Carmen at the Opera

By: Aimee Pass

Published on: Thu, Jan 03, 2013

Tim King shuffles into the pitch black of the Lyric Theater and fumbles for a light switch. Finally, he finds one and with a “Viola!” the lights blink on one by one, leading down the hallway to the main stage. Tim walks center stage to a baby grand piano and does a supermodel spin with his hands raised above his head. He’s got the smile of a proud father on his face. This, Tim says, is where the magic happens.

The Lyric, home to the University of North Texas opera program, is one of the smaller performing centers in the Murchison Performing Arts Center on campus. A few nights each year, the room transforms from a classroom into a world-class opera theater, with upwards of 400 seats, elaborate sets, velvet curtains draped from floor to ceiling and stained-glass sconces casting a warm light over the opera lovers. The sconces – 25 in all – depict famous operas, including Italian classics such as “Madame Butterfly,” “Carmen” and “Pagliacci.” Tim points up from the stage at the rows of bare light bulbs lining the balconies in the empty theater. “Everywhere you see those little white lights,” he says, “that’s where they go.” For each opera, the delicate stained-glass sconces – just 8 inches by 17 inches – must be installed over the bare bulbs.

Tim King came up with the idea for the Lyric Opera Project. Photo by Aimee Pass.Tim raves about the light glistening through Madame Butterfly’s intricate blue wings and the carefully crafted clown from “Pagliacci” holding a big bass drum. Denton resident Christie Wood created the sconces as part of the Lyric Theater Stained Glass Opera Project, a multi-year project to benefit the school and enhance the theater. The sconces, Tim says, are as much a part of the Lyric’s opera performance ritual as the months of rehearsals, set building and costume designing. Preparation for an opera takes so long, he says, that UNT only puts on two or three per year. With three performances of each opera, the room comes alive with the sconces just six to nine nights a year.

As the Murchison’s building manager, Tim knows every detail of the center and its largest space, the Bill and Margot Winspear Performance Hall – whether it’s the wood stain or the acoustics. The Stained Glass Opera Project is his baby, his way of turning the never-quite-finished Lyric into an evolving work of art. Due to a limited budget, the lights in the Lyric were originally adorned with “temporary” stainless steel fixtures. “Temporary turned into five years. Five years turned into six years. And then somewhere inside the seventh year,” Tim says with a chuckle, “I … looked up at them and said, ‘You know, these things are really tacky.’”

One morning, Tim was looking up at the stained glass at the back of Winspear when an idea began to click. Stained-glass sconces would not only look beautiful in the Lyric, but they would also carry a theme through the Murchison’s two venues. He toiled over his idea at lunch, honing the idea: Instead of regular stained-glass sconces, why not decorative pieces, perhaps with the UNT logo? Or even better, pieces that would depict the scenes from different, favorite operas? But how to pay for it? By the time Tim left work that day, he’d come up with a solution. For the Opera Project, donors would choose an opera and the artist would capture the heart of that opera in one scene on stained glass. Leftover money could be put into a scholarship fund for future UNT opera students. Brilliant, Tim thought. Luckily, the dean from the UNT College of Music thought so too.

Christie Wood brings the operas to life in her studio, Art Glass Ensembles, just north of Denton’s Square downtown. She points out panes of stained glass lining walls in every direction: a willow weeping behind a stained-glass sunset, a pair of cockatoos tilting their heads in the window. Though she does stained-glass work now, Christie is one of 17 family members who went through the UNT music program. Her mother and father both went to school there, as did her aunt and uncle, her brothers and sisters, too. It’s where she met her husband, George. Christie plays the piccolo, the sax and the flute as well as singing in an a cappella choir group. Naturally, she liked the idea. “I finally found what I was “Be not afraid of change. Change is fine.”

She remembers Tim stopping by her studio months before the project began. She was repairing a piece of stained glass from the Winspear Performance Hall. He told her he’d be back one day, but she didn’t believe him. A year later, Tim surprised her by proposing a business plan for the sconces. Christie offered to make the sconces at cost.

“Carmen” was the first opera they tackled together – and it’s still their favorite. Tim brought his construction-paper design to Christie’s studio. His idea was crude, Christie remembers, but Tim had captured the heart and soul of the project, and Christie agreed to take care of the technicalities.

Artist Christie Wood creates and repairs the stained-glass sconces. Photo by Aimee Pass.Each sconce starts with a donor picking a favorite opera. Christie clicks through several pages of project ideas on her computer to an email request for one honoring “Pagliacci.” First, she researches the opera, both online and through video. Though each stained glass is barely bigger than a sheet of notebook paper, she must capture the heart of an opera in one scene and make it easily recognizable to theater guests.

The work is so technical that Christie uses a specialized computer program. As she clicks different corners of the design on the screen, colors change and numbers pop up inside the shapes. It looks like the color-by-number pages of a child’s drawing book. She confers with donors to make sure they are happy, then she starts cutting. With all that glass floating around, Christie gets cut regularly. She holds up her hands and inspects her fingers. All but one little cut has healed from last week, she laughs. She would never be to able handle the glass as precisely if she wore gloves.

With each piece of glass cut, numbered and meticulously placed, she wraps each piece in a thin strip of copper and solders them together with lead. To polish, she uses steel wool to softly grind away the rough spots along the seams. Then, she flips the piece and does the same on the other side. Almost finished. She fills the edges between the lead seam and the glass pieces with a special paste that she makes in her studio. This paste is important, she says, because it seals off the glass from wind and water. She sets the paste by dusting it with a special powder. “It’s ground rock,” Christie says. “Calcium carbonate. Or … chalk!” For the final step, she conditions the piece with orange oil.

Today, when operagoers step into the Lyric on performance nights, they can see the entire collection of 25 sconces in place on the balconies: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Faust,” “Moby-Dick.” There’s space, however, for 40. “We’d like to have a plethora, an overflow, so we can rotate them in and out,” Tim says. During the 20-minute gap between the preshow and the actual opera, opera buffs often study the glass sconces, he says. “They make little games of trying to figure them out.”

He pulls out a sconce depicting “The Barber of Seville” and gently sets it on top of the piano to look at. Each piece stands alone as a work of art, he notes. If conditioned properly, a piece of stained glass can last more than 100 years. He hopes patrons will return year after year to see the opera sconce they championed and applaud the students they helped put on the Lyric stage. “It’s a little bit of history,” he says proudly, “and a lot of immortality.”

[just the facts]
What: Opera at the Lyric Theater, Murchison Performing Arts Center, 2100 N. I -35, on the University of North Texas campus
Performances in 2013:
—LeoŠ Janácek’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared,” Feb. 9, 8 p.m.
—Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” Feb. 22 and March 1 at 8 p.m., and Feb. 24 and March 3 at 3 p.m.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Village Soothsayer,” April 19 at 8 p.m. and April 21 at 3 p.m.
Cost: Opera seats $15-35
The sconces: 25 stained-glass sconces depicting famous operas, each picked by a Denton opera lover with designs by artist Christie Wood. Opera lovers may commission 15 more sconces.
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