Paint-Flecked, Sawdust-Specked: Opera North Backstage
It takes one enormous and talented village . . .
Thursday, July 28, 2016
"You can always take more underwear off the clothes line if you need to," says director Evan Pappas to the female lead in Daughter of the Regiment, presumably to provide her with a bit of onstage activity while singing. "And I need those stickers off that wooden box--they're not 1800s." He jumps onto the stage and scrapes at them with his fingernails. We, members of an OSHER at Dartmouth class, are seated at the back of the opera house in the dark, watching and eavesdropping on the piano tech rehearsal of one of the upcoming Opera North productions.
I have previously written about the number of actors required for a season, like this one, that is staging 3 major productions (Evita, Daughter of the Regiment, and Tosca) over the next few weeks. I will bet that in the back of your mind you know vaguely that there are more people behind the scenes, doing whatever it is those folks behind the scenes do. I humbly suggest that you don't know the half of it.
Our introduction begins outside at the back of the Lebanon Opera House, where sound designer James McCartney stands next to a working table saw and explains how many hats he must wear in configuring the video and audio systems needed. He also tells a story about working with actor Yul Brynner (The King and I) who tried to have a stage hand fired for whistling backstage. Don't even think about doing it.
James McCartney, sound designer (center, black shirt), explains the complicated video and audio systems needed in staging a production. McCartney also works at Boston's Shubert Theater. Craig Mowery stands to the left, Evans Haile in blue shirt at right.
On the morning of a day-long rehearsal, an assortment of non-actors, many in shorts and paint-flecked, sawdust-specked T-shirts, are making all 3 of these productions come to life. Craig Mowery, the technical director, is explaining why he has rejected a borrowed coffin for Evita because it was too large and out of sync with the historical place and time. He is auditioning another coffin. A pile of small styrofoam globes are in the process of becoming cannonballs, because of course no one wants to lug the real things on and off stage, let alone at the necessary record speed. One set for the matinee of Evita, for example, will need to be struck and another replaced within a 2-hour window for that same evening's performance of Tosca. The constant set changes will continue at that pace throughout Opera North's three week season. Mowery ensures that everything can be done, even in a relatively small 28 foot stage.
Inside, a few young people snake their way through a bottleneck backstage; our guide Evans Haile, Opera North's director, identifies them as some of the dancers, but we would have known just from watching them move. Stephen Leiboff, wig designer and his assistant, Allyce Good, (featured image, above) are stitching 1940s hats and styling wigs for Evita. They explain that hair is part of each character--serious, comic, romantic--and are demonstrating how flowered hair ornaments will be used in the tango scene.
Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal: the view from the back row
During a rehearsal break, David Arsenault talks about the challenge of repurposing pieces of the set of one show for use in the other two. The lighting designer is huddled over the computer system, working out how and which parts of the stage to illuminate, when to add color and even texture to the set. Pappas, who is directing both Evita and Daughter speaks of the "colliding worlds" of dancers, opera singers, and local community actors who must blend to produce a harmonic whole.
I still don't know the half of it, but am beginning to get the idea. In addition to every behind-the-scenes person with a title, there are swarms of others, pressing and hanging up costumes, combing through warehouses for just the right table, labeling the ropes of the pulley system that raise and lower the scenery.
Like sailors, stagehands learn and man the ropes.
As with every theatrical production, the sweat, pricked fingers and smashed thumbs, the long hours and thousands of human interactions, the pieces of rope and fabric and plywood, are what painstakingly make the magic happen. It will be there on July 29, as will I, on the season's premiere night. It all begins with the opening scene of Evita, and whichever coffin makes it to the stage.
For tickets, schedules, and general information, contact Opera North via its website by clicking here.
This is the second of my four-part series on Opera North. You can read the first post, Purple Cows in Strange Places, by clicking here.