UK Opera staging of 'Phantom' was a quarter-century in the making

rcopley@herald-leader.comOctober 4, 2012 

  • IF YOU GO

    'The Phantom of the Opera'

    What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's iconic musical

    When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5, 6, 10, 11, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. Oct. 6, 7, 13 and 14.

    Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

    Tickets: $40.50-$75.50 general public, $20.50 students, $5 discount for senior citizens. Available at Lexington Center ticket office or by calling (859) 233-3535. There are no online ticket sales.

    Learn more: UKoperatheatre.org.

It took Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera only 24 years, eight months and nine days to make it from Broadway to Lexington.

Most other musical theater mainstays have opened, closed, gone on tour and been licensed to professional and amateur groups in the same time span, but Phantom has remained as elusive in the Bluegrass as its title character. National tours of the show have never been able to fit into the Lexington Opera House physically or financially, and because the lavish show is still playing on Broadway, it has never been licensed for production by any groups outside the Lloyd Webber organization.

That changed in 2010 with a unique decision to grant rights to Phantom to accredited colleges and high schools.

Then, all it took for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre to mount its production — and finally bring to Lexington the story of a reclusive and murderous music teacher who falls in love with a beautiful ingenue — was some exhaustive legal wrangling, several hundred thousand dollars and a whole lot of people.

The Lexington production, the first in the region by a collegiate group, opens Friday night for 10 performances.

"We've had great excitement putting it together," UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey said. "I was sitting in the theater last night thinking, 'This is huge.'"

It is huge.

In addition to being a historic arts event for Lexington, Phantom is a giant show, complete with a chandelier that the title character sends crashing to the stage and a boat he uses to navigate the waterways under the Paris Opera House.

There are 266 people working on the production, including 26 in the major roles, most of which are triple-cast in consideration of academic schedules and to give a larger number of singers shots at the parts. Others involved in the production range from director Richard Kagey to costumers and University of Kentucky Symphony musicians who make up the two orchestras for this production.

"And there were still students in tears because they didn't get a chance to play," said UK Symphony director John Nardolillo. "Each orchestra plays five performances each, but a lot of students wanted to play all 10."

A rich history

Quite a number of the students involved are younger than the show, which opened on London's West End in 1986 — 26 years ago — and had its Broadway opening Jan. 26, 1988.

Since then, Phantom has gone on numerous national tours, some of which have come through Cincinnati and Louisville. But Luanne Franklin, general manager of the Lexington Opera House, which hosts most touring Broadway shows in the area and will be home to the UK Opera production through Oct. 14, said bringing the touring Phantom to the venue was never economically or physically feasible.

"The touring production is enormous and simply would not fit on our stage," Franklin says. "The cost of it, with our few number of seats, would be impossible to finance through ticket sales and sponsorships. It's that expensive."

The 125-year-old opera house has 886 permanent seats; by contrast, most venues that present Phantom have more than 2,000 to spread the ticket price around. Phantom is frequently brought up by people who advocate building a 2,000-plus-seat theater in Lexington, a discussion that was recently revived in talks about creating an arts and entertainment district around a renovated Rupp Arena.

Jumping through hoops

As it turned out, the Opera House was a sticking point in UK Opera getting rights to Phantom.

The show was specifically released to school groups. Contracts to present it stipulate that it must be presented by an all-student cast and all-student musicians — the rights agency required class rolls to prove that participants were students — and it must be at an on-campus venue with tickets sold through a campus box office.

"The decision was made to release to the educational market and to work with schools," said Bert Fink, senior vice president of communications for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which licenses Lloyd Webber's shows through its R&H Theatricals division.

The first Kentucky educational institution to present Phantom was Mason County High School in Maysville, in April 2011. Ashland Community and Technical College will present the show this month.

Fink said part of the reason for restricting the presentation of Phantom to campus venues is to avoid any confusion of the show with professional tours or other productions of the show.

"If you look at a venue that regularly presents national touring productions of Broadway shows, and you see Phantom of the Opera, you would naturally assume that is a national tour of Phantom of the Opera," Fink said.

"To their credit, and I think ours, this is the same version of Phantom of the Opera that is performed on Broadway. It is not some watered-down version. And they get to use the same logos with the mask and fonts in promoting the show. But we want to make sure people know when they buy a ticket that what they are getting is a student production."

The problem for UK Opera is that it does not perform in an on-campus venue. The home base for its productions is the Opera House.

One of the major points in negotiating a deal with R&H Theatricals was satisfying the agency that the Opera House was its home venue and establishing ground rules for using it for Phantom. Those include agreements that the Opera House would not promote the show — you will not see announcements about it on Lexingtonoperahouse.com or in the building — and that ticket sales would be restricted to purchases made by phone and in person.

Fink also noted that student in "student production" should not be viewed as a pejorative.

In high school productions, Fink said, "I have seen some 15-year-old Christines and 17-year-old Phantoms that have been wonderful and some productions that have dipped into six-figure budgets and some that have been very creative in presenting it with much less."

Sparing no expense

In UK's $300,000 production — which McCorvey said has already been covered by robust ticket sales — the university has pulled out all the stops.

It hired Louisville-based ZFX Flying Effects to bring in the show's iconic chandelier, which in some of the show's more memorable moments rises and falls to the stage over the first few rows of the audience. (The company was in the Opera House to fly dancers for the Kentucky Ballet Theatre's 2011 production of Peter Pan.)

The Phantom's remote-control boat was created by Bill Gregory at UK's Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, which also created the video-projected backgrounds for UK Opera's 2011 production of Porgy and Bess. The stage floor was built up especially for the show so that set pieces such as candelabras can be whisked in and out.

All the moving parts require some patience. Rehearsals Tuesday and Wednesday nights included extended pauses while the stage crew worked through technical glitches.

Kagey, the show's director, said that's a natural part of presenting a complicated show. He also said he loves presenting Phantom in a theater that was built in the same era in which the show is set.

"It's challenging in the Opera House, because it's so small," Kagey said. "But it's a lot of fun."

Franklin said, "I do think the ambience of our Opera House adds to the whole flavor of this production."

It is a production that is making more history as it readies to open. Franklin said 10 performances of any show is "unheard of" at the Opera House. As of Thursday afternoon, McCorvey reported that more than 7,446 tickets had been sold for Phantom, making it the top-selling production in Opera House history.

Clearly, after nearly a quarter-century, Lexington is ready for the Phantom. (Cue organ music.)

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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