Welsh National Opera's technical director Perryn Leech tells Terry Grimley what it takes to keep three shows on the road - and about moonlighting with Dr Who...
What do the sets for Welsh National Opera's new production of Tchaikovsky's Mazepa have in common with the interior of the Tardis in the new-look Dr Who?
The answer is that both were built in the workshops of Cardiff Theatrical Services, a wholly-owned subsidiary company of WNO. Over the last 20 years the Cardiff-based opera company has quietly developed a nice and not-so-little earner out of building sets for others, including several other opera companies as well as the BBC.
This external work now accounts for an astonishing 90 per cent of the output of CTS, which has a permanent staff of 21 and an annual turnover of £1.6 million.
The Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne have been regular customers, and a big order to build sets for a joint production of Il Trovatore for Chicago Lyric Opera, New York's Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera will keep the workshop busy for two months.
It's when British designers who know CTS's work are employed by these companies that opportunities open up in the North American market, explains Perryn Leech, who combines the roles of technical director of WNO and chief executive of CTS.
"The history of CTS is that it used to be the WNO workshop," he explains.
"All organisations that run workshops sooner or later have a crisis about them, because they cost a lot of money to run and the question is whether it's economic.
"About 20 years years ago the company went through one of its less busy times, at which point they decided they would start looking for external work. Initially very little of that was from outside Wales.
"One of the things that gave it a great kick was when the Royal Opera House got a grant to build their stores at Aberdare.
"So a show can be taken out of store and have a refurbishment here, and it's a good market for us.
"As soon as you start working for a blue-chip company like the Royal Opera House other companies like Glyndebourne start coming to you."
Cardiff is also booming as a television production centre: "BBC Wales is producing a lot of stuff at the moment.
"We've done work on series two and three of Dr Who, and they're shooting around here about every two weeks."
At the moment CTS is building two or three new productions a year for WNO and delivering 25-30 commissions for external clients, though some of these can be quite small.
Perryn Leech admits that his dual role means he sometimes has to have difficult conversations with himself - "as technical director of WNO I want to get jobs done as cheaply as possible, whereas at CTS I'm trying to make a commercial profit" - but the main difficulty is simply dealing with the workload.
"There is potential for CTS to expand its work still further, but that would be difficult to pursue because as a charitable company WNO cannot involve itself in commercial risk.
Meanwhile, the basic work of building WNO productions and moving them around the country continues, albeit with a significant change of perspective since the company moved home from the New Theatre to the Wales Millennium Centre.
When I suggest that the New Theatre was challenging, Perryn describes this as "very nicely put".
He adds: "The best thing about the New Theatre was that you knew if you could do it there, you could do it anywhere.
"It was our smallest and least-equipped venue. Now because we start off in our best theatre we have to learn very quickly on tour.
"Now you will have built the set eight weeks ago and it stayed together from rehearsal, and eight weeks later you're building it again - whereas at the New Theatre nothing could stay in, so you broke it down every day."
For many years moving a show from Cardiff to the Birmingham Hippodrome must have seemed like a glimpse of the promised land.
Now it's more of a stepping stone to the smaller venues on the tour.
"One of the problems with the Hippodrome is you can only get one trailer in at any one time. But once you get in you have a lot of space. In terms of stage size and technically, it's very well equipped.
"If anyone in Birmingham can see all three shows this week they will have an idea of how complicated touring is. Basically we tour with ten to 14 articulated trucks - one each for electrics, wardrobe, orchestra and miscellaneous, and between one and three for each production. For instance Mazepa is three trucks whereas Don Giovanni is one and a half.
"Tosca plays Tuesday and Thursday, and on Thursday night it comes out and goes on to wherever we are appearing next.
"Normally we have a show on Saturday which is the last show of the week.
"Saturday becomes a long day when you're working all day and then doing the get-out."
Production styles can vary between the naturalistic (as in Mazepa and Tosca this week), to the abstract, as with Don Giovanni.
The third act of Mazepa takes place in a bombed building: "What's fantastic is it's a building in Act 1 and a bombed building in Act 3, so you're building the same thing twice."
Though the daily grind of theatrical removals is one of his responsibilities, Perryn's own attention is more focused future projects.
"You can't be dragged into too much detail because I should really be working on shows six to eight months ahead of where we are now," he explains.
"Opera is always a factory, and you're always doing things a long way in advance. In this day and age co-productions are increasingly used to spread costs, and at the moment we're working on a coproduction that WNO won't do until 2008 because it's being done elsewhere in late 2006."
* Welsh National Opera presents Tosca, Don Giovanni and Mazepa at the Birmingham Hippodrome from tomorrow until Saturday (Box office: 0870 730 1234).