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Ornate edifices filled with the besuited and begowned, hefty divas clad in period finery, the inescapable air of formality, ticket prices that might make even Les Alexander squeamish -- opera's stereotypical image has helped keep the masses at arm's length for the better part of the century. But there's nothing inherently elitist about opera, which combines action, music and lush visuals in a gripping package. With its production of Carmen on the Multimedia Modular Stage, the Houston Grand Opera is preparing to break the ties that bind opera to its staid image.

The MMS is a $1.3 million portable conglomeration of video screens, hydraulic lifts, computerized lighting and sound systems and other high-tech bits. Borrowing from the rock-extravaganza handbook, the stage's designers aim to transform the classic opera into a completely new experience. "We're not looking for subtlety," says HGO general director David Gockley. "We're looking for impact."

The portable setup allows HGO to stage productions at larger venues, such as the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, that weren't built with opera in mind. The orchestra will play on-stage, surrounded by the action. Live shots will be projected onto huge video screens, and the singers and musicians will be miked to reach the most remote members of the audience. Still images will replace standard sets to create symbolic impressions of mood and place: In one visual metamorphosis, a massive moon morphs into a rose, which breaks down into petals, which fall through the neck of an hourglass. "We'll use every theatrical trick," says Gockley.

Traditionalists take heed: Though you won't hear any of the characters shout "How ya doin', Houston?", the electrified Carmen may give indigestion to those who like their opera old-fangled. "They shouldn't [see it]," suggests Gockley. "Wait a couple of years. We're doing Carmen indoors."

-- Bob Burtman

Carmen: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 30. The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands, (281) 363-3300. $10 to $75 (Ticketmaster: 629-3700). (Additional MMS performances are scheduled June 5 and 6 at the Miller Outdoor Theatre.)


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