the Arena are close to being sold out, as are most other sections. Remarkably, the best chance for a seat is the $10 tickets.
As Placido Domingo takes the stage Saturday, his presence will reflect and inspire his feelings that New Orleans will rebuild and retain its position in the world of the musical arts.
"The only meaningful words of hope I can express in this Katrina tragedy," Domingo says, "are learned from another disaster -- the Mexican earthquake , in which I lost not only members of my family but many friends and acquaintances. What seemed at the time a hopeless situation was turned around by some of mankind's greatest qualities -- the will and power to overcome tragedy by never losing faith in conquering seemingly overwhelming obstacles.
"Life went on in Mexico City the day after the earthquake, and eventually it was restored to its former glory. I know that New Orleans will not only return to its former glory but also surpass it eventually. Let's hope that our concert will play a minute part in that."
- "The only meaningful words of hope I can express in this Katrina tragedy are learned from another disaster the Mexican earthquake , in which I lost not only members of my family but many friends and acquaintances. What seemed at the time a hopeless situation was turned around by some of mankind's greatest qualities."
- "My challenge is to maintain the quality of the productions," New Orleans Opera Association Artistic Director Robert Lyall says, "which I know we can do. It's only the scale that's going to change."