When people ask me what my job is at the opera, I typically tell them to think of my position as a project manager for the productions as a whole. It’s not my job to do the actual work of construction or to be inspired to create the design. My job is to make sure that the designs are done on time, on budget and as close to the designer’s intention as is conceivable. It has it moments of creativity and of rote mathematics. It has it moments of exciting involvement and concise detachment; but mostly it has its moments of managing large expectations.
First and foremost, I am not a scenic designer. I have never had the gestalt of vision and creativity that’s required of successful designers. I am among the people that take the designs and try to piece together what we can accomplish for the amount of money, time and space we have available.
I’ve seen designs with “boats” that would move by themselves, 25’ tall towers made of various-sized and typeface letters that make a word in a foreign language, pianos that need to explode every performance, and representations of Minoru Yamasaki’s iconic towers. The important thing is to find out what the show can’t live without, and work from there. There can be tense moments, such as when I’ve have to go back to a designer and ask what is the most important of two large elements, because we can only accomplish one of them. Certainly this is a difficult situation for the designer and for us because we want to give them everything we can, but at times it falls short of their expectations. Cuts need to be made sometimes and it is important for me to explain the situation thoroughly to the production designer and directors so that they can ultimately make these difficult decisions. It’s a process that can get people upset and stressed, but in the end we always find a middle ground and the plans are finalized for as we all know, the show must go on. [Above: Heart of a Soldier tower design PDF by Adirondack Studios, 439 County Route 45, Argyle, NY, 12809 USA]
Once the plans are finalized, we need to generate further drawing and descriptive notations to start the bid process. Just like you, we shop around for the best prices. Careful consideration must be made to how the pieces are going to work in a reparatory situation and how they can be broken down for storage. Seams need to occur in inconspicuous locations and need to happen because materials come in stock sizes: sheet goods commonly come in 4’ x 8’ sheets for example. The main idea is to make sure that any given piece has the ability to break down into smaller pieces in order to fit into a standard 40’ high cube container, which has a door that is 7’–8” wide x 7’–6” high. They typically can hold 2,700 cubic feet of material, but packing them to utilize the entire space is difficult with non-uniform shapes. One production can take up several containers; 3-8 is typical once one accounts for prop, scenic and costume storage requirements.
The pieces need to come apart in the space of a few hours and be put back together in the same amount of time, so they need to be sturdy but as light as possible because more weight means more labor. It can take 20 people to take apart a large set in several hours, but it all depends on how far the dismantling has to go. Ideally the scenery will break down into big pieces that can be stored off stage or in our storage area called “the patch”. But if the pieces are taller than the door going into the patch (~31') then they have to come apart further, and that takes more time. Every effort is taken to limit the storage heights of our productions to that dimension. Additionally, the set can’t be so big as to take up the whole backstage because we need space to store the other operas we are putting on at the same time. Our space is very limited, so we try to limit the square footage of storage space needed for a production to 1500 ft2. Lastly, the size of the production also determines the size of the crew needed to run the show, so we try to keep the numbers of crew members to 40–45. This would include carpenters, props, electrics, and sound. [Above: Backstage set construction for Heart of a Soldier, San Francisco Opera.]
Our jobs are necessary to put on any show. The ultimate goal is to do it well so no one in the audience has any idea how much work we put into the whole process before the first ticket was even purchased. I am only one out of a large team of many men and women who work very hard to bring art and magic to our War Memorial Opera House stage.