Not Totally Screwed 

Oakland Opera reluctantly debuts its new space with Turn of the Screw

In 2001, the Oakland Metro Opera House was a dilapidated eyesore of a building — so dilapidated, in fact, that it had already been red-tagged by the city's building services department, which prohibited any new construction inside. Then the Oakland Opera Theater Company came along with plans to renovate the space and use it as a home base. The then-fourteen-year-old troupe had started out as the itinerant Underworld Opera Company, changed its name in 1997, and sought affordable digs in order to stage regular productions and secure city funding. It took a lot of convincing, but eventally the plans worked out. In its new fixed location, Oakland Opera mounted two to three shows a year, mostly featuring composers from the modern opera canon (i.e., Philip Glass and his brethren). It also started a First Saturdays Circus that featured fire jugglers, aerial artists, clowns, and bit comics — "circus" being carte blanche for "anything goes."

Two weeks ago everything changed. Pressured, presumably, by a spate of new development in the Jack London Square area — including a nineteen-story luxury condominium complex that's going up right across the street, Oakland Opera cofounder and director Thomas Dean says — the Metro's landlord decided to enforce a property tax that suddenly quadrupled the rent. Already mired in dress rehearsals for its current production, Turn of the Screw (adapted from Benjamin Britten's 1954 opera based on the Henry James ghost story), the entire cast picked up and relocated to a new space at 630 3rd Street, just a couple blocks away.

It was a remarkable twist of fortune, but Dean said he loves the new digs. At 6,000 square feet, it's roughly twice the size of the old Metro, which works out well because Turn of the Screw requires tons of space. Dean reset the ghost story on a Louisiana plantation (racial tension helps create atmosphere) and cast two trapeze artists to play the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The production — which Dean characterized as Turn of the Screw meets Iain Softley's 2005 drama The Skeleton Key — also calls for a thirteen-piece orchestra with a harp and four timpani players, and lots of rigging. Such flourishes might have been disastrous at the old theater. So Oakland Opera wasn't screwed after all. Turn of the Screw opens Friday, October 5, and runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through October 14. Tickets cost $25-$32. For more info: OaklandOpera.org

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