Boxes and boxes.
Cardboard cartons stacked 14 feet high, with a few odd objects wedged into spaces on the shelves.
That’s the plain Manila wrapper of a very imaginative new stage setting created by the designer Grace Laubacher for the Kentucky Opera production of “Enemies, a Love Story,” which plays Friday and Sunday, Nov. 9 and 11, in the Brown Theatre.
It’s not an opera set in a stockroom or a warehouse. In fact, boxes aren’t even mentioned in the opera composed by Ben Moore, based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
They’re entirely the product of the imagination of Laubacher and the director Mary Birnbaum to help tell a story of Jewish refugee immigrants who have escaped the World War II Holocaust and landed in New York City in the late 1940s.
In Laubacher’s design scheme, the wall of boxes begins neatly shelved and forms a handsome backdrop for the singers. But as the characters in the story evolve — or perhaps devolve — they unpack old memories and find symbolic new mementos of their lives, and the neatness of the stacks disappears.
“I really am someone who believes the set should change throughout the show,” explains Laubacher, a New York set designer who frequently collaborates with director Birnbaum and the lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia to produce opera and theater settings that seldom stay static.
“You never see a character in a show who ends up in the same ‘place,’ ” she says. “And I feel the (scene) space should take you on some kind of a story that is related to what you are watching.”
The central character of “Enemies, a Love Story” is Herman Broder, sung by Morgan Smith, who has married the Polish country girl who hid him away in a hayloft in Europe and helped him escape the concentration camps. Herman and Yadwiga (Emily Albrink) live in a Spartan apartment in Coney Island in Brooklyn.
But Herman has also taken a mistress, the fiery Masha (Danielle Pastin), who lives across the city in the Bronx. And then Herman’s original wife, Tamara, (Catherine Martin) — who he thought was dead — shows up.
But what could be a comedy — and does have some comedic moments (it’s a Jewish folktale, after all) — is instead an evolving tragedy that leaves Herman lost in a world of guilt and faded memories.
Which is where the shelves of boxes come in.
“It’s all kind of packed to the brim,” says Laubacher. “There are furniture pieces. They have a fridge. A birdcage. And we make different spaces with these objects. Yadwiga spreads a tablecloth on the table for dinner. They’re in Coney Island, so there’s a view out a window of the ocean.”
The production’s stage team accomplishes that with lighting and visual projection.
Then Herman takes a train to the Bronx to see his mistress Masha, who spreads out another tablecloth and sets their table for dinner.
“There are different lamps that come on for different spaces,” says Laubacher. “We’re using a very few elements to help define the different spaces.”
As Herman travels the trains and subways between women, a toy train runs along one of the shelves. On another shelf, there’s a dusty portrait of a Hassidic rabbi — long beard, stern look.
And a birdcage.
In her first aria, Yadwiga sings to Herman about her dream of flying away.
“The tragedy of her character,” says Laubacher, “is we think she pretty much knows that he’s the one who is always ‘flying away’ to see all these other women. But she’s choosing to grit her teeth and bear it, hoping he will come home and choose her. The birdcage is symbolic of that.”
Painting a scene
Re-imagined settings are an important part of opera. Audiences look forward to new productions of cherished works. An ancient castle becomes a modern skyscraper. The king’s fawning lieutenants become a CEO’s kow-towing yes-men. A mother-in-law … well, she’s always a mother-in-law, no matter the setting.
This is just the second production of “Enemies,” which leaves Kentucky Opera an almost clean slate upon which to paint its own setting canvas.
When Palm Beach (Fla.) Opera premiered Moore’s opera in 2015, it realistically set its apartment scenes in immigrant neighborhoods of New York City, with period costumes from the late 1940s. Kentucky Opera is renting the costumes and some of the props from the Palm Beach production, as opera companies often do with each other.
But the set dreamed up by Laubacher and director Birnbaum is an abstract original.
“I think naturalistic design has a place and I think is often the appropriate gesture for a certain kind of theater — a living room that looks exactly like a living room in life,” says Laubacher. “But opera is especially poetic, so I think a poetic medium is best for its spaces. I enjoy creating spaces that are kind of detached from reality. That can give you a sort of imaginative experience.”
The designer says the idea is to “make magic out of the mundane.” And little could be more mundane than a cardboard box.
“So we’re pretty much all over New York City, and the challenge was to find a ‘container’ for all these locations, for the apartments where Herman meets these women, and the spaces in between,” explains Laubacher. “The distinction between these places blurs a little bit for him. He’s sort of wandering around in a haze, paralyzed by indecision. Can’t decide what life he wants to lead — with which women.
“We felt we might actually capture this feeling better with a more abstract space that gives us little specific moments that are almost like memories, the way you remember that lamp, or that chair, but may not remember the whole thing.”
Tie on the feed bag
But all is not sad and hazy. Laubacher notes the opera is a Jewish story.
“So there’s plenty of eating,” she says. “Lots of latkes, corned beef, kasha, Eastern European Jewish traditional food. Lots of dinner-table scenes. We do have real food on stage. Of course, Herman doesn’t eat. The joke is the women are always trying to feed him.
“Toward the end, there’s a big Hanukkah party where an American rabbi sings about Jewish culture — all about living and life. Eating is a big part of that, and everybody’s just chowing down.”
With a lot of visual references of New York City in 1948.
“At one point,” says Laubacher, “the boxes turn around and they have artwork on them. Things like Coney Island posters. Or Jewish ancestors. In the party scene, a lot of boxes get turned around and they have these big garish labels of American processed food products, junk food, potato chips. Big bright letters.”
• • •
David Stern conducts “Enemies, a Love Story,” with musicians in the pit from the Louisville Orchestra. The opera is sung in English. But one might imagine there’s also a little Yiddish, and English subtitles are projected.
Moore’s opera has a local development history. In 2009, it was “workshopped” as a part of Kentucky Opera’s Composer Workshop Series. A second Kentucky Opera workshop in 2011 featured a full orchestra in collaboration with the University of Louisville.
Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway. Tickets start at $20.