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Extreme Sports Opera

An Interview with Jeff Kleeman, LA Opera’s Technical Director

By Tom Lady

You ever been on a rollercoaster ride that’s lasted three decades? Jeff Kleeman has.

As the Technical Director for LA Opera, Jeff regularly clocks in 80 or a hundred hours a week, sometimes even more if you can fathom that. Grinning through that ZZ Top beard, he says, “It’s like a rollercoaster ride. Once you’re strapped in, you’re on for the full ride. Around these parts we call it extreme sports opera.”

Jeff is a rarity. First off, how many other people do you know who not only can say they witnessed the birth of an opera company, but then stayed and grew up with said opera company? That’s right. The then recent graduate of Cal Arts interned with LA Opera during its first season in 1986-1987 to help with special effects. And the rest, as they say…

Also rare these days: He’s a third generation Boyle Heights Angeleno who has lived near downtown L.A. his whole life, like his father and grandfather before him.

If you don’t count costumes (see “Wigs and Wardrobes: Unbound” in issue 38), Jeff and his team manage the creation of all physical elements in every opera. We’re talking construction, shipping, storage, the crew, the stage schedule, and everything inbound and outbound regarding rentals and co-productions, exporting and importing.

As Jeff explains it, operas come in one of three categories: revival, rental, or new production / coproduction. You take the Figaro Trilogy as a for-instance. The Ghosts of Versailles was a new production. The Marriage of Figaro was a revival. The Barber of Seville? That was both a rental and a revival. Check this out. LAO rented it from Teatro Real in Madrid. It constituted nine 40-foot trucks that arrived at the Dorothy Chandler after an epic month-long voyage from Europe. On average, from the time the trucks pull into the dock, and all the unloading and the assembling, hanging of lights and scenery and focusing, cueing and programming, all the dress and orchestra rehearsals, performances, disassembly and loading out, it only takes 20-25 accumulated days door-to-door. “It’s compressed compared to other arts companies,” Jeff says. “So it’s like rock and roll.”

With a team that includes two full-timers plus the seasonal stage crew that can number between 50 and 70, Jeff is either archiving the past, performing in the present or, as he says with another grin, “Hopefully proper planning for the future.” And when Jeff says future, he doesn’t mean the next opera. He means the next season. And the season after that. Because the work moves so fast, Jeff and team are usually doing all three buckets of work at once. While he’s exporting or storing a just-wrapped production in some of those 330 shipping containers in Carson, he’s setting up the next one. And he’s kicked off the design process for the next production. He explains: “All shows require careful analysis to make sure they fit with the other productions because we’re often in rep [repertoire]…We’re always looking at two to three seasons at a time.”

When I ask about the “Tech” that goes into being a Technical Director, Jeff says they have achieved a harmony of old world and the new. The former would be represented by the so-called grid, the vast rig of aircraft rigging cable and batten pipes lining the upper reaches of the Dorothy Chandler stage, 95 feet high. With seventy miles of cable and 117 batten pipes, flymen are called on to place the 30-pound counterweights individually onto arbors to counterbalance the battens. Each batten can support 1,300 pounds. These house batten pipes have been used in literally every show to lift and lower set pieces and people since the Chandler opened in December 1964.

As for new world tech, that would be all the electronic media. Thanks to those toys, LA Opera is handling more and more in-house production. Not just show media, Jeff points out. They have a lot of crossover with equipment and talent. His team handles a lot of the PR and marketing audio and video. Because their equipment is so state of the art, there is no need to farm out that work.

At this point you’re probably thinking: “Jeff sounds like he’s married to his work.” And that may be, but he’s also married to an actual person. Jeff and Theresia met as students at Cal Arts. They were married in 1987 and have two sons, Eli, 24, a Cal Arts alum, and Max, 22, who’s majoring in Economics at Penn State.

And you might say Jeff has a third child: the opera house. “The caring and feeding of an opera house is not for the meek,” he says. “It’s an endeavor. And it’s expensive. It can get you some amazing results, but you have to be willing to invest in it. You can’t come by it inexpensively. It’s not only a short-term real-time beast to feed, but it’s also a long-term ongoing beast that requires nutrients to work consistently, show to show, for years to come.”

Just as our interview ended, Jeff referred me to the below montage. Ghosts of Versailles featured the largest dimensional piece of scenery in LA Opera history: 92 feet wide, 34 feet high, and 16 feet deep. Yes, it moved in one giant piece. But when it's time to make way for the Barber, what do they do? Watch this, it's amazing.

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Author: Thomas Lady
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