In ‘Porgy,’ high-def effects to accompany arias

“Summertime, and the living is easy.” Those are the most memorable lyrics in “Porgy and Bess,” the classic 1935 opera set in steamy Charleston.

But don’t tell that to Richard Kagey, the scenic designer charged with filming footage of Catfish Row for the Atlanta Opera’s new techno-savvy production, opening Saturday at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

When it came to shooting the coastal footage, he had to flee to the barrier islands of neighboring North Carolina to get the effects he wanted.

“You can’t find any place in Charleston where there’s not a condo,” Kagey says. “And Charleston has built this incredibly gorgeous bridge that shows up everywhere. It’s big, it’s steel, it’s a suspension bridge and it’s wrong for the period.”

Whatever inaccuracies the camera may have picked up during this three-year collaborative project with the University of Kentucky, they will be brushed away by the miracle of modern technology. For the first time in its history, Atlanta Opera is dispensing with clunky three-dimensional sets and replacing them with sophisticated virtual images that will be projected onto two big onstage screens, which have the capability of moving around to accommodate the action. For the pivotal hurricane sequence, the Weather Channel is providing video.

Dennis Hanthorn, the opera’s general director, likens the video scenery to the advent of super-titles, an invention that made foreign languages accessible to English-speaking patrons. In embracing these new technologies, the opera seeks to capture the attention of audience members who already interact daily with wide-screen TVs and iPhones. Such patrons are likely to want their money’s worth of razzle-dazzle from their live entertainment.

“When we consider the type of entertainment our audiences see every day — whether it’s a popular Broadway musical or a concert or a big Las Vegas extravaganza — they are stimulated by light and video,” Hanthorn says. “My hope for this production is to provide stimulation to the age group used to watching a lot of video games and possibly develop new opera lovers and supporters.”

From the designer’s point of view, replacing old-fashioned scenery with rear-projection technology “allows for a flexibility that hasn’t been available before,” Kagey says.

From the producer’s point of view, it saves time, money and labor — not only in building the sets onstage, but also in moving them.

“Typically, when we load in a physical production with a three-dimensional set, we may spend as many as two days building the set onstage, and that’s very expensive to do,” Hanthorn says. With “Porgy and Bess,” “we can build the scenery and all the set pieces in less than eight hours.”

Kagey introduced Hanthorn to the University of Kentucky, where its music department had been wanting to stage a “Porgy and Bess” inside a concert hall with a permanent shell. (“It could not have been done with a traditional set,” Kagey says. “There’s no way.”) As it happened, the university is also home to the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, which its opera company called on to help with technology.

Hanthorn calls the collaboration with the university a win-win.

“We provide their students an opportunity to work with a professional company,” he says, “and they provide us access to technology that I cannot afford out in the commercial market.”

University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of “Porgy and Bess” ran earlier this year with a student cast. Atlanta Opera’s professional staging, directed by Larry Marshall and conducted by Keith Lockhart, will star Atlanta’s Michael Redding as Porgy and Augusta’s Laquita Mitchell as Bess.

This is only the second time Atlanta Opera has staged “Porgy.” The first production, in 2005, caught the attention of L’Opera Comique in Paris, which invited chorus master Walter Huff and his singers to perform in France in 2008.

With the new technology, the challenge is to keep the focus on the story.

“We use a lot of images of Catfish Row through the show that will remain Catfish Row,” Kagey says. “They don’t dance. They don’t sing. It’s not MTV. It’s Catfish Row.”

In time, Hanthorn thinks the digital scenery will streamline the theatrical experience. “It will eliminate intermissions. It will move shows faster, and it will just help with the flow of the production.”

Maybe then, the living will be easy.

Opera preview:

Atlanta Opera

“Porgy and Bess”

8 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. March 1 and March 4; 3 p.m. March 6. $25-$125. Atlanta Opera at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 404-881-8885 or 1-800-356-7372,