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Article Published: 02 Jul 2019

Opera Southwest Rescues Washed-Out Lohengrin

Michelle Johnson as Elsa and Claudia Chapa as Otrud in Lohengrin* at Opera Southwest
Michelle Johnson as Elsa and Claudia Chapa as Otrud in Lohengrin at Opera Southwest (photo: Lance W. Ozier)

The circumstances were comic. The outcome? Not so much. On March 10, a security guard working the graveyard shift at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center, along with some buddies, began shooting guns from the facility’s balcony and then holed up in a mechanical room to smoke (for some unimaginable reason) simulated joints made of rags and weeds. The “doobies” set off a small fire, which in turn activated the building’s sprinkler system. When fire officials were called in, the guard told them everything was under control. Indeed, the fire was under control — but the sprinklers were not. They continued running for the next several hours, causing $500,000 worth of damage and rendering the venue unusable for weeks to come.

This presented a huge problem for Opera Southwest, which makes its performing and administrative home in the NHCC, and was due to mount Lohengrin there at the end of the month. The production, which had received NEA funding, was slated to be the company’s most ambitious venture yet, incorporating a reconstruction of the 38-piece orchestration that Franz Liszt conducted at the work’s 1850 Weimar premiere. It was probably too late to call the whole thing off — tickets had been sold and the cast was due to arrive in Albuquerque the next evening. “We sat down and weighed the options — the cost of canceling, the cost of switching to another venue,” says Tony Zancanella, the company’s executive director. “If the fire had been a week earlier, there might have been more logic to canceling. But landing when it did, it was a case of ‘the show must go on.’”

The company quickly identified a new venue for the performances: the V. Sue Cleveland Concert Hall in suburban Rio Rancho. With the opera company’s offices out of commission, staffers worked out of a donor’s living room to accomplish the herculean task of moving Lohengrin to its new space. Nearly 1,000 tickets had been sold, and all of those patrons had to be re-ticketed or reimbursed. The company got much-appreciated support from the community and a Facebook fundraising campaign; good wishes poured in from general directors and artists across the country. “You can do anything under pressure,” Zancanella says. After three intense weeks of 12- to 16-hour work days, Opera Southwest opened its Lohengrin on March 29.

It was a sterling effort, but it involved compromise. Lohengrin had been planned as a fully staged production, but Cleveland Concert Hall couldn’t accommodate the sets; instead, it was offered as a costumed concert opera. The change of venue entailed new dates, and the opera’s run was cut from three performances to two. The rescheduling cost Lohengrin some attendees, and so did Rio Rancho’s locale, roughly 25 miles outside of Albuquerque.

“We took a beating at the box office,” Zancanella admits. “But a couple of months out, I don’t think about the disappointment. We really accomplished something.”

This article was published in the Summer 2019 issue of Opera America Magazine.