We sat down with San Francisco Opera Guild volunteer docent Timothy J. Muldoon to find out what it’s like leading tours of the War Memorial Opera House, how one keeps straight all the facts and figures and what are some of the most satisfying – and challenging – parts of the job.
How did you come to be an Opera Guild tour docent?
If you’re asking about my motivations for becoming a docent, there are three important ones:
The first time I walked into the Opera House I knew, without doubt, I was standing in the most beautiful building in San Francisco. After all these years, walking into the foyer and looking up at that magnificent vaulted ceiling still gives me chills. I wanted to be a part of that house, and leading tours gives me that opportunity in a very personal way.
Also, during the 20 years that I spent designing database systems and heading an IT department, at least half of my time was spent in teaching, which I enjoyed very much.
Finally, I spent my late teens and twenties working on radio, television and the stage. I am The City's biggest ham.
Add those together and you get a dream avocation.
How involved is the training to become an Opera Guild tour docent?
That is a difficult question to answer. Certainly, there are a mountain of facts to commit to memory and those have been established, modified, rewritten and re-interpreted through the years by the people who started the tours and keep them going. Those take no time to learn.
Rather, one's background in the arts and opera, the interaction with other docents and with opera workers, the outside reading (books like Bloomfield's The San Francisco Opera
) and on-going education directed by Lynn [Watson, the Guild’s tour coordinator,] are essential to what we do. And you know what: I still get questions from tourists for which I have no good answer.
[The War Memorial Opera House exterior, circa late 1930's]
Who are some of the most interesting people who you have met while leading these tours?
The tour itself is very full and not particularly conducive to meeting individuals. That said, we lead school tours with young kids who know little or nothing about opera. The questions they ask are so utterly fresh that they force you to reframe everything you know and communicate on a level completely different from your norm. At first it feels like working without a net. But when you get it, the rewards are spectacular.
What is your favorite story to tell during a tour?
My favorite story involves Luciano Pavarotti and the old superstition that finding a bent nail between one's dressing room and the stage door promised good luck. In The King and I
, Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti's longtime manager, revealed that there was a certain young lady who traveled with the tenor and whose most important job was to make certain that Pavarotti found his nail.
What is your favorite space in all of the Opera House?
Again, it's the foyer. There is no more beautiful indoor spot in town.
[The lobby of the War Memorial Opera House. Photo by David Wakely]
What is the most satisfying aspect of this form of volunteering?
Having a patron tell you, quite sincerely, that she or he really enjoyed the tour. Most everyone thanks us and says it was a good tour but the sincere ones make your heart swell.
What are the challenges?
Don't get me started. Actually, I can't think of any. For me, the tour is a performance, and every one of them is different. Your patrons decide how and where the performance goes, and they can change it at any moment. Taking the helm whilst allowing a natural flow is, I suppose, a challenge but it's a good one. It keeps my focus on them, their interests and their needs, and helps me craft a tour around them. It's a challenge only if you let it become one.
Guild volunteer docent Timothy J. Muldoon standing in his favorite spot in the Opera House.[Guild volunteer docent Timothy J. Muldoon standing in his favorite spot in the Opera House]
What is your favorite opera?
Oh dear, I know should say something profound like Götterdämmerung
but I'm a little batty. I adore Die Fledermaus
. I like happy, and there's no more fun, happy show than that one. Am I fired?
about how you can take an Opera House tour during the opera season. San Francisco Opera members and subscribers receive discounted tours, and members at the Supporting Patron $750 member level and above receive complimentary tours.