It takes a machine to mount a production of a blockbuster musical.
The cast and crew of University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Les Misérables is decidedly village-size at 195 people, but it is an ensemble that has learned to work in tight harmony to pull off a show that opens Thursday and will run for 15 performances at the Lexington Opera House.
"It's a total team effort, and I think that's one of the reasons we've been able to have such success with these productions," Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre, says after enumerating the efforts of his team: performers, music and stage directors, costume and set designers, lighting and sound technicians, people working outside the immediate production process.
The evening of the first technical rehearsal in the Opera House, part of the double-cast production is onstage while the other part is watching from the seats. A crew of more than a half-dozen stagehands is studying the numerous set changes and configurations of Bob Pickering's elaborate set design.
Downstairs, costumers are wading through more than 300 outfits, and milliner Jan Yon is putting final touches on the show's hats.
"Everybody is working together to make the best product possible," McCorvey says
For the second consecutive fall, UK Opera Theatre is presenting one of the major 20th-century musicals that had not played in Lexington due to the size of their touring productions, which were too big for the 126-year-old Opera House. Last fall, UK brought the Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera to the stage in a production that dazzled audiences with 11 performances, most of which were sold out.
One of the more operatic musicals in the Broadway canon, the vaunted 1980s show Les Misérables is based on Victor Hugo's epic 1845 novel about social upheaval in 19th-century France.
The opera company is pulling off the big shows through processes honed in more than a decade of presenting operas. After all, shows like Madama Butterfly and Carmen are serious endeavors themselves, with huge casts, complex music and period costumes and sets.
"It has been our goal from the beginning not to be a typical college opera program," McCorvey says. "It has been our goal to be a major, regional opera program for young artists. It just takes time, and it takes a boatload of money."
The budget for Les Misérables is, in fact, staggering: half a million dollars.
Stage director Richard Kagey and tenor Gregory Turay, who plays Jean Valjean, the virtuous prisoner at the center of the show, point out that that is more than the annual budgets for some regional opera companies with which they have worked.
"The scope and size of these productions is incredible," says Turay, an artist-in-residence and doctoral student who has sung professionally on some of the world's biggest opera stages, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Reflecting on his own undergraduate years at UK in the mid-1990s, Turay says, "They could have put on a production like this, but it would not have carried the same type of prestige or be at the same level. We didn't have the number of singers or the level of singers at that time."
Also, aside from the annual It's a Grand Night for Singing revue, UK Opera wasn't presenting musicals. Its seasons were made up of operas. But in doing musicals, a number of people involved in the production say, UK is part of a trend going through companies as prestigious as Lyric Opera of Chicago and Glimmerglass Opera of Cooperstown, N.Y., which recently brought Broadway-style shows, including Carousel and Showboat, to their stages.
The move has opened the door to UK Opera for some students geared more toward theater and acting.
"I can sing, but it's nothing like these huge voices that they produce out of here," says Evan Pulliam, who plays villainous, money-obsessed innkeeper Thénardier in Les Misérables and comes to the show from a musical theater background. "So it's been really fun to get to work with all these incredible talents and amazing teachers."
Jacob Waid said last year's production of Phantom, in which he was one of three actors sharing the title role, reoriented his career trajectory.
"My real passion right now is for more classical musical genre," says Waid, who plays Inspector Javert, the lawman pursuing Jean Valjean, in one of Les Mis' two casts. "Phantom was the thing that told me, 'You know what, I can do musical theater,' and that's where the path has led me thus far."
For director Kagey, getting performers of different backgrounds onstage together helps everyone.
"The theater majors are in there with the voice majors, who take singing really seriously, and they see you can't just blow it out, you have to really sing," Kagey says. "And the opera kids see a commitment to performance that's a little different. That doesn't mean opera kids aren't committed, but actors tend to be committed to a different process.
"It's really interesting to watch them grow off of each other."
Kagey also directed Phantom, which actually brought one of Les Misérables' stars to campus.
Jessica Bayne was a student at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson but had taken the semester off last fall.
"My choir director from KCU came to see the show, and he called me after he and his wife saw it and said the show was amazing and 'this is where you need to be. You need to be in this program,'" Bayne recalls.
She enrolled at UK in January and auditioned for Les Mis, hoping for a spot in the chorus.
"She opened her mouth, and it was like, 'Oh, my goodness. She's amazing,'" McCorvey says of Bayne.
He cast her as the doomed heroine Fantine opposite Turay's Valjean.
When it comes to staging huge event shows that will pack the house for a dozen or so performances, McCorvey and Kagey acknowledge Phantom and Les Mis are probably it. But the shows have set a course for UK Opera Theatre for the next few years of presenting a musical in the fall and an opera in the spring — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni is slated for March.
McCorvey adds that his longer-term ambition is to be able to present a season of two operas and a musical.
"I'd love to do Ragtime, I'd love to do Showboat, I'd love to do West Side Story, I'd love to do Sweeney Todd," he says. "There are lots of good possibilities out there. (But) I don't think any of them can support 15 performances.
"Once you have done a couple of iconic musicals, they're done," Kagey says. "And there are some iconic musicals that would draw and could run forever, but they're not for us. We're not the kind of company that should do Mama Mia!"
But Les Mis is perfect for UK Opera, Turay says.
"It's actually sung through, it's like an opera," he says. "It's a very large production, there are a lot of people in it, there are 27 scene changes, so it's a massive production, and it will be a massive spectacle."
IF YOU GO
What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of the musical, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French libretto by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10-13, 16-20; 2 p.m. Oct. 12, 13, 19, 20.
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $40.50-$76.50. Available at Lexington Center ticket office, (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Ukoperatheatre.org