When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin's classic American opera.
They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.
Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won't be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.
These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK's Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.
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"The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn't happened before," said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.
Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected "virtual" sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.
"If you were in the balcony, it didn't work at all," said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.
"I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it," said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.
To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.
Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is "calibration" software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.
As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. "Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen," Seales said.
The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy's shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. "But we won't have those huge pieces that we've had to build before to make it believable," McCorvey said.
McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation's top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.
But Seales and McCorvey didn't meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.
"As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing," said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. "As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater."
McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.
"It's a work near and dear to my heart," McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera's first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.
McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House's stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.
McCorvey's problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK's Porgy and Bess.
After UK's last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.
UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.
"Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about," Seales said.
While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK's vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.
"I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time," McCorvey said. "Len Heller looked at it and said to me, 'This is going to be really big.'"