Hockney's Opera/Battle of the Booksellers/Hauptmann Heads for New York | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Hockney's Opera/Battle of the Booksellers/Hauptmann Heads for New York 

After resisting the discount competition for a decade, Kroch's & Brentano's has finally given in. President Bill Rickman says they're doing it for their customers.

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Hockney's Opera

The Lyric Opera commissioned celebrated artist David Hockney to design sets and costumes for its new production of Puccini's Turandot, which premieres Saturday. But sources involved in the production contend Hockney has ended up being the de facto director as well. "This is Hockney's concept, and he's Mr. Big," said one cast member.

San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri, the original director for Turandot, bowed out months ago because--at least according to printed interviews with Hockney--he was worried that Hockney's control would far exceed his. Mansouri was replaced by William Farlow, a veteran assistant director for the Lyric, but cast members suspect a lot of the direction they've been getting is coming through Farlow from Hockney, who has been a constant though quiet presence throughout rehearsals. Ian Falconer, a lesser-known designer and Hockney's collaborator, shares equal billing with Hockney on the program for both sets and costumes, but it's Hockney who's been getting lunches and cocktail receptions thrown around town in his honor. "I think the world will remember this production as Hockney's," insisted Lyric publicist Danny Newman.

Despite Hockney's seeming omnipotence and Lyric director Ardis Krainik's eagerness to see that his every wish is realized (she made the unusual concession of agreeing to be at every rehearsal to handle problems expeditiously), not everything has gone Hockney's way. He arrived for rehearsals with an entourage of assistants, one of whom did nothing but carry around a video recorder to record every aspect of rehearsals. The camera was shut down for two days when members of the unionized chorus, represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, protested that Hockney had not cleared the taping with union executives. "No one told Hockney you can't do that sort of thing without permission, and he didn't ask," said one source. Hockney was apparently outraged by the taping interruption; at press time, the union has rescinded its permission to let him tape and demanded he turn over all tapes made so far.

Meanwhile, Hockney's concept for Turandot has received mixed reviews from insiders. One called the predominantly red and blue sets "garish" and the staging "static," but others believe the evening is coming together beautifully. "It's a don't miss," added one cast member.

Battle of the Booksellers

After insisting for a decade that it wouldn't respond to the deep discounting introduced into this market by Crown Books, Kroch's and Brentano's, with 20 stores in the greater Chicago area, has changed its tune. As of November it's discounting New York Times best-sellers 25 percent. Notes company president Bill Rickman: "We felt we no longer could penalize our loyal customers, particularly in this economic climate, by asking them to pay full price when they knew they could walk down the street and get a bestseller for 40 percent off."

So far discounting has not strongly affected Kroch's bottom line, according to Rickman, because best-sellers only account for about 2 percent of the chain's total sales. But already there are signs Kroch's is moving to discount other titles. It has just begun a selective sell-off--the first ever, says Rickman--of a number of fall titles at a 25 percent discount. Rickman says this is another benefit to Kroch's customers during a "tough season" in the retail business--one that has also forced the chain to lay off 10 percent of its staff.

But other local independent booksellers say they haven't yet felt compelled to enter the discounting fray. Unabridged Books plans to continue selling all of its inventory at list price. "Our customers arent looking for deals," explains chief book buyer Chris Kennelly, who said the store enjoyed its best year ever in 1991. The same attitude prevails at Barbara's Bookstores. Co-owner Pat Peterson says her stores discounted best-sellers 35 percent when Crown first entered the Chicago market, but she dropped the policy after two years. "We didn't see a significant increase in sales," says Peterson, who claims bestsellers aren't an issue in stores such as Barbara's. "In some parts of the publishing industry, best-sellers are the be-all and end-all, but I can go for weeks without bothering to find out what books are on the best-seller list." Best-sellers are as small a percentage of the total sales picture at Barbara's as they are at Kroch's.

Still, Peterson says she has not ruled out going back to discounting in the future, particularly in light of the increasing number of area booksellers with some form of discounting policy. Border's, a popular Michigan-based chain with a huge inventory, recently opened a giant discount store in Oak Brook. And Peterson says there are rumors that Barnes & Noble, a book discounter with a strong presence in New York City, will be moving into the Chicago market with a store in Evanston.

Hauptmann Heads for New York

Plans have been set in motion to move the Victory Gardens production of John Logan's Hauptmann to the 200-seat Cherry Lane Theatre off-Broadway in New York in early March. Earlier this week, Logan gave the green light to Victory Gardens and producers Kevin Dowling and Hal "Corky" Kessler (a former associate producer with the defunct theatrical production company of Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt) to mount a New York production that would cost around $150,000. The producers have not yet begun to raise the investment capital for the move, according to Victory Gardens managing director John Walker.

The current game plan calls for transferring the Victory Gardens production with Denis O'Hare, who has received rave notices for his portrayal of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and as many of the other current cast members as possible. Should Hauptmann wind up at the Cherry Lane, it would be the second Victory Gardens project playing off-Broadway this year. Jim Sherman's Beau Jest, which had its world premiere at Victory Gardens, opened at the Lambs Theatre last October and is scheduled to run into March.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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