I was passing off a show during the tech process in which the incoming SM was working on establishing relationships with the 3 person cast. Halfway through the first day of tech, the lead actor approached me with a flushed face, chills, shakes, and a high fever. We sent him home and canceled the rest of the day after assessing that his temperature wasn’t high to be a danger and he refused to go get himself checked out – which would have been at the ER as it was in the evening. Next day, it was clear he wasn’t well still and he didn’t refuse the idea of seeing a doctor who determined that it was a stomach virus. Bed rest was ordered for 2 days which meant cancelling the first preview. This actor woke up the next day insistent that he was well enough to proceed forward and finish teching along with doing the first preview. After a couple hours of rehearsal, the incoming SM saw how unwell he still was even though he insisted he was fine. She sat him down and said “I need to trust that I can safely send you out on the stage without you falling over. Can you honestly tell me that you will make it?” The Actor took a moment, realized the seriousness of the situation and the care this new SM had for him and answered that he needed more rest. Preview was cancelled and after another day of rest, the Actor was well again to perform at the next scheduled preview.
Stage Managers have your back and want you to be safe and well!
As discussed in the first installment of this blog series, there are generally speaking a lot more people involved in an opera as compared to a musical. Today we focus on the differences in titles and duties, including a few that are not present in musical theatre.
In musical theatre, you likely had a music director, who might have deferred to the director on “final calls” for the artistic side, and may even have been forgotten during notes sessions of a rehearsal. In opera, the conductor is generally a more powerful figure. As a term of respect, the honorific title of Maestro is used. (The feminine Maestra is an option, though many women prefer the original term, similar to using actor for all genders instead of specifying actress.) When in doubt, use Maestro both in person and when discussing him/her to others out of respect, rather than their given name. There are of course many exceptions to this, but better safe than sorry when you’re starting out.
You’re likely used to the director running things in a musical or play. I’m not quite sure why the added word is included here – perhaps to contrast to the music director, sometimes still a term used in opera companies? The stage director still decides the pictures and overall concept of the show, though you may be surprised a bit by the deference given to the conductor. Also, if the company engages an assistant stage director, then the stage manager’s role can really change. Assistant directors (and often the stage director if no assistant is on contract) are the ones to keep track of all blocking (stage movement). I still tend to record as much as I can, especially movement patterns to call spotlights later, and certainly the tracking of props and costume elements involved. However, there are so many other factors usually in an opera, that it’s often a relief to not follow every single small detail of blocking. It also may mean that you’re even less on the stage director’s radar to be told about changes he/she makes, however.
In musical theatre, you generally call them actors. The stereotype is that there isn’t much acting in opera. While I find that acting has gotten more attention in recent decades, it’s certainly not the main focus – the music is. As a result, you’ll want to start using some other terms like singers, performers or artists when referring to your group of people onstage. There are also subdivisions including:
These are your lead roles – and yes, I doublechecked the spelling vs. principles. Principals typically have their own rehearsals during daytime hours. Their solo numbers are called arias, which are often preceded by a conversational (and frequently expositional) piece with limited underscoring called a recitative or recit. Different voice types tend to be typecast to play certain kinds of roles:
Soprano – the highest female voice; generally plays the love interest and may very well end up dead by the end of the opera
Mezzo-Soprano – what you likely called “alto” in the past; rarely plays leading roles (except Carmen), but is more likely to be seen as the best friend, a witch, or in a pants role playing a young boy, if she gets a principal role at all; alto voices still exist in opera, but are technically lower voices than the ones that are usually heard
Tenor – the highest male voice; generally plays the hero and/or romantic interest (note, countertenors sing especially high)
Baritone – often considered the “easiest to listen to,” this male mid-range voice often represents the father figure or best friend
Bass – the lowest male voice; often plays the villain
These are the featured/supporting roles in an opera. If a company has a young artists program, comprimario (cohm-pree-MAH-ree-oh) roles may be filled from this pool, or from the chorus for a smaller production, especially if it’s only a few lines.
Similar to the chorus in a musical, the chorus both sings as well as fills out the stage picture. Opera choristers tend to have day jobs, and their rehearsals are limited to usually 2 or 3 times a week, with a schedule set way in advance of the stage manager coming on board. They often have been rehearsing the music for a month or more in advance, led by their chorus master. Many operas also have a children’s chorus that is separate from the adult chorus.
Often shortened to “supers,” these are the non-singing extras of the opera world. They may be costumed as servants, spearcarriers, members of the clergy or other appropriate characters to add to the scene. Many times, they are your do-ers for scene shifts that need to happen in view of the audience, or are used to carry in a royal person on a litter. Some make a career out of being in show after show with a company, but others may be first timers, hired because they needed a bodybuilder or a child to fit the production’s need….or they gave a large donation at the last opera gala fundraiser. Professional dancers or trained fight combatants may also be used. Supers are often not given a score nor know any of the language being sung. As a result, they rely heavily on stage management to know when it’s their turn. They may or may not rehearse the same nights as the Chorus.
Covers are the understudies of the opera world. Some may be guaranteed performances, especially if the company has family or student matinee performances. Some may be vocal covers, who would only cover the role musically but not physically go onstage, particularly if the original singer needs to mark during tech. Study covers may be assigned from a young artists program as an educational opportunity to learn the role for future use, but not for any performance at the moment. If a cover has another role in the opera, especially as a chorus member, alternate plans may need to be made should he or she perform as a principal.
Assistant Stage Managers
This role is likely the most different in scope in comparison to musical theatre. In addition to tracking all of the backstage production elements, assistant stage managers cue entrances for performers, and may fill in for anyone missing from a given rehearsal for blocking purposes. More on this later.
In large opera companies, especially those in festival formats, the scheduler takes on the daily call part of a normal theatre stage manager’s job. After receiving a rehearsal schedule request from the stage manager of each production (in conjunction with the stage director), the scheduler puts the entire company’s daily schedule together for distribution, including wig and costume fittings, vocal coachings, any young artist program classes, and more.
These members of the music staff may or may not be directly involved with rehearsal, especially if part of a larger festival format. Any singer may have vocal coaching sessions, which could focus on diction, pronunciation and interpretation.
Learn to say this word (reh-peh-ti-TUER), and you’ll instantly gain a bit more respect, in my opinion. Even in the musical theatre word, “accompanist” is a term that is used but can actually come across as derogatory. Just as I and others don’t like being called a “techie” as a sophomoric term – do you call the performers “acties”? – pianists prefer to be called pianists or this fancy word. In opera (as in musical theatre), these musicians are in the rehearsal hall representing an entire orchestra. On occasion, they may continue playing piano or harpsichord for performances, especially during recitatives.
Consider this person as somewhat the stage manager of the orchestra. The conductor usually hands the cut list over to the orchestra manager, who then makes sure that all orchestral parts are marked with notations of measures that are being skipped for this particular production. He or she is also in charge of all rehearsal hours for the musicians and determining start and stop times. You’ll want to make sure your own watch is synced to theirs (often atomic time), as well as what length of time they were told was budgeted for a given rehearsal. If your running time is close to going into overtime, the company may choose to have an “orchestra start time” that is different than the published curtain time, taking into account holding the house and the length of your preshow speech. Communication is key with this person. During tech, they are also the “keeper” of the orchestra break time, and will often start the tuning when the clock hits the prediscussed moment, regardless of other tech readiness, as to not waste any minutes of precious orchestra time. They will also watch to make sure the orchestra gets the break and other stipulations required in their contracts as to the physical setup of the orchestra space.
This is one of my favorite opera terms, and generally only used in preparation for the end of opening night. Opera bows are often longer than musical theatre stage managers are used to having. The chorus master will often come out on stage with the chorus to take a bow. (If the chorus isn’t used in the final act of production, this may even happen partway through the opera, after their last act.) During bows, the conductor will make his or her way up from the pit to be pulled onstage by the lead female towards the end. Opening night, the stage director and designers also take a bow. As they were originally mostly men in tuxedos, the term “penguin bows” began to be used to indicate this group of people.
One thing I’ve learned over my 20-plus-year career in stage management is that there is no one way to do things. There are different cultures within each company including things like who will run the production meeting. The SM Survey has proved that we do not all call cues or set up our books the same way. That said, I’ve enjoyed working in many different genres, and there are some generalities that make stage managing an opera different than stage managing a musical. When you come from the musical theatre world (like I did), some of those differences can be jarring, confusing…or just weird. It certainly can be daunting. This blog series has been formulating in my mind for a while now, and I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve picked up over the last decade or so. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Today’s post will start with some of the generalities.
Typically, the music is given the most importance in an opera production, and instead of a script, you use a musical score. Stage managers usually call off a piano reduction, combining the major elements of a full orchestra, whereas in musical theatre you might call off the libretto (text without the music). In a later post, I’ll give you some tips on how to set yours up to your best use. One of the first things you’ll need to do is track down which version/edition is the primary one your team will be using. Because the majority of operas were written centuries ago in another language, find out whether you might be using the Schirmer or the Ricordi translation, for example. Because of public domain, quite a few of them can be found online via IMSLP.org, if you want to look at it ahead of time or aren’t provided one. If English lyrics are printed, yet you are performing it in the original language, be aware that the translations are often done with liberty and may not be taken word for word. While not critical, literal translations can be helpful for things like understanding jokes or prop handoff timing. Most of the time, a stage manager can get by with English lyrics, along with the original language. You need not know Italian or French to stage manage it (or even to sing it), but you’ll often recognize some word bases similar to your native tongue, as well as get to know more words the more you work in the genre. I’m still looking for a single Italian opera where someone doesn’t cry out, “Pietà!” at some point during the narrative.
A Lot in a Little Amount of Time
Opera is big. Generally speaking, operas involve the most people onstage (choruses of 30 don’t make anyone blink an eye), behind the scenes, and in the orchestra pit. Organizing everything happens on a much bigger scale than your standard “straight” play, along the lines of the largest scale musicals or bigger. However, the rehearsal timeline for an opera production tends to occur in less time than other genres, and is often done in a fairly piecemeal format. Many singers make careers out of performing the same roles at multiple places, and the expectation is that they will arrive to the first rehearsal with the music already learned. The first singthrough is therefore more about setting tempi (the plural of tempo, the speed of the music), breaths, and confirming cuts in the music. Rehearsals can be split between various groups of people, and you may not get everyone in the same rehearsal hall until the final room run before tech. Because the voice is so important, schedules are made around not wearing out vocal cords* or stamina. (Another big difference – the majority of operas do not amplify sound with microphones, other than for playback monitors.) Things are often marked (sung softly and/or down an octave), so stage management really needs to be able to read the music to follow along, especially during technical rehearsals onstage. Finally, with a full orchestra you add many more people, often with union rules for length of service. You may only get all of your elements together on one or two evenings for three hours before you open (using just piano for the larger portion of a short tech process). Stage management is about pulling all of these puzzle pieces together and helping others fill in the gaps from having separate rehearsals – even if that means filling in physically for missing performers, if it affects the staging. On the plus (and weird to me) side, once you finally get everyone together, you end up being called to work much less. The opera standard is to have a day off the day before opening, and performances are rarely two days in a row, let alone a two-show day like most musical theatre. Vocal rest is a much-appreciated/expected thing. If you’re used to working in musical theatre, the days between are bonus days for stage management, even if you end up working on paperwork to catch up. Oh yes, the paperwork. More on that in another blog.
Because opera is big and takes a lot to put together, as well as the time constraints to do it, production designs are often re-used for many years. You may have a set (or full rental package including props and/or costumes) that was built many years ago, or a director who is known for his or her updated time period and concept for a given classic title. As a stage manager, figuring out what all those pieces are, whether they all arrived (or will arrive), and how they are all to be used can be an extra challenge, very much dependent on the paperwork that may or may not accompany it. Hopefully you have a strong technical director, production manager, prop master, and costume coordinator to help divvy up the responsibilities for your venue.
Places Calls and Cueing of Entrances
This is probably the biggest, strangest difference when you come from a non-opera background: Why the heck can’t the performers (not actors – more on that in our next post) get themselves onstage? Well, by the time you get to the final room run, it may be only the first time the chorus has ever been in the same room with the leads. They hopefully have figured out by now that their first scene they exit stage left, and the second one they enter stage right….but they have no real understanding that there are 25 minutes for them to make the crossover. During that time, they likely have a costume change, perhaps even a wig change, and they’ve been downstairs in their dressing room. The music has been piping through the system, but it might be repetitive and it’s quite likely it’s in another language, or perhaps it’s being marked and you can’t even tell who’s onstage at the moment. The chorus may never have been given this music either. To help keep things rolling along, the stage manager marks places calls in their score, generally five minutes or so before an entrance. In the middle of calling all light cues and other duties, the stage manager will turn on the backstage paging system and say a variant of, “This is a places call for Mr. Smith. Places, please for Mr. Smith.” (Depending on the need, a side of the stage may added and/or a description of a group of people instead of individual names.) Assistant stage managers will often then put a secondary places call in their scores at the two-minute mark, and ask for the singer to be paged again if not visible on deck. Yes, in opera, the standard is that people are ready and waiting a lot earlier. If I call two minutes for top of act places in theatre, I often have antsy actors wondering why I called them so early, especially if we have to hold the house or the curtain speech goes long. In opera, two minutes is late.
In addition to getting the performers to the stage, assistant stage managers help cue them for actual entrances. Some principals will take their cues on their own (for better or for worse), but an assistant stage manager is ultimately the source for the correct entrance timing. The width of the set and masking legs can change entrance timing from the rehearsal hall, and with so many people involved, it’s often easier for the director to simply say, “bring them all on a measure earlier.” The ASM then moves their cue in their score, and it’s easily adjusted.
Scene Shifts Can Be Long and Awkward
One of my least favorite opera traditions is the pause (often pronounced POW-zuh). In the musical theatre world, we do “in-one” scenes while a scene shift is happening upstage behind the drop. Changes happen fluidly, as quietly as possible, and blackouts between scenes are often just long enough for the curtain to rise. I still remember being stunned during my first opera upon learning that between two scenes we were going to bring in the curtain, raise the houselights a little, and expect the audience to just sit there during a long scene shift….which folks were truly excited when we were able to complete in under four minutes. Really??? With the use of supertitles (the screen used for translations above the stage) or similar, you can give the audience a little instruction to stay seated, which helps. However, I’m a fan of the productions that do a little something more with the break between acts/scenes. I still think the standard “orchestra tune” prior to a show is a bit awkward as many musicals don’t do it – and I generally still have trouble telling when they’re done. However, when an additional tune is included in one of these pauses as well, the length isn’t quite as obvious. Meanwhile, my favorite recent pause “fix” occurred during Chuck Hudson’s Don Pasquale. He set the opera in the glamorous age of Hollywood, with the title character as essentially a Norma Desmond-type, a silent movie star who never made it to colorized talkies. Black and white films were projected during the pauses (with piano underscoring a la the silent film era) depicting Pasquale’s rise and fall. It did mean our scene shifts had definite target end times (two minutes each, which could be a struggle if we had an issue backstage), but the audience was entertained while we changed the scenery.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the people involved in putting together an opera.
*Yes, it’s vocal cords, not vocal chords. I’ve certainly typed that wrong in my past.
Erin Joy Swank is a Denver-based freelance stage manager who works in a wide variety of genres. This summer she will return to Evansville, Indiana, as New Harmony Theatre’s Production Stage Manager.
When you are in the middle of an unplanned event, the stakes certainly can feel incredibly high. I am definitely glad we didn’t know that a Chicago Tribune reporter was in the house on the night that the lights went out on THE NIGHT ALIVE. The article is here:
Apparently, the city of Chicago had scheduled a black out on a performance night, however this was an unexpected surprise to us in the booth when the power went fully out mid-show – light system out, sound system out, all went completely dark with a 20’ drop into the pit downstage and actors onstage. Emergency lights popped on without much delay.
Throwing off the now useless headset, I ran to the open air sound cockpit and in the calmest voice possible (no god mic – no power) used my “tech voice” to announce technical difficulties and to have everyone stay seated while we investigated the situation. An amendment was made for anyone needing to use the restroom. “Please feel free to get up if you need to use the restroom – house management staff has flashlights if you need assistance.”
Basement office and dressing rooms were plunged into complete darkness while crew and SM staff circled up the cast. We had walkies to communicate with FOH that the SM team jumped on to figure out the next steps.
The rest is in the article, but with the audience demanding and cast game for it the crew and stage management grabbed torch flashlights and using them like improvised spots with cellphone flash lights to supplement were able to light the cast enough to continue the play. The play finished on the deck level to the side of the stage – an area without a 20 foot drop – with simulated staging like a semi-staged reading. Biggest applause of the run – audiences sure do love a “live theatre” event.
The next day’s article was a surprise to all. Really glad we didn’t know there was a reporter in the midst but a reminder that you never know who is out there!