Opera in the Heights Juggles Two Shows In One

A behind-the-scenes look at the creative set design of OH's double-header The Medium and The Telephone.

By Megha Tejpal October 29, 2015

Oith menotti juliaengel as lucy the telephone deji osinulu photography acrfoj

Julia Engel as Lucy in The Telephone

Die-hard opera fans can get a double dose of Gian Carlo Menotti as Opera in the Heights combines his two midcentury operas into one tragicomedy. In Medium, a fake psychic actually makes contact with the spirit world, much to her surprise, and in Telephone, a young suitor tries to pop the question to his girlfriend who won’t get off the phone. The two magical creations of Menotti grace the stage at OH this fall season in a most unique way. Both wildly different—one a dark, slightly curious drama and the other a lighthearted comedy—the design team behind the two shows beat the odds with challenges in developing a set which encompasses the varying thematic elements of each production.

“The two pieces are very different in mood and style, so a single set wouldn’t really work,” explains scenic designer Jodi Bobrovski. Performed first, The Telephone plays on the set of The Medium, but with the use of a wide dressing screen the crew is able to hide the latter’s set from the audience's view. A brief intermission during the show allots the crew ample time to move the screen and furniture used from one performance to the next and the skillful use of lighting helps in masking one set so that the focus is on the show at hand. Bobrovski goes on to describe, “It’s a small stage, so trying to fit both sets on it was difficult. The Telephone set is very minimalistic to accomplish this.”

“Set in the home of a young couple, The Telephone is a bright and lively concept, relatively simple yet pleasing to the eye,” recounts lighting designer J. Mitchell Cronin. Surely relatable to most, Ben and Lucy are at odds over matters of the heart in the way of too much usage of a smart phone.

Perhaps a look in the mirror for couples in Houston, The Telephone is indeed a simple story with a set to match. Cronin details tricks used behind the scenes. “While the set of The Medium is clearly visible during The Telephone, the addition of a series of folding screens helps close off the space and allow for the suspension of disbelief of two distinctly different locations.”

The Medium, with its darker, much more mysterious storyline where Madame Flora holds a séance to reach the departed children of her guests, uses the addition of haze in the air to give the performance a haunting feel. Set in an old, rundown house with a more somber presence, The Medium differs greatly from the bubbly outline of The Telephone. “When we move to The Medium, there is a dramatic shift to dim lighting, along with sharp angles and colors from the sides and rear to give a harsh look,” Cronin compares. Changes in lighting and atmospheric differences are intensely present, as the audience is fully aware of the change in moods between the two complimenting pieces.

The Medium and The Telephone. Oct 30–Nov 7. $15-67. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-861-5303. operaintheheights.org