Opera Stage Management 101 – Part Six: Piano Tech & Artist Takeover Day

Cueing Day Schedule Small

Part Six is in a little different format. Friday was a long day of tech, and I was also the one doing the Artist Takeover for the company’s Twitter feed. I really could only post when we were doing the light cueing, or at the end of the night because of my focus, but occasionally I’d grab a photo while walking past something in order to post it several hours later. Here’s a glimpse at my day. [Note, I’m having a little trouble embedding the Twitter photos on this website. If they aren’t immediately visible, either click through each photo link or view them in another compilation here.]

(Full disclosure – I took the above shot about 12:45p, and then wasn’t able to post it for another very busy five hours or so…)

Yep, Eeyore is making new friends. This shot was taken on a 15 minute break during Piano Tech.

When I got home, I was instant messaging with a friend who told me this STAGE RIGHT sign was actually painted as a scenic element for the film The Tooth Fairy, with The Rock. I haven’t investigated further to verify, but will ask around today. [Update: film title is actually The Game Plan.] He also told me another fun thing to look for in the theatre, so we’ll see if I find it.

I have SOOOOO much further to go with this cueing sequence, but I wanted to capture it since I had permission! Not terrible for the first time, definitely shows signs for improvement. My ASMs each give me a clear for “left” and “right” when singers are set on a piece. I can see it fine from front of house, but it will be a big white blob in the middle of my monitor when I’m calling from backstage.

We like this phrase…a lot. Opera singers don’t use microphones, but I do!

Erin Joy Swank is a Denver-based freelance stage manager – and past SMA Secretary, Vice Chair and Director-at-Large – who works in a wide variety of genres.

Opera Stage Management 101: Part Five – During Rehearsal

ASM blocking page DP Reduced

The previous blog posts (start here if this is your first time viewing the series) dealt with some generalities and then about prepping for a production. While there are many more details that I could go into, I’m jumping ahead to some of the differences in the rehearsal hall for an opera. The primary reason for this is that I’m just finishing up the first week of rehearsals for an opera, and it’s presently on my mind! Again, there is no one way to stage manage, and this article is only to give you an idea of some of the ways that I personally do things.

Music Rehearsals

Both musicals and operas tend to* start with working through the music first. This can sometimes take several days in a musical, depending on how prepared the actors are, including how well they sightread. In an opera setting, singers are expected to come fully prepared on the music, often having had private coachings on their own (or if local and comprimario/smaller roles, perhaps coachings from someone within the same opera company). The first sing-through then is more about setting tempi and assuring everyone agrees on the same cuts in the music, though a preliminary list of changes was already sent to all involved. Depending on the opera company, there may be an entire music department who deals with those changes, especially to transfer the information to the orchestra, but I dutifully note any changes in the daily report. As mentioned previously, placement in the music is notated with slashes in between, so the pictures below represent the following note, ‘CUT: 68/3/3/2 (after “Io stesso? E come?”) to 69/2/4 “In una canzonetta”.’

There will likely be just one day of music rehearsal before you start staging.

Tracking the Parts Not Sung

As you’re following along for the first time and they discuss cuts, you might hear the phrase, “Are we going to take the standard cut?” Opera can be repetitive, or have sections that aren’t as crucial to the story, so some cuts are done on a fairly regular basis, and are often marked by a “vi” and “de” as mentioned in three. Another common thing singers do is to not sing one set of repetitive words towards the end of an aria (solo). I like to mark these for myself, and tend to do it with a big parentheses, as often it’s leading up to a cue for myself at the end of the piece.


Tracking Where We Are

In addition to all the things I mentioned in Part Three: Setting Up Your Score, I also will help myself out by marking crucial musical moments. I’m working on Rossini right now, which can go by VERY fast at times, and can also have a whole bunch of people singing at once. I’ve started using my erasable blue Frixion pen to mark crucial landmarks. The picture below shows a big rest/breath everyone takes, a line only Figaro has, and then a line only the Count has.

You’ll also notice a fairly recent development to my stage managing style, the “GSP” handwritten in green with a rectangle, in the last measure. It’s my own acronym: “Good Starting Place!” I’ve started using these in musicals too, for times that seem to work for everyone to pick back up again. In this case, I’d ask Maestro to start at Rehearsal Number 90, and they would inform the cast what that meant for their lyrics.

Recording Blocking…Sort of

You may also notice that my score is double-sided. This is the first time I’ve not done a single sided script with blocking pages on the back. I have an assistant director whose job it is to record the exact blocking, and will run our cover (understudy) rehearsals, along with four (!) other people on our stage management team. I primarily need to get big picture things, so I’m opting to do half-sheet blocking pages when needed. I did a similar half-sheet when I was assistant stage manager on the last opera. I’m still tweaking things, but here are snapshots of the latest layouts.

As an ASM, I most cared about entrances, exits, and props, along with a general picture of who was positioned where:

As Stage Manager, I’ll be with the Assistant Director, Director, and Lighting Designer while we set light cues, and can help with the general layout of positions (but will default to the AD’s final notes), so I gave myself the groundplan and a place to take limited blocking. I also have a cheat sheet of the highlighter colors I used, along with Character and Singer’s Names, and a place to write a given prop or costume note for each. I also wanted a place to record tech elements. On this particular show, we have two Revolves (SR/SL – in this case at the 180 position), a Tracking Barber Unit (US) and three moving Staircases. I pre-printed the blocking/slip sheets per each look (this is #1.5), so was able to type those out at the bottom. I also have space to write in any other tech needs, like descriptions of light cues.

This first time I tried making these half sheets, I inadvertently had a “bad” hole punch, so my score ended up not in alignment with regular punched paper. It actually worked for me as an ASM, as my half sheets stuck up a quarter of an inch or so above the score. As I only had them in at big moments, I added some orange highlighter to the top (my go-to marking for “Chorus”), along with a note of which scene it was. This was actually a great “tab” for me as we jumped from Chorus entrance to entrance for their rehearsals.

* I say “tend to” because this time we actually had a venue conflict and started with staging on the first day, then concentrated on music the day we couldn’t be with all of our props, etc. It took a lot for our brains to adjust!

Erin Joy Swank is a Denver-based freelance stage manager – and past SMA Secretary, Vice Chair and Director-at-Large – who works in a wide variety of genres. 

Opera Stage Management 101 – Part Four: Timing the Score

Timings in Score

Timings

One advantage of stage managing an opera is that the timing of a show doesn’t tend to vary much once it’s set. When a show has dialogue, that’s where you’ll find more wildly varying run times for a scene or production. Spoken text could come out faster one day than another, and audience reaction time certainly can change a performance from afternoon to evening, whether it’s filled with laughter or a quiet audience. However, even in a musical, the songs rarely change their timing. Think about a tap number in 42nd Street. If the music was faster or slower on a given night (which does happen), either the dance steps couldn’t fit in and the dancers would be worn out if too fast, or the opposite, the longer notes would be even longer, and singers could run out of breath, and the dance would seem “sloggish.” Dialogue is not common in opera (though certainly present for some), so once the tempo of a given piece is set, it really won’t change too much from day to day. Also, there are some pretty standard tempi for some of the more-produced operas. Stage managers can use this to our advantage.

During prep, see if you can find out which recording your maestro/conductor prefers of your opera, assuming there is one. You’ll either get a definitive answer or “oh, I haven’t even listed to a recording for a long time” if it’s a standard opera. Also, if it’s a remount by a given director, you may have a chance to simply watch a past recording. If no one can lead you to a specific recording, see if anything is available on YouTube or CD. (If you’re less familiar with opera, see if you can phone-a-friend for recommendations.) I like YouTube, because I can also get a sense of the scale of a production at the same time, or which characters are singing what – of course knowing that my production may be vastly different.

For stage management, it’s standard to then take timings into your score. (If you haven’t read my blog post on preparing your score, do that first!) Thirty seconds apart is very common, though I prefer to start with fifteen seconds. The primary advantage to this is that if I miss one, it’s a lot easier to go back and catch what I missed! I will also record where I am in the given recording I am using, listing perhaps a track number from a CD, or a timing from a video – especially if they let the recording run during the orchestra tune or similar, prior to the actual start, or kept the same video going after intermission. You really want to record the timing from the top of each Act, rather than starting over for each song, but both are helpful. When we get to the first sing-through, I will make an attempt to re-time the songs, though this can be trickier if they stop and start. I am now a huge fan of colored erasable pens (as mentioned in a previous blog), and this is one more use for them.

This image shows several colors. I started with red for the timings, based off a recording of a previous mounting of the same production. Green shows the start timing of a recording from Minnesota of the same production, which we also referred to quite a bit. We then decided to add some cuts that weren’t present in the original, so the first red timing has “WAS” written with it (to find on the recording). The new timings have rectangles drawn around for “finality” for the rest of my team to copy. Blue was from when I timed a sing-through – a zero at the top of the song, and blue with parentheses to show where we hit 30 seconds during the sing-through.

Though not used a lot, sometimes I will take time during prep and make myself a document of how long each section of the opera takes. This can be used to know if you have time to run the number again before a break, for example, or even begin to have a rough idea of quick change needs. Eventually, the timings will be very important for the backstage running paperwork, especially the Who/What/Where and First Entrance Timings documents that are rather standard for opera. It will also be used for all those Places calls you’ll need to start planning. Taking the timings also gives you one more chance to familiarize yourself with reading the opera score before rehearsals. You may not have another real chance to time the show in one go other than the last night in the rehearsal room; as discussed previously, opera is often rehearsed very piecemeal with a single room run prior to tech.

Erin Joy Swank is a Denver-based freelance stage manager who works in a wide variety of genres. As of this writing, she is spending her second summer in Evansville, Indiana, as New Harmony Theatre’s Production Stage Manager.

Opera Stage Management 101 – Part Three: Setting Up Your Score

DP Trio Cropped

If this is the first blog you’re reading of this series, I recommend you go back and read parts one and two, as the vocabulary builds off the words explained there. As I like to point out, there is no one way to stage manage, and what you will encounter will vary with every production. Here are some samples of how *I* have organized my score, which you may find helpful.

Highlighting the Score

I like to set myself up to follow along with the music as easily as possible. If I’m distracted by someone asking me a question, then look back at the score, I want the quickest guidelines to help me find my place again. I was taught to use highlighters, and I’ve taken that concept and run with it. Now that Pilot/Frixion makes erasable highlighters, my world is even better. (I order them online to get the Japanese pack with even more colors.)

After making sure I have the same score that the rest of the production staff will be using (see previous posts), I next take a look at the character list and assign a color to each one. I go for stereotypical colors – the lead female is pink, the lead male as her romantic interest is blue – and move on from there. If there’s a featured third character onstage a lot with them, like the title character in Don Pasquale, I’ll assign that person yellow to round out the near-primary-color layout. From there, I’ll try to assign rainbow colors in order for voice types. Often, the mezzo-soprano is orange and the bass purple. You may, of course, run out of colors, so look for those who are never onstage together to double up. Alternately, you can use colored pencils for more variations in color. Make yourself a cheat sheet with these colors; I’ve even started making that list part of my back page when calling an opera.

Double-sided vs. Single-sided

Some opera stage managers use doublesided scores, some use single sided. It depends how much blocking you want to record, really, as well as how many pieces of paper you want to carry around. I come from a musical theatre background, and am usually a one-script caller (same script for both blocking and show cues). If I am the calling stage manager, I’ll usually use a single-sided score. However, if I’m the ASM backstage, calling entrance cues, I don’t want to carry around all that weight. I’ll use a double-sided score for that. If you have the advantage of Adobe Acrobat (paid, not free), adjusting the margins before printing is helpful as well. (Tip: adjust your margins via Tools > Edit PDF > Header & Footer, then under Appearance Options select “Shrink document to avoid overwriting the document’s text and graphic.”) It’s not as easy to do this with a reduction feature on a copier, but can be done.

What Music Occurs Simultaneously?

In opera scores, how quickly you need to turn the page depends on both the speed of the music and the number of people singing at once. Principals will usually get their own staff (plural: staves) to follow, represented by 5 lines with pitches. Chorus members may be doubled up like a hymnal, with women’s voices together in one (treble clef), men in another (bass clef). Additionally, the pianist will have treble and bass clef staves. To indicate everything is sung at once, there will be a vertical line drawn to the left of multiple staves, signifying a single system. I like to break these up visually. One version is to use a big orange bracket.

If I combine Don Pasquale’s yellow highlighting with an orange bracket for the piano, I can see the entire system that is sung at once:

You’ll also notice that I’ve highlighted the number 12 in a big box. This is a rehearsal number, providing a great guidepost in the middle of a piece. In this case, during rehearsal we could say, “We’re starting at one before Rehearsal 12,” and everyone following along knows exactly where we’ll begin. If the singer is off book, the Maestro will inform them it’s one measure before “Zitto!…parmi…”

Don Pasquale is the only one singing on this page, so I only highlighted the yellow one time. I could also choose to do every “P” in the margin as well, and perhaps forego the orange brackets on this page. It’s all whatever helps your brain best follow along. You’ll also notice the “8:00” marking in red. That’s a timing I took. More on that later.

Here’s an example where Dr. Malatesta now joins in on the singing (when Don Pasquale has been singing for a while). Malatesta is in green.

In the next sample, Malatesta is now singing by himself. The green was bright enough for me, so I decided that was enough to separate the systems for my eyes. Also, if I’ve looked away and he’s now singing by himself, I can quickly scan to where there’s no yellow (for Pasquale) on the page. Starting to see the benefit?

Next are two different examples of when three are singing. The lead female Norina has now joined. I played around with this script/score whether I liked the orange brackets or not.

By 100 pages into the script, I’d come up with a newer system that is currently my favorite: using an erasable pen and a straight edge to mark the separation. This actually seems cleanest to me and will likely be how I next mark times there are three or more singing. When two are singing, sometimes just character highlight is enough for me. It’s your score, see what works for you!

At the end of the scene, after the singers cut off, you may have a musical playout that suddenly takes much less space per system.

Marking Cuts

Be sure to clearly mark the musical cuts you’ve been given, too.

Sample beginning of a cut

If it’s a common/standard optional cut, your score may be marked with “vi” to indicate the starting location.

The end of a cut

Similarly, this may be notated by “de” if standard.

If your music has any repeats or codas, I highly recommend printing yourself extras of these pages and crossing out (or cropping) any extraneous measures.

Although all this highlighting and marking up the score takes time, the sooner you can do it, the easier it will make some of your other jobs. It also gives you a visual sense of the progression of the show. If instead of the title of the piece, you’re told “we’re going to skip to Norina’s aria,” you can now page forward to a bunch of pink marks as an option.

You won’t be nearly as daunted following along either. I recently coached fellow stage manager Peggy Samuels on the phone and online (many states apart physically) for her first opera. At the end, I received the following message from her, used with her permission:

“First opera done.  The biggest help was highlighting the bars.  Having to follow Italian music for 3 hours is exhausting.”

Erin Joy Swank is a Denver-based freelance stage manager who works in a wide variety of genres. As of this writing, she is spending her second summer in Evansville, Indiana, as New Harmony Theatre’s Production Stage Manager.

Opera Stage Management 101 – Part Two: The Personnel

Don Pasquale Personaggi

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.

The character list (in Italian and English) of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale

Conductor/ Maestro

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.

Stage Director

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.

The Performers/Artists

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:

Principals

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

Comprimario

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.

Chorus

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.

Supernumeraries

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

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.

Scheduler

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.

Coaches

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.

Répétiteur

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.

Orchestra Manager

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.

Penguins

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.

You can find many additional opera terms on the Opera America website.

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.

Opera Stage Management 101 – Part One: Generalities

Pasquale Closeup reduced

Closeup of opera musical score
Closeup of the Ricordi translation of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in a stage manager’s score

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.

The Score

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.

Remounts/Rentals

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.

Worth It

Recently we had one of THOSE nights: a major drop used for the majority of act two couldn’t come in and I and my crew made many adjustments on the fly, including during that 22 second set change while the audience was watching a video. The new sound board op jumped my cues twice in the same night, too. However, after the show the ASM and I met some famous choreographers and were introduced as the stage managers. The first words out of their mouths were “Flawless!” followed by telling us how all the scenery went in and out perfectly. They then relived several production moments for us. Yeah, that was kinda fun! Though perhaps my favorite part was my friend’s little boy on headset during a post-show tour – the crew talked to him and his eyes were big with “Who said that?” as they guided him to look around the stage for the person waving to him. ❤️End of night = worth it all!