Opera is about more than great singing, as important as that is. A great set and a great production can make an opera pop.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City is opening its new season with “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” with beautiful new sets that will make you feel as though you’ve just arrived in sunny Sicily. Performances are Sept. 23 and 29 and Oct. 1 at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
“Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Chivalry”) by Pietro Mascagni had its premiere in 1890. Set in Sicily on Easter, it turns out to be a very bad day that ends with a crime of passion. “Pagliacci” (“Clowns”) is another blood and thunder opera, but it’s by a different composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, and is set on mainland Italy.
Both are shorter operas with a long tradition as a double-bill, having been performed together since 1893. They’re both classic examples of “verismo,” a late 19th century development in opera that emphasized stories about lower-class people with a realistic take on their lives.
The Lyric Opera’s production, designed by Steven Kemp, is a traditional, realistic setting. Kemp says that as soon as the curtain rises, you will be swept away to another land and another time.
“The first thing the chorus is singing about is the orange trees,” Kemp said. “We want the audience to smell those orange trees, we want you to feel like you just took a vacation to this beautiful, cliffside little village.”
Kemp, who is married to Eryn Bates Kemp, associate executive director of the Harriman-Jewell Series, says he was able to do some on-site research before beginning his design.
“Eryn and I had actually just been to Sicily and Italy in 2019,” Kemp said. “I worked on some designs for a Holland America ship, so we got to do a Venice to Rome cruise and got to stop in Messina in Sicily. So I had all of this primary research right at my fingertips. And we watched ‘White Lotus.’” The HBO series’ second season was set and filmed in Sicily.
Kemp, who grew up in Houston, says he became interested in set design when he was just a boy.
“When I was about 7 years old, I started building dioramas,” Kemp said. “Our family vacations were always to historical sites and museums. We’d go to Gettysburg, and I would want to start creating a diorama to tell the story.”
His interest in drawing and making models continued in high school, when it was noticed by one of his teachers who had a background in set design.
“He sort of guided me and had me do models for shows, designing and building the sets,” Kemp said. “I was still acting at the time, but that got me very interested in that side of things.”
In college, Kemp decided to devote himself to set design and worked as a carpentry intern at the Alley Theatre in Houston. He then became the theater’s draftsman and learned autoCAD, an essential software program for any architect or designer. Kemp attended graduate school for set design at the University of California, San Diego.
“They had a great program, and that got me hooked up with two great designers, Robert Brill and David Gallo,” Kemp said. “I went on to be their associates for years and years in New York. I did shows on Broadway as associate designer with Robert.”
At the time, Brill was designing a lot of opera sets for such companies as the Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera, doing projects like Jake Heggie’s opera “Moby Dick.” He also started to develop his own career.
“I did my first opera in 2009 with Opera San José,” Kemp said. “They kept bringing me back and connecting me with other directors. So it was those connections that then got me across the nation.”
Kemp has since designed stunning sets for many opera productions all over the country. He is now a busy, in-demand designer. Although he used to live in New York, he now lives with his wife in Liberty.
“It’s terrific,” Kemp said. “Kansas City is so central and has a new airport. Eryn and I have started a family. We have two little ones now, and it’s just been so perfect.”
Kemp, who designed the magical sets for the Lyric’s production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” says he hopes to do much more work locally. But right now his focus is “Cav/Pag,” a double bill that Kemp thinks is the perfect introduction for an opera newbie.
“You get the stereotypical, four-hour, multi-act arc, but you get it boiled down with very clear stories, and, boom, you get the tragedy right away,” Kemp said. “It packs a lot of punch in its short time. And when that curtain comes up, a new audience member will really be transported when they see this town swing into life.”
7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 29 and 2 p.m. Oct. 1. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $38-$216. 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org.
(Kansas City Chamber Orchestra —— Bach Is Back
You can’t go wrong with Bach and Mozart. The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bruce Sorrell will perform music by both composers Sept. 28 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. “Bach Is Back” will feature Bach’s ever-popular Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and will conclude with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 “Jeunehomme.”
While not heard as often as Mozart’s later concertos, the ninth piano is a lyrical masterpiece. Pianist Alfred Grendel called it “one of the greatest wonders of the world.” The soloist for the performance is Kuok-Wai Lio, who is a student of Stanislav Ioudenitch at Park University’s International Center for Music, so you know he’s got to be good.
7:30 p.m. Sept. 28. Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St. 816-960-1324 or kcchamberorchestra.org.
Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company — “Rhapsody”
The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company will present its always anticipated fall program Sept. 29 and 30 at White Recital Hall. “Rhapsody” will feature new works by choreographers Charissa Barton, Christian Denice, Amber Perkins, Omar Román de Jésus and the company’s artistic director and founder, Mary Pat Henry.
7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 and 30. White Recital Hall, 4949 Cherry St. $15-$25. wylliams-henry.org.