LONDON - When the curtain goes up tonight at the Royal Opera House for the first performance of Nicholas Maw's much-anticipated opera Sophie's Choice, a lot of nerves are going to be on end and a lot of fingers crossed.
This won't be just the usual opening night jitters. The extra tension has to do with what Maw calls "one wretched piece of machinery" - a stage elevator essential to providing the cinematic flow of Rob Howell's strikingly evocative scenic designs for this operatic adaptation of William Styron's wrenching Holocaust novel. (Styron, who this week received the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation's Witness to Justice Award, is in England for tonight's world premiere.)
The lift, which has caused embarrassing trouble a few times before in the newly refurbished opera house, started acting up earlier in the week. "If it behaves yet more perversely," director Trevor Nunn told the sizable, rapt audience on hand for Thursday morning's dress rehearsal, "we will have to stop."
The lift operated seamlessly until well into the fourth and final act of the opera, when it got finicky and caused a long break between two scenes before giving out altogether with a loud crack midway through the penultimate scene. Two of the lead singers had to climb out of a half-submerged set as the rehearsal literally ground to a halt. It never resumed.
As of last night, word was the lift had been tested more than 40 times and been cooperative. A lot will be riding on its mood tonight, when a sold-out house, including 90 critics from around the world, will hear the first performance of Maw's challenging, intense opera. (The four remaining performances are also sold out.)
Technical difficulties have not been confined to the theater this week. As that aborted final rehearsal got under way here, snow was piling up back in Baltimore and Washington, which was just the start of trouble for several dozens of folks who expected to fly uneventfully to London Thursday night.
This trip for alumni and friends of the Johns Hopkins University and its Peabody Institute division was organized around the premiere of Sophie's Choice, since the British-born Maw is on the Peabody faculty. (In all, 230 of those sitting in the Royal Opera tonight will have Hopkins associations; alumni from throughout Britain and Europe took advantage of an early chance to buy tickets and attend a post-performance reception at the opera house.)
Somehow, nearly everyone on the tour from the Baltimore-Washington area made it to the airport, about three dozen to Dulles - these were the lucky ones, who had only about an hour delay in departing - and another three dozen or so to BWI, who encountered a somewhat bumpier experience.
They spent the first four hours sitting on the runway, two of them due to "mechanical difficulties," another two waiting to be de-iced. On landing at Heathrow, smoke was seen rising from underneath the plane, so emergency crews were sent racing to meet it at the end of the runway.
"That's always a very reassuring sight to passengers," said Anne Garside, Peabody's director of public information.
It seems that the de-icing material got on the tires and caused the smoking. When the plane and its weary load finally got to a gate, everyone had to wait until another plane finished boarding before they could disembark. "By this point, I kept thinking, where's the candid camera?" said Fritz Schroeder, executive director of alumni relations for Hopkins.
It still wasn't quite over for the Baltimore bunch. The 15-mile bus ride into town took two hours, due to heavy traffic, bringing the whole trip to just under 12 hours.
"Considering all the other things that can happen to planes, this really wasn't that bad," said Dr. Frank Mondimore of the Hopkins medical faculty as he joined the rest of the relieved and jet-lagged crowd - about 85, including alumni who flew in from other U.S. cities to be here - in an elegant reception room at their hotel last night to meet and greet Maw.
The composer seemed genuinely touched by the enthusiastic cheers he received and interest in what he called "in every way, a wonderful and remarkable moment in my life." He described the process of being suddenly inspired by Styron's novel and the film of it ("This opera, as it were, fell on me") and the process of seeing it come to life with first-class production values at the Royal Opera. He did not mention the recalcitrant lift.
"I do not have words to describe the cast," he said. "They are not just good singers and musicians, but amazing actors. I have never seen anything like it in an opera house. Their performance is utterly extraordinary. I won't say anything about my music, but one thing I will tell you - take a handkerchief."