Backstage at San Francisco Opera > May 2012 > A Life at the Opera (Part 2)
A Life at the Opera (Part 2)
I worked in the rehearsal department for three seasons and after leaving that position, I was prepared to do just about anything.  I could spit out any one of a hundred phone numbers faster than you could pull out your iPhone.  People marvel at that, and I marvel that they marvel. It was just second nature to me and anyone else who worked here.  You have to be ready to do anything at a moment’s notice.  During the 1989 earthquake, one of my co-workers was at the ER with a singer who had injured her ankle during a performance while the rest of us phoned all remaining artists to be certain everyone was OK.  Thankfully, all were fine, and one of our mezzos even invited all of the other artists to her apartment for a chicken dinner.  The very next morning we had set up camp at the Masonic Auditorium where we proceeded to perform a week’s worth of opera there in concert version.  

Several years ago, an ex-colleague left the opera to follow a different path and was amazed when she assumed her new position working for a university. She told me she had no idea how hard she had worked until she left the theatre, and that no outsider could ever understand what working for live theatre is like until you do it. She was right. I still have the two notes I kept in my binder from those days: “Details are my life. I live to specify.” The other reads: “Always notify department heads (props, carpenters, etc.) when a change has been made regarding stagings—anything on a bi-weekly or chorus schedule—whatever involves stage.” This is when I learned that everything involves the stage and changes happen daily. I remember my boss one evening rewriting the daily schedule for the next day, for at least the seventh time, at close to 10:00pm-- and that was an early night. Those were the days of 11 productions in three months, and these were also the days before email. We had to call each artist for every single change that occurred. Besides our regular performances, we had other auxiliary events. My first year the Opera Guild held their annual Fol de Rol, and Ben Vereen was the guest star. He popped into my office at 9:30pm and he said, “Dear, I don’t think I’m going to make my flight. Can we change it?” Another time the tenor in question threw his back out. While in college I’d invested in a two-week massage certification program which proved to be extremely useful in that instance. It wasn’t uncommon for the phone to ring at midnight on an opening night, and dinners were usually take out and lovingly referred to as ‘Kung Pao Pizza.’

It was excellent training, and following the frenzy of those three seasons I assumed the position of Artists’ Services Coordinator, which meant I made all travel and housing arrangements for incoming artists and filed petitions to obtain work visas for international artists.  It also meant acting as in-house concierge for artists’ needs and requests.  No request was ever too much, and we always tried to comply whenever possible to make the artists happy and comfortable while in San Francisco. 

The requests were many and widely ranged: finding a house with a sun roof and a view; securing an apartment whereby in no uncertain terms would there be no? pigeons on a window ledge or balcony; very “excellent” clothes hangers; a piano in my apartment; a piano in my dressing room; a piano in my hotel room, nothing in my hotel fridge other than vegan items; gluten-free flight meals; an apartment where I can live with my current girlfriend and not in the same apartment complex as my ex-girlfriend; and one of the most memorable, a king or queen bed instead of a  twin “since I was really hoping to get laid” to which I replied, “I’ll see what I can do but I really don’t think that is the San Francisco Opera’s responsibility.”   Years ago I had to take one of the singers to a chiropractor in order to assist with translating from English into his native Italian.  He had to fill out an extensive questionnaire, and one of the questions read: “Does it burn when you urinate?”  It was an embarrassing question to ask, but I translated the question, and the singer looked at me and said, “Well, I guess it depends on who I’ve been with.”  As you might imagine, over the years I have learned what it means to have a great poker face. [Above: Valentina and her mother, Lola, backstage at the opera.] 

My duties have changed since then and I am still happily ensconced in the Artistic Department, still coordinating travel and visas for artists and now also assisting our fantastic Music Director, Nicola Luisotti.  It has been a bit of a charmed life so far.  I wouldn’t have had the opera in my life if it hadn’t been for my mother.  After retirement she returns to the opera on a regular basis at age 81, not just as a patron but as a volunteer and every opening night we are backstage together singing the national anthem amongst our friends and colleagues.   We went from being Lola and Lola’s daughter to Valentina and Valentina’s mother over the years, but we are lucky and blessed that our lives still continue at the opera.

Posted: 5/4/2012 3:41:04 PM by Valentina Simi (Artist Services Coordinator & Assistant to the Musical Director)
Filed under: SFOHistory, Staff


Backstage at San Francisco Opera is a fascinating, fast-moving, mysterious and sacred space for the Company’s singers, musicians, dancers, technicians and production crews. Musical and staging rehearsals are on-going, scenery is loaded in and taken out, lighting cues are set, costumes and wigs are moved around and everything is made ready to receive the audience. From the principal singers, chorus and orchestra musicians to the creative teams for each opera, in addition to the many talented folks who don’t take a bow on stage, this blog offers unique insight, both thought-provoking and light-hearted, into the life backstage at San Francisco Opera.


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