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February 8, 2010

Guest blog post: Kim Witman, from Wolf Trap Opera

One of my favorite summer activities is catching Wolf Trap Opera at the Barns. So I thought I'd let Kim Witman, the director of this remarkable company, tell you about that very appealing place in Vienna, Virginia:

Tim has been gracious enough to allow this guest post today, part of Wolf Trap Opera’s mini-internet splash on the occasion of our 2010 season announcement. You can find all of the details back on my blog -– but my intention here is to give you a glimpse inside our home: The Barns at Wolf Trap.


That’s the magic number. Of seats. I don’t know too many opera companies who regularly perform in a space where the distance from the edge of the stage to the back of the house is the same as the distance to the back of the orchestra pit at the Met. If you’re in the front row, you can almost reach out and touch the singers. If you’re in the back, you can still see the whites of their eyes.


As in: no fly space, no crossover space, no wing space.

When future directors and designers come to see the space, I preface the visit with drastic descriptions. No fly space (can’t pull anything out of sight above the stage); no upstage space (can’t walk from stage right to stage left without going down to the dressing rooms, walking under the stage, and back up a flight of stairs); and no wing space (as in, any set pieces that start onstage stay onstage.) Let’s just say, this is

not typical for an opera house.

The wonderful thing is that when artistic team members visit The Barns, they make friends quickly. There’s something warm and charming about that old barn that makes people forget to worry about all the things it can’t do. Quickly the brave stock phrases about “limitations inspiring creativity” turn to actual embrace of the space. And the work begins.

Watch Out for that Bow

We can fit 28 orchestra musicians in our pit. And that’s pushing it. It’s kind of a perfect size for a Mozart opera, but even problematic for Rossini and Donizetti, who tended to write for a few more brass players than Mozart did. We owe our players a debt of gratitude for their ongoing flexibility (figuratively and literally) in making music inside our tiny pit.

This summer, due to the percussion complement for "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," some of the players are getting edged out of the pit. The audience will be joined in the house by harps, harpsichord and celesta, making Britten’s sonic world even more atmospheric!

The Magic in the Wood

There will be theatrical magic in the Athenian woods of "Midsummer," but there’s acoustical magic in the actual wood of this old barn. Our theatre was an actual working barn, taken from its home in upstate New York and reassembled (using 18th-century style tools) here in 1982 as a theatre. (As in “Hey! My dad has a barn! Let’s put on a show!) Wolf Trap founder Kay Shouse thought that the natural warm, clear acoustics of the building would be perfect for a performance space, and she was right.

Beer with That?

Some patrons aren’t sure about the fact that you can bring food and drink into the theatre with you. But I believe that enjoying a glass of wine with that second act of "Turk in Italy" could be a fine thing. There are occasional worries about noisy wrappers and clinking ice cubes destroying the mood, but most people have a surprising amount of common sense about this. In decades of attending and producing opera at The Barns, there have been very very few problems – probably no more than there are with candy and cough drop wrappers in a hall with traditional restrictions.

Never Been There?

You owe it to yourself to check us out someday. It’s a special place.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:47 PM | | Comments (2)


Sounds very similar to the space that Opera Vivente performs in, only a bit larger. We should see how we can collaborate a bit more, Kim.

I second John Bowen's observation about space. Watching Opera Vivente's creative productions, I hardly think about limitations of the stage support areas. I'm still amazed at how a fully-laden banquet table materialized in the middle of the action of "Cinderella" last fall. Also: So thrilled about finally having a chance to see "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on stage in the area (at Wolf Trap).

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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