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Kennedy Center needed battle plan to stage huge 'War and Peace'

The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra returns to the Kennedy Center -- with 30 tons of scenery and props -- to stage Prokofiev's "War and Peace."

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

And you thought the 1,200-page hardcover edition of "War and Peace" was a heavy lift. Imagine how the folks at the Kennedy Center felt, having to heave a 30-ton opera version of Tolstoy's novel onto the stage.

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In an operation that involved a container ship, 2 cranes, 6 weeks on the open seas, 17 trucks, 57 workers, 137 crates of costumes and wigs, 8,000 nuts and bolts and 20,000 pounds of hanging scenery, the gargantuan Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra production of Sergei Prokofiev's opera has been imported from St. Petersburg and reassembled on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Because the enterprise also required the shipment of a massive turntable -- twice the size of the one used in "Les Miserables" -- as well as the arrangement of travel and housing for 331 Russian soloists, choral singers and orchestra members, the job constituted one of the most complex logistical tasks in the center's history.

"Like doing a whole festival," observes Alicia Adams, the center's vice president of international programming.

And all for an epic that will be performed in the 2,300-seat Opera House only twice, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

"It's really, really high on the artistic scale -- and really, really high on the anxiety scale," Michael M. Kaiser, Kennedy Center president, says of the $2 million production, half of which has been underwritten by a gift from one of the center's longtime benefactors, Catherine Reynolds. "When I walked backstage and saw the set for the first time, I almost died."

Kaiser's first encounter with the Mariinsky staging was in 2000, when he was running London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and brought the work there. He had been talking for several years to Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Opera's artistic and general director, about mounting the production in the Kennedy Center Opera House, one of only a handful of houses worldwide with the stage capacity for the four-hour work. (It has also been performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, albeit on the Met's own turntable, from which, famously, a supernumerary playing a soldier slipped and fell into the orchestra pit in 2002.)

"It's my favorite book; I've read it seven times," Kaiser says of Tolstoy's masterpiece, adding that he thinks a major institution is defined by its attempts to scale Olympian heights. "It's important to do big work. I really do believe a lot of arts organizations have gotten so frightened that they're downsizing everything they're doing."

You can't accuse the Kennedy Center of thinking small, not when it presents a piece whose costs come -- if it sells out -- to $434 per seat. And that requires recruiting 75 local performers as supernumeraries. And, oh yes: According to Adams, the Mariinsky had also asked for the hiring of a dwarf and the procuring of a horse. "And then they changed their minds," she says.

The assignment of choreographing the ballet of structural steel movement and crate hauling and scenery hanging and set installation landed on the desk of the center's vice president for production, Mickey Berra, a man who tackles such projects with the exuberance of a 10-year-old spilling open his first box of Legos. Raised in a Virginia carnival family, Berra began as a Washington stagehand and worked his way up to the job of overseeing the loading-in and dismantling of 2,800 Kennedy Center events a year. His experience with traffic-copping men and metal is so deep that he was asked in 1996 to take a leave from the center to serve as staging supervisor for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"Everything you see in here came from Russia," Berra says in his folksy drawl, as he leads a visitor through his sprawling backstage kingdom, on which is strewn this morning, more than a week before the first performance, what looks like the contents of a thousand home workshops. Across the Opera House stage has been laid a mosaic of wooden pieces that make up the turntable's circular subfloor, and on top sits the mechanism's steel skeleton. A veritable battalion of Russian and American stagehands and technicians crouch between the steel ribs, tightening every bolt.

Still to come was the building of a steel framework atop the turntable, so that it can support a sloped floor rising a dozen feet above the stage. A screen 50 feet high and 104 feet long is also to be raised and tethered, for the elaborate projections of "War and Peace." Under the stage are barrels filled with the hydraulic fluid used in the maintenance of the turntable motor.

"Who keeps track of all this? Me! This is my house -- I tell them where to put the luggage," Berra says, as he moves familiarly among the Mariinsky crew members, some of whom he has known for years, thanks to the center's longstanding relationship with the company. "I go back to when the KGB came with them," he adds, and even the Russians laugh.

Berra had the drill for "War and Peace" worked out long before the sets arrived, after being unloaded from a ship that docked at Norfolk. To figure out what he'd need to do, he traveled to St. Petersburg twice last year, saw the opera and observed the Russian stagehands at work. "I watched every piece being put in," he says.

In the Opera House, his crew members attach the opera's scenery -- onion domes and wooden balconies and plastic columns -- to some of the 106 sets of fly rigs above the stage, where the ropes are pulled to raise and lower the items to audience eye-level. Other assistants are arranging for makeshift dressing rooms in the immense wings of the theater that will have to accommodate a cast of hundreds.

It's all a little daunting, although you wouldn't know it from watching the cocksure Berra, a guy so in his element behind the curtains that once, in the presence of Britain's Princess Margaret, he pitched a basketball into an offstage basket from 50 feet. The problems he has solved could fill a manual on crazy feats of stagecraft, including the time he had to buy 20,000 pounds of crushed ice for an ice show after the stage floor refused to freeze, and the day during Kennedy Center Honors preparations when he had to figure out how Willie Nelson's bus could be driven onto the stage.

"I definitely want to see the turntable turn today," Berra says, noting that the assembly work -- a facet of his $400,000 budget for the production -- is running ahead of schedule. "Once we see that, then we're all happy."

In Adams's office, meanwhile, plans for meeting the waves of performers at the airport are being firmed up. An entire hotel within walking distance of the Kennedy Center has been booked for the singers and musicians, many of whom will have to double up. But the rooms are of a good size, Adams says, and have kitchen appliances, "so they can cook."

Back at the opera house, Berra's paramount concern at the moment is that the immense spinning contraption whose construction he has painstakingly plotted actually rotates the way it is supposed to. He warns the stagehands to plant their feet on the skeleton and brace themselves for a test run.

Voila! The turntable turns.

"Mickey, you happy?" asks Igor Suvonov, the Mariinsky's technical director. "No noise!"

Berra grins. Mickey's happy.


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