Before the curtain falls at the end of each performance during the Fort Worth Opera Festival, the stars take their bows to healthy applause, standing ovations and shouts of “Bravo!” from the audience.
After the curtain falls and the adulation stops, the unsung stars of the opera take the Bass Hall stage.
A small army of stagehands, technicians, carpenters and electricians goes to work — sometimes overnight — disassembling hardware, refocusing lights, and unmounting set pieces and hauling them backstage. And then the same army does it all in reverse to set the stage for the next show.
“You have to have everybody communicating,” says Kurt Howard, the general who oversees these backstage troops as producing director at FWO. “You have to walk in already knowing where everything is going to go onstage, even though you haven’t seen it.”
The monumental backstage production — the constant setup and teardown of sets and equipment — presents, arguably, the biggest challenge to mounting a festival in which eight performances of three different operas are performed in the same concert hall over three weeks.
“Bass Hall was not designed for [festival presentations like this one], so there’s not a lot of backstage space,” Howard says. “So we have to take things apart in fairly small pieces and bury them in the hallways or around the set that is onstage.”
Crews of no fewer than 20 people can move them on and off the stage with amazing speed.
“We are down to about four hours between any two shows, including refocusing the lights,” says Howard, who began working with FWO as a stage manager 10 years ago.
But then there’s Silent Night. One of the new works being presented in this year’s festival — it is making its regional premiere Sunday — it presents a unique issue or two not encountered by the FWO production folks, who have been choreographing this fluid motion of set and stage movement since the company went to a festival format in 2007.
For one, there’s the floor.
“There is a full stage deck for Silent Night with a turntable built into it,” Howard says. It would have been too labor-intensive and expensive to lay it down, pick it up and store it backstage between performances.
“So we put that down first this season, and we are putting the other two shows on top of that deck,” Howard says.
In other words, anyone who has seen FWO’s The Pearl Fishers or Cosi fan tutte has already seen part of the Silent Night set.
Indeed, the set for the opera is so massive — it takes 45 stagehands to unload, build and store it — that it had an impact on the operas chosen for this year’s festival.
“When I saw the physical production in Philadelphia, after we had already announced we were doing it, I discovered that it was such a large show that we had to reconfigure the rest of the season around it,” Howard says. “We were going to do La Traviata, but we couldn’t fit both Silent Night and Traviata in the theater.”
That is why festival audiences are seeing Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte this year instead. Verdi’s La Traviata will be performed, alternating with Hamlet, in Bass Hall as part of the 2015 festival.
“What I have to do is think of the festival as a 12-act opera,” Howard says. “Two acts of Pearl Fishers and how that interacts with two acts of Cosi, and so on. So it is all about working out what the crew schedules are and how many electricians are in one space at one time. Things like that.”
Planning and budgeting
Sizing up the operas to be performed is a long-term effort. FWO officials currently are planning productions through 2017, though Howard is leaving after this year’s festival to join the staff of Opera America, a national organization devoted to helping companies share knowledge and resources, in New York.
“Although we only perform four weeks out of the year, it is a year-round effort,” he says. “Right now I am budgeting for next season and working out every single schedule for the productions.”
The process begins with finding the sets and the costumes needed for a production. For economic reasons, sets and costumes for most operas must be rented from other opera companies and costumers. This year’s Cosi production was designed for Opera Carolina. The Pearl Fishers set, too, came from Opera Carolina, and costumes came from Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The components of Silent Night came directly from Minnesota Opera, the company that commissioned the work from Kevin Puts (music) and Mark Campbell (libretto), and debuted it in 2011. It is based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, about a truce that took place on the Western Front on Christmas Even during World War I. The work earned Puts the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for contemporary music.
Minnesota Opera built the Silent Night sets and costumes in partnership with Opera Philadelphia and Cincinnati Opera; FWO is just the third company to perform the work
But even with a shortcut like renting — and sometimes because of it — adjustments have to be made.
“Part of our challenge in casting our 35-member male chorus was trying to figure out who was approximately the same size as the choristers in Minnesota. There’s a lot of mix and match,” Howard says.
And there was one other surprise.
“We were reminded that ‘full costumes’ does not necessarily include footwear,” says Howard, groaning at the thought of rounding up appropriate boots for the numerous soldiers in this opera.
The scale of Silent Night can be measured in “trucks.” When venues and people like Howard discuss productions, they do so in terms of how many trucks it takes to hold the show’s sets and, sometimes, costumes.
In this year’s festival, The Pearl Fishers is a two-truck show. Cosi is a three-truck show. But Silent Night is a four-truck show.
Even the lights take more work. The productions in this year’s festival use a total of 460 lighting instruments, with Silent Night needing about 70 more than any of the other operas.
There are eight designers of various types (lighting, costumes, sound, etc.) credited on the production, one of the largest Fort Worth Opera has ever mounted at Bass Hall.
Managing it all
Among the most important backstage crew are the stage managers — one for each of the festival’s operas — who assist in getting the productions up and running.
“Everything you see onstage has a piece of paperwork that’s created to show every move,” says Gina Hays, stage manager for The Pearl Fishers. “We create a written documentation of the show.”
Hays, who works primarily for the San Francisco Opera, is working her third FWO festival.
“Before the opera, we set up preliminary paperwork and time the score so we can figure out when to [call the singers to the stage] and how much time we will have to do a scenic shift,” she says. “Usually, we have about a week of prep before we start rehearsal. That is our time to familiarize ourselves with the show and learn everything that will affect the artists. We need to be able to explain the set to the artists and answer director’s questions.”
All of this information winds up in the show’s “book” — a three-ring binder filled with all of the paperwork Hays mentioned, including the score. Books can run hundreds of pages; Hays call them “bibles.”
“I’ve had to split scores. I’ve done Wagner, which can be 400 pages,” she says. “The book can get a little heavy. But I can’t imagine not having it. It is very much a safety net for me.”
Working without a safety net in the case of an opera could have many consequences, including budgetary. Running 10 seconds into overtime on a show can cost the opera $4,000, underscoring the need for Howard and his stage managers to run tight ships once the curtain has gone up.
During the performances, Hays not only has to make sure the artists are where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there, she also manages numerous technical aspects, such as giving all-important lighting cues.
“I love creating a piece of art from scratch. I love the process of going from page to stage. I love tech,” she says. “I know it seems bizarre, but the most exciting part for me is the initial technical rehearsal [where things like lighting cues are set]. You really start to see all the elements of the show come together.”
And, even though there are several days between performances, there is still work to be done in what looks like downtime. There are usually “brush-up”’ rehearsals between performances that might focus on the music, vocalizing, dancing or even technical aspects.
“We open the show,” she says, “but then we keep working.”