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Seattle Opera’s Biggest Drama Unfolds Offstage

Cost-cutting claims a theater magic factory.

March 31, 2017

The castles are labyrinthine. The dragons breathe fire. The forests are mammoth and equally as magical.

For three decades, the Seattle Opera’s scene shop in Renton has delivered a whole array of fantastical creations. It’s one of the few shops of its kind in the country able to create such grand and complicated sets and props.

But last month, the Opera announced it was shutting down the shop, laying off two scene shop staffers (as well as another four in the organization). The cuts are “difficult” and “painful” explained General Director Aidan Lang in two separate email announcements to the public, but the organization’s financial situation has been tenuous. The shop earns revenue from work for outside theater clients, but that profit is “small” and doesn’t cover “the true cost of overhead (utilities, insurance, payroll, etc.) to run this facility,” Lang says.

Eliminating the scene shop and using the building for set storage will now help save the organization nearly $500,000 a year, according to Kristina Murti, Seattle Opera’s communications director.

Michael Moore at Seattle Opera scene shop.

The opera’s operating budget for fiscal year 2017 is $22.5 million. But its annual operating expenses have been $2 to $3 million higher than annual revenue for more than a decade, Murti says. Revenue gaps had been bridged by a series of one-time donations that “are no longer available to us,” she says.

But the scene shop, say current and former employees, is not only a tremendous cultural asset. It also has financial value for the organization as well.

“Making the changes has been extremely painful for me,” says Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang.

Michael Moore, a 30-year Seattle Opera veteran and scene shop manager, says the scene shop has been self-supported from income earned by building sets and projects for other organizations. According to Moore, the shop last year produced $1.3 million worth of projects, of which 61 percent were non-opera bids that returned $118,000 to help cover shop overhead/management costs related to non-opera projects. The annual overhead for the shop, not counting salaries, is $78,000, Moore says.

Sets for 5th Avenue’s production of “The Secret Garden.”

The Renton shop has constructed sets for local organizations including Seattle Rep, Seattle Symphony, EMP/MoPop, Pacific Lutheran University as well as for Portland Opera and the Washington National Opera in D.C. The shop has built or worked on 30 sets for Seattle’s 5th Avenue alone. Just last week, the Renton shop was finishing giant garden sets for the 5th Avenue’s production of The Secret Garden, which opens April 14.

The 5th Avenue, a Broadway feeder, would not comment on the shop’s closure and what it could mean for the theater’s productions in the long run. The theater, a source said, is “not in panic mode but they’re scrambling.”Scenic crew on “Count Ory” set, 2016. Photo by Michael Moore

The Renton shop closure will leave San Diego Opera’s shop as the only other facility of its kind on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, the Opera is in expansion mode, raising $60 million for its new production, rehearsal and office complex (Seattle Opera at the Center), scheduled to open at Seattle Center in 2 years. There is no set construction shop planned for the building, signaling what could be a new direction of co-production and more reliance on technology — projections, video, high-resolution printing — which can be cheaper.“Die Walkure” (from “Wagner’s Ring Cycle”), 2009. Courtesy Seattle Opera.

Opera, as a whole, says Lang, is moving toward a “cleaner aesthetic.” That can be powerful in connecting audiences to the singing, the acting and the music. Everything about opera is larger than life but sometimes audiences can miss the performance if they’re mesmerized by over-the-top sets.Rhinemaidens swim under the water in “Das Reingold” (from “Wagner’s Ring Cycle”), 2009. Courtesy Seattle Opera

“The thing about spectacle: it tends to encourage a passive sitting back and enjoying it,” Lang says. “The more you are an audience member on the edge of your seat, leaning forward — you’re going to be engaged to a richer level.”

How this new aesthetic might affect the mammoth sets of its proposed new Ring cycle, which has made Seattle Opera internationally famous and draws an international audience, is unknown.  Set models, says Lang, are being studied but the first of four operas in the Wagner cycle has yet to be scheduled.

Top image: “Lucia di Lammermoor,” 2008. Courtesy Seattle Opera.


Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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Without what Mr. Lang calls "over the top" sets and what I call "stage magic", the production is just a recital not an opera. How patronizing of Mr. Lang to think that I can't focus on the singers, acting, and orchestra if the set is beautiful. On the contrary, this opera subscriber is distracted by minimalist designs like the one used for La Traviata (lots and LOTS of red curtains, a chair, and, in some scenes, a few books) or some of the cheap projection shows (compare the blurry projection of river scenes in the last act of Katya or the weird projections in Nabucco to the exquisite painted backdrop in the Vietnamese scenes in Amelia or the beautifully restored three dimensional Italian painted sets in Tosca).  I can't believe that Glynn Ross, the creator of Seattle Opera in 1963, could shepherd the company through the boom and bust years that characterized Seattle's economy in those days and that Speight Jenkins could grow the company and bring it safely through the great recession and the disruption of building a new opera house, yet Mr. Lang, after just a few short years, is millions of dollars in the red. Sounds like the problem may not be the scene shop but the director.

I'm not sure it can be said that Speight brought Seattle Opera safely through the great recession. SO has been running deficits of $2-3M per year for a decade. It is not fair to place all of the blame for the current financial position on Aidan. That being said, SO has not dealt with this financial crisis in the best manner.Sets are part of the magic. The set for Count Ory was one of the most magical sets I've seen at SO. In contrast, the staging for the recent production of La Traviata was pitiful. It is opera at its most grand and the set was anything but. The Scene Shop is a community asset that I hope can be preserved in some way.

Yes, Aidan Lang claims SO has been running a deficit for a decade. But that's not what Speight Jenkins says. From a KUOW article - "And former Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, who led the organization for more than 25 years, says he left the company $1.2 million in the black when he retired in 2014. Jenkins says a gala given in his honor that year also netted an additional million."

I use to love going to the opera with all of it's magic.  The sets use to be fantastic.  Now the opera sets are stark and unintersting.  I have stopped going for that reason.  I think it is time for a new director someone that will take us back in time where fantasy and magic happen on stage.  Hope they keep the scene shop and loose the director.

The Renton scene shop workers make some of the finest sets in the world.It needs to stay open!  It is indeed a local treasure.  

Seattle Opera's Scenic Studios are a place where magic happens. Opera is first and foremost about beautiful music, but setting beautiful music against the grandest of backdrops transforms the music into an unforgettable experience. The engineers and artisans behind the scenes at Seattle Opera have been doing the impossible for decades. When the curtain goes up on a Seattle Opera set, the audience may see a forest or a sumptuous Victorian ballroom, but really be looking at anything from carved styrofoam to the components of a Boeing 747. Nowhere is the synthesis of scene and technology more evident than in Seattle Opera's signature work--Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung, which premiered in 2001 and returned to the stage again in 2005, 2009, and 2013. In 17 hours of opera over a four-day cycle, the Ring took audiences everywhere from mermaids swimming in the depths of the Rhine River to a fire-ringed rocky ledge and a Dragon's lair. The Scenic Studios crafted the Norse mythical realm from mere visions by working collaboratively with the Opera stage, design, and production teams. Back in the 19th century, Wagner envisioned an Opera on the grandest scale possible. From stage direction one, the composer demanded the impossible: the Rhine Daughters "swim in". Technically a tall order--for a stage of any century. The Scenic Studios met the challenge with tumbling harnesses hand crafted by master scenic carpenters. The harnesses gave the singers the agility of trapeze artists while granting them the rigid support needed for the vocal gymnastics of Wagner's score. The spectacular swim/flight of the Rhine Daughters is only Scene One in the land of making the impossible reality. Wagner again confronted the production teams with the impossible in the third opera: the hero Siegfried slays the dragon Fafner...onstage. When Fafner makes his appearance, the audience saw an immense head, wing, and 27-foot neck slithering from behind an enormous craggy cliff face in synchrony with the chord progressions set down by Wagner. What was actually maneuvering toward our hero was 6500 pounds of creatively cannibalized aircraft technology. Working as a team, six crew members in an offstage "cockpit" commanded sticks and rudders to literally pilot the dragon around the stage. By the time the curtain closed on the final scene, the audience had witnessed the end of the mythical world, a rainbow bridge, and pyrotechnics circling a great rocky ledge in living flame. The Ring is just the beginning of the magic that has made Seattle Opera a Seattle icon in a city that prides itself on its contributions to science and technology. Losing the originality of Seattle Opera Scenic studios to outsourcing will take away some of the magic that transforms a night at the Opera into a grand Seattle experience.

The Opera has chosen to let go employees with remarkable skills and history in the organization. Singers like Greer Grimsley have spoken out against these cuts because he/they know the value of the folks who have long supported their onstage artistry. The only department that continues to hire is Development, the folks who bring the money in. The question is - what quality of product will those new donors/patrons find once they walk in the door? 

As an audience member I am surprised to hear about this.  I feel opera is more than great singing, it is atmospheres, spectacle, sweep and grandeur of mythic proportions.  The music and lyrics are usually familiar and unchanging, so it is the sets where original creativity can shine freely.  The folks at the scenery shop must be at the core of this creativity, their imagination and stagecraft combine to make Seattle Opera’s productions truly expressive, captivating and unique.  And they can connect the Opera to northwest themes and culture.  Will sets created in California or New York do this?  Apparently the creativity and efficiency of the scenery shop are proven by the fact that theater and opera companies from across the country turn to Seattle Opera’s scenery shop for their sets, that’s very cool, they clearly have a great reputation!  Closing the shop will cause the loss of an artistic community of talented experts in the Seattle area, which must have taken years to assemble.  These individuals may leave the northwest.  Once lost, this special community cannot easily be replaced.  According to the article, the scenic shop generates substantial income for the Opera, and is vital to local theatrical productions beside the Opera.  At a time when the economy of Seattle is booming, can the Opera please find a way to maintain this essential creative resource?

Jason.  How do you know that the budget deficit of $2,000,000 - $3,000,000 acutally exists?  Have you seen the books or are you just regurgitating what has been fed to you?  I would like to see the books and how they managed to arrive at this number.  They remain silent.My opinion...Accounting is funny - The hard part is deciding what to put in which column. Seattle Opera accounting is hilarious.  They have found a way to manipulate numbers to show what they want, which is an excuse to idle the shop, and then when no one is watching sell the building to help reduce their outstanding debt.  Other than scenery, I cannot think of any other asset which they might have.Construction of a set will cost what is costs.  The construction cost is estimated, the administration sets the budget, and the set gets built.  If the cost estimate is too high, then the design needs to be modified to be less expensive.  Aidan Lang has not been willing to do this.  Instead he stands behind his set designers and their whims and then when the total is over budget, blames this on the shop instead of his unwillingness or inability to control his designers,.  This cost overrun is then burried by considering it as a "shop expense" instead of being charged to a specific opera production.As long as the opera shop is in operation, it cannot lose money.  Outside jobs are charged a rate to cover all labor and prorated building expense including administrative overhead.  Inside jobs should also be charged the same way - All expenses of running the shop for a particular opera being charged to that opera.  I think this is where they are playing accounting games to show loses.

If you're concerned about the direction Seattle Opera is headed, please consider signing this petition started by some of the top singers, directors, and designers in the world of opera. 

The opera's scene shop is a TREASURE ! Lang says he is wanting a 'cleaner aesthetic' . . . guess he does not know that the audience values fabulous singing and playing, but also a rich visual experience. Projections do not cut it, very often. Traviata was a travesty. I felt so sorry for the heroine, with only curtains and a CHAIR to work with. Cutting music is also not right, most of the time. I understand the orchestra all were paid overtime, working so long without a break. So much for saving money. That production was absolutely horrible, except for the music. Very bad decisions are being made, like putting 4 war horses out for next season. Most of us have seen them, seen them, and seen them. There's only one fresh presentation and it's the only one I look forward to. The scene shop is a priceless treasure for all of Seattle and the whole nation. The expertise in that building is over-the-top exquisite. Reconsider this terrible decision! Find another way! !

The Seattle Opera Workshop is a city treasure, a treasure on a truly international scale. The entire arts community will be affected by this closure. Looking around at the riches of this city (Tunnel and 520 bridge costing billions, just 2 examples) it is amazing that the city doesn't step in to stop this from happening. It is peanuts to this wealthy area to keep this facility open. This is a true downgrade in the arts for Seattle. It is obvious that "out-sourcing" is an excuse- there is no way to overcome the huge distance from any similar facility, in most situations. The truth is that the quality of sets in all affected venues will be embarrassingly cheapened. I'm deeply pained and ashamed for Seattle that smart local minds can't come together and stop this from happening. Why do the arts get pushed to the lowest priority in this modern world? 

I had the great pleasure of working with the exceptionally talented Opera shop crew in my former role as the manager of the Exhibit Services department at the EMP Museum.  When a dragon was needed for the Fantasy exhibit, there was really only one shop to call - the Seattle Opera Scenic Shop.  Having them as a resource has been a benefit to the entire arts community in Seattle.  I have admired the way they sought out supplemental work to make sure the shop did not sit idle - it was a smart way to retain talented staff and reduce overhead costs by spreading those costs among multiple projects.I certainly understand that in times of financial stress, difficult cuts must be made, but this decision is short-sighted.  It will be a long and difficult process to rebuild a team of this caliber if the shop is shuttered for 2+ years since any of these talented creators, builders, and artists will be driven to find new work and many will be recruited to out-of-town positions.I have seen several of the Seattle Opera sets up close and from the audience, and it saddens me to think that the Seattle Opera's Board would be willing to give up this tremendous asset that sets the Seattle Opera apart from many others across the country.  In my experience, the Seattle Opera audience has come to expect the spectacle, grandeur, and cleverness of these inspiring sets.  Rather than distracting from the musical experience, the sets enhance and complete the experience.

The closure of the Renton shop means the closure of the supply of grand and complicated sets and props to Seattle Opera, Portland Opera, Washington National Opera and various local and national organizations.  It's a "BIG LOSS and DISASTER" to all opera audiences.  Besides, the San Diego Opera shop is so far away and may not be able to provide the fantastical creations that the Renton shop can produce.  Once again, the Renton shop should stay OPEN !!!