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Nevada Opera goes to court to stage production of 'Trial'

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 20, 2003

RENO, Nev. - The judge reels drunkenly into the courtroom, where the defendant is a two-timing cad and the plaintiff a jilted ingenue.

And, as has happened for 128 years, the comic opera Trial by Jury ends with a verdict that resolves everything in typical Gilbert and Sullivan implausibility.

The twist in the Nevada Opera's version is that the jurors are sitting in a real jury box and the judge on a real bench. And it's a real judge, District Judge Peter Breen, in his 30th year on the bench.

As the defendant sings, "These are very strange proceedings."

Necessity and invention combined to lead the company to select the one-act opera and to stage it in a real courtroom.

Like many arts groups around the country, the Nevada Opera is strapped for cash. Declines in donations and grants produced a $250,000 debt that forced it to lay off three of its four full-time employees in May. The group also postponed plans to stage Puccini's Madame Butterfly in favor of Gilbert and Sullivan's shorter and less elaborate Trial by Jury.

Using the courtroom was cheaper than building a set, said Julie DeHan, the company's fundraising and special events director.

And conductor Jon Fay says it has wonderful acoustics.

Breen welcomed the opera into his courtroom, arriving early and staying late during rehearsals while maintaining a full calendar.

"Having an opera company here kind of emphasizes that Reno is the "Biggest Little City in the World,' " he said.

The opera company had a month to prepare for Friday's opening in the very unfamiliar surroundings.

"There's no (sets), there's no backstage. It's all a little bit off the cuff," said Stuart Duke, who plays the pompous usher and doubles as the production staff stage manager.

Trial by Jury tells of a woman who sues for breach of promise after being spurned by her suitor for another. As with most Gilbert and Sullivan operas like The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, the thin plot is carried by lilting melodies and broad overacting.

More than 150 people showed up for Friday's opening performance but the courtroom could barely accommodate 100, so the cast voted to stage a second show for the overflow.

The opera, part of Reno's monthlong Artown festival, was scheduled to run through today.

"It will be odd to walk in here on Monday and not hear that soaring soprano," Breen said.

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