BY BRIAN LIBBY
There's never been a better time to get into opera. After all, our national discourse has become one, with America's own private Mephistopheles becoming a major-party candidate for president and nearly half our citizenry devolving to an angry warlike fervor that borders on the Wagnerian. Or on the other hand, maybe we need the beautiful escapism of composers like Mozart, Verdi and Rossini all the more in these repugnant times.
If I sound cynical about the world and current events, I'm also delighted by the latest offering from the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University's School of Architecture: a mobile performance venue that takes its inspiration from today's food-cart renaissance but ultimately in its design is more sophisticated and aesthetically compelling. If the times have never been more operatic, there's no better antidote than culture taken beyond the concert halls of the privileged few and onto a constellation of humbler fields of asphalt and grass that are part of our everyday communities.
Designed and built for Portland Opera and christened Opera a la Cart, the project takes an old truck, not dissimilar from the kind of paneled van that makes up many food trucks, and modifies it to include a custom unfolding stage, a proscenium arch, and even patterned steel curtains.
Recently I sat down with PSU professor Todd Ferry along with students Alejandra Ruiz and Willy Chandler to talk about the concept, design and construction of Opera a la Cart.
PSU first approached Portland Opera after an Oregon ArtsWatch story was published last year reporting on the opera receiving a grant to create a pop-up performance venue. "It was appealing because we like to serve underserved populations and address larger issues," Ferry says. "This was for a local nonprofit cultural organization that hoped to reach underserved populations: people who might not get to experience opera otherwise. Our five faculty members and visiting scholars work directly with student fellows like Alex and Willy to see a project through over the course of the [academic] year. We thought this could be a great student project that could put students in a position of leadership to see it through."
When the PSU team first met with Portland Opera last December, "They didn’t have a truck, and we didn’t really have an idea yet what it could really be," Chandler explains. "So we started out with looking at basic ways a truck could be articulated, how it could open up and relate from interior to exterior, performers to audience, how things could be stored, how it could be interacted with by audience and performers.
After beginning the design, Ferry, Chandler and Ruiz took their concepts to a Center for Public Interest Design seminar, to get feedback from fellow students. "That really contributed some helpful design diagrams and possibilities," Ruiz explains. "Having a diversity of ideas really helped us choose what was working, what wasn’t."
There were a number of possibilities for how to configure the performance space and how it would relate to the truck. "We looked at what would happened if it opened up in the back, what if it swung out, or what if there’s a box within a truck that’s totally separate—an egg that hatches," Ferry says. But what really helped test these ideas was when Portland Opera coordinated with PSU on a series of outdoor performances to try out each one in a series of what the team called "guerrilla performances."
"We had to know: how do the logistics work? How doe the audience relate to the singers?" Ferry explains. "We went to Saturday Market, to Living Cully Plaza, to Gateway Discovery Park and to the Rosewood Initiative, all of which we have relationships with. We were trying to link it with projects and partners, but really take it into under-served communities. We did afternoon pop-up performances at each. We documented where all the audience members stood. At Living Cully we looked at singing out of the back of the truck. The following one we put them on top of the truck. At each place we tried a different configuration. The final performance at the Rosewood Initiative, we moved them throughout the performance. They were such good sports. And it really helped our thinking."
Some of the design ideas the team realized would be too expensive or difficult. But the end result is not without ambition. "There’s this telescoping screen," Ferry explains. "It would come against the truck, and pull out for use. The stage would fold down. Then the middle screen would push back. There would be steps up front to the stage. It would replicate this feeling of layeredness that is present in stage performance, these visual layers: in this case, curtains. We wanted to in a very small space replicate the proscenium, panels, a back stage and a pit idea."
"The screen comes out, the stage folds down, and then the middle part of the screen is pushed back to form the backdrop," Ruiz explains. "And the sides of the screen stay in the front."
"Because we couldn’t fully use the interior because of [a lack of] height, we saw it for engagement and for hauling equipment," Ferry continues. "We studied Wagner’s concept of the synthesis of the arts, Gesamtkunstwerk. People may come and like the music, or the costumes, or the set design. How could we encourage that as well? With the interior [of the truck], that’s more real architecture. But there was a question of what the screen would be. We looked at the Keller fountain in front of the opera, and the Sydney opera house. If you zero in on the details, there is a tiling pattern on the opera house that we abstracted into a two-dimensional form [for the curtains]."
The steel curtains are an interesting design exercise in themselves, with laser-cut steel in a pattern inspired by the forms of the Sydney Opera House. The team also explored using Portland's Keller Fountain as inspiration for the pattern, but ultimately decided on Sydney instead.
"That was interesting getting that from a sketch on paper to making it work on a huge piece of metal," Chandler says. "There were structural difficulties and the fabrication process to consider. I think we settled on steel just because of durability."
"Fortunately Willy also works in the materials lab," Ferry adds. "It had to have the structure, the thickness, but feel light."
For the interior, which the students not only designed but constructed, "We wanted to show the opera how it could be used for some additional programming," Ferry explains. "If Sweeney Todd was a production you could have a Sweeney Todd-themed exhibit. It needed to be very two-dimensional because you ship things in the truck, but three-dimensionality was added. You see what’s like a Cabinet of Curiosity." The interior includes a number of built-in shelves and cubbyholes made from reclaimed wood.
"It’s kind of odd to say, 'Get in the back of the truck.' But that’s what we wanted to happen, Chandler says. "You go to a performance and see what’s on the stage, but personally I always want to know what’s happening backstage, and the bigger picture behind what the performance is saying. It’s trying to bring education to these communities that aren’t necessarily exposed to opera, or maybe see opera as being separate from their lives. This is trying to show that opera is something that anyone can be a part of if they want to."
Besides the thrill of coming up with the design and seeing it built, students and faculty also enjoyed the chance to see how Opera a la Cart impacted the communities where performances happened - even during the initial research stage before a design happened. "During the performances at the Rosewood Initiative, there was a man there with his dog who was likely homeless," Ferry recalls. "He stayed for the whole thing and came to thank us afterward and said, ‘Why is this here? I love that this is here.’ He gave us a gift of a joke as thanks. That represented a true exchange, and that’s what we want."
And considering this is the Center for Public Interest Design, it's exactly what students signed up for. "As an architecture student for us it’s a really cool experience of just being out there and being able to build stuff and have a relationship with people and immediately see how your design is making an impact on the real environment," Ruiz says. "Working outside of what a traditional architecture school or studio is, and working with people, is a very rewarding experience and where you learn the most."
The Opera a la Cart is just one of many public-oriented design projects that have come out of Portland State's architecture school in recent years. Recently, for example, a group of students once again designed an eye-catching stage for the annual Pickathon festival, happening this week, as PSU has now done for a number of years. There are also initiatives like the SAGE ("Smart Academic Green Environment") green classroom, and any number of initiatives beyond Portland's or America's borders, like the work students have done in earthquake and poverty-ravaged Haiti.
"That’s the power of this school," Ferry says, "just serving the city...and beyond."
Upcoming Opera a la Cart performances will be held on August 13 (time to be determined) at the Providence Health and Wellness Expo (part of the Providence Bridge Pedal) at Providence Park, 1844 SW Morrison Street; and August 20 from 12-4PM at Multnomah Days, on Southwest Capitol Highway between Southwest 31st and 36th avenues.