Backstage at the Opera

Date June 30, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Performing Arts


Visiting the Santa Fe Opera grounds in the final few weeks before Opening Night feels like a forbidden pleasure, somehow, almost like getting to sneak a peek into the closet where your Christmas presents are hidden when your parents aren’t home. Unlike the scene we’re usually met with — it’s night, the orchestra is tuning up, ushers mingle with exotically dressed audience members — in mid-June, all the action happens in the place ordinarily off-limits to the audience — backstage.

Founder and original director John Crosby conceived of his company as being an incubator for American artists in every segment of the genre. Since its very first season in 1957, for instance, SFO has staged more than 40 American premieres and commissioned nine new ones. “In this country, young artists have to do something which is impossible — gain experience,” Crosby wrote at the time. “To get such experience now, a young artist has to go to Europe.” With the ultimate goal of injecting new lifeblood into American opera, Crosby instituted the apprentice programs, the first one for singers and, a few years later, another for technical artists as well.

Over the years, acceptance into SFO’s apprentice programs has become widely coveted, not just across the U.S. but also around the world. Technical apprentices participate in seminars and master classes in the arts of stage operations, stage properties, scenic art, costume and wig construction, make-up, music services and stage lighting. And then, of course, there’s the actual hands-on learning that comes from putting together and running elaborate opera productions.

“It’s grueling,” says Paul Horpedahl cheerfully. SFO’s production director for the past 12 years, Paul knows whereof he speaks — he did two apprentice seasons himself, back in 1978 and ‘79. “Everybody gets a lot out of it. Working alongside professionals, I learned welding and how to build and move repertory scenery. It’s great because the apprentices apply for what interests them most and, because they’re immersed in what they love doing, the energy level just blossoms up here in the summer!”

Wandering the backstage maze between the various workrooms in the very final stretch before this season’s premiere, that energy level is so palpable it feels like you could run the opera’s enormous bank of stage lights off it. But, contrary to expectation, it’s a serene high energy level, not the frenetic Chicken Little variety, born of people working together who get to do what they love to do, learning new aspects of it and enjoying every minute.

Tucked into a nook of the props department workspace, Kerri Friedman, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, is bent over a huge wood table making little Italian flags. She has 15 so far; she needs several dozen more. They’re for a scene in The Elixer of Love. “We couldn’t find any so we’re making them ourselves,” she explains. Kerri got started in backstage theater work in high school but drifted away out of discouragement. “I was basically ignored,” she says. “But then I felt like I was just floating through time and things didn’t feel right. I missed it too much.”

Now she’s back in her element. “This is like a nerdy craft playground!” she enthuses. “And of all the companies I’ve experienced, this one is so welcoming. They really encourage us to discover our skills while we’re here.”

Kerri has another apprenticeship coming up at the end of the summer, for Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater but, as she says, “You honestly can’t get any better in the entire country than what’s offered right here.”

SFO performs five productions, in repertory every summer. Apprentices on the scenery crew handle changes of large, complicated sets on a daily basis, setting up for a show one night, followed the next morning by a changeover for that day’s scheduled rehearsal, then dismantling that to set up for the following show that night — over and over again throughout the season. And then there are the often complex scenery changes from one act to the next within a given night’s production. The scenery crew can rack up 80 hours a week and more.

The electronics crew, serving as deck electricians as needed, creates all the lighting effects, often from scratch, including special effects like chandeliers, wall sconces, lanterns and spots, as well as fog and pyrotechnics.

Apprentices are paid an hourly wage with overtime, based on each individual’s responsibilities and experience, plus assistance with long distance travel to and from Santa Fe. Housing, owned by SFO, is also provided — an apartment complex like a big opera dorm. Apprentices commute together to and from the opera grounds.

And SFO’s professional staff hails from all over the theater community, so apprentices get to work with people from other opera companies, repertory theaters and universities who bring with them a wide range of skills and techniques. “You add that to working with world-class designers and directors — oh, and the music is pretty great, too!” laughs Paul. “Rick Fisher, who recently won a Tony award for lighting the musical Billy Elliot, was outstanding at working with apprentices here as a mentor. You can hardly pick up a program book anywhere in the country — Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, even the Met — without seeing names of our former apprentices listed in the production credits.”

The costume department is a busy maze. All manner of clothes hang from the dress models scattered around the room, from gowns to coats, representing a mix of different eras. Mia Bednowitz, on this year’s costume crew, is a double major during the school year at Suny/Purchase, NY, studying costume design and costume tech. “This is my second year here,” she says. “When I first applied, I was too young — you have to be 18. But I persevered and, by October, I contacted them again, saying, ‘Is it time yet?’” She laughs. Her current project is painstakingly hand-sewing lace to a dress for a member of the chorus in La Traviata. Each costume is made to highlight the best physical attributes of the singer who will wear it. Although some are adapted from previous productions, most are made from scratch. The costume department takes care to make each as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, so that when a singer puts it on every night, they get to experience that pleasure. “This is the last remnants of a handmade industry,” Mia says wistfully and with pride. “I’ve had an amazing time here! Everyone loves what they’re doing, and that reassures me that this is what I want, too.”

This is also Mannie Jacobo’s second season as an apprentice, this year on the wigs and make-up crew. Sitting on a stool hand-knotting hair into a wig, one strand at a time, Mannie says he’s hoping to use this summer as a means of making connections. Until this past school year, he was the shop manager at the College of Santa Fe. Now, with that school’s fate still hanging in the balance, Mannie, a self-described lifetime educator and learner, is just doing what makes sense to him — accruing new skills to take back and teach others. “Everyone here brings something and teaches it to the rest of us. This wig I’m working on is about halfway built. It’s a custom-made fit for a member of the chorus in La Traviata. For the principals, we start from scratch. It takes about 40 hours to do the whole head.” He loves being a part of the apprentice crew. “I get to learn new skills I’m not trained in!”

Just before each production gets underway, the director and designers give a presentation for the apprentices, including a model of the set and the actual finished scenery, going through all the processes of developing that show, who were the dominant forces, how they collaborated or not and, just generally, as Paul describes it, “showing the honed quality underlying the madness that they were working from.” One-on-one portfolio reviews are also available for each apprentice and then, once all the productions are underway, the apprentice crews are encouraged to take part in two weekends of Apprentice Scenes, showcasing all their skills and talents.

After his own two apprentice stints, Paul went on to work with the San Francisco Opera and Ballet, and the Starlight Opera in Milwaukee. In 1997, this production manager job became available. “I never thought that this opportunity would present itself!” he says now. “It’s pretty sweet, coming back to the Santa Fe Opera. And it’s great to get to help the program grow and thrive. A lot of the staff has gone through the apprentice program themselves, so they know what it’s like and they’ve made a serious commitment to maintaining that.”

We, the lucky audience, thought we understood the gift we’ve received summer after summer, as we fall under the magic spell of the lights going down, the conductor tapping his baton and coaxing out the first strains of extraordinary music, the scene-from-another-world suddenly lit up before us and, of course, the singers themselves, with their thrilling voices, unwrapping the story, sweeping us along.

What’s held all this together, however, is a vast universe of people we never see, who loved every minute of what they’ve done to contribute, giving their whole attention to the minutest of details so that the night would shimmer with unearthly perfection.

The 2009 Santa Fe Opera season kicks off its season on July 3rd with a performance of La Traviata. See their website for the performance calendar and to order tickets. To call the box office directly, 505.986.5900 or 800.280.4654.