Careers in Opera

San Francisco Opera, just like many companies, operates like a well-oiled machine: no one department functions alone. Instead, many departments have areas that overlap with one another and it is necessary for each department to do its share of the work in order for all the others to function. In performing arts organizations, there is a delicate balance between artistic freedom and the business sense that must be maintained for the company to thrive. If the company never takes any artistic risks, such as producing a premiere (doing a work for the first time), then the artistic community may not respect the company. If the company takes too many risks, it is considered unwise from a business perspective. The balance must be struck in order for the company to be a success. The many people and departments within an opera company are all working for a common goal, and each part is equally important.

San Francisco Opera is run by the General Director. The General Director has the final word on the Company’s policies and decisions from artistic to business planning. A General Director needs to travel to other companies in order to stay informed as to what is happening within the opera industry. He or she needs to know which new singers are becoming popular, which sets and costumes are the most striking to rent, and which operas the audience might enjoy. The General Director is the ambassador for the opera company, both within the community and abroad.

At home in San Francisco, the General Director makes decisions about which operas should be part of the season schedule, called the season repertoire. Many of these decisions are made along with the Music Director. The Music Director in an opera company has the very important job of overseeing all musical aspects associated with the Opera. The Music Director not only needs to make decisions about the season repertoire and stay informed about singers who are performing, but also oversees the orchestra and the chorus. Sometimes the Music Director may act as the Conductor to an opera, one of the most important components of a performance.

The Music Administrator functions as a researcher, historian and walking human encyclopedia for the company. When we produce a new opera, he is responsible for bringing together the composer and librettist and managing workshops on the piece. When we produce classic operas, he makes recommendations as to which version of the opera we should produce, and oversees orchestration and music library work. He also creates the master schedule plan for the season’s rehearsals and performances, manages the music staff (pianists, vocal coaches, prompters, language coaches, and assistant conductors), oversees backstage musical and sound effects, coordinates plans for special concerts, advises the Music Director on personnel matters, and acts as Editor-in-Chief of “supertitles.”

The chief Dramaturg of an opera company or festival advises the head creative team during pre-production and rehearsal. Besides being Dramaturg for a portion of the new productions each season, they are in charge of the content and style of all the publications of the company, from program books to yearbooks. At San Francisco Opera, the Dramaturg is assisted by the Publications Coordinator. The Dramaturg starts their work in the pre-production (preparatory) phase by researching all relevant background materials; these include publications about the historical, social, and cultural context of the times in which the piece was written, correspondence between the composer and the librettist, and so on. The Publications Coordinator then gathers these materials and works with the Dramaturg to determine which will be used in the development of the stage production and which may be used in written publications (such as the program). Dramaturgs may also do a musical analysis of the score to determine, for example, why certain musical phrases seem to characterize or contradict (subtextualize) the words or the situation of the libretto. In the rehearsal, the Dramaturg acts as an “editing eye,” providing valuable feedback and criticism of the day’s work; as the production evolves, he helps the director refer back to the “big picture” of the opera. A good Dramaturg enriches the creative process and helps the conductor, director and designer delve deeply into the work, “ask questions” of the piece and figure out potential connections that may be expressed in the final production.

The Artistic Administrator works with the Music Director and the General Director in the hiring of singers. The Artistic Administrator deals with individual leading artists and their agents, making sure that they are available to sing with the Company and negotiating a salary and contract. Contracts are very important in opera because once the contract has been signed, it legally binds a singer to perform with the Company.

Equally important as all of the artistic decisions, are the business choices that a company makes. San Francisco Opera, as are most performing arts groups, is a non-profit company. This means that the organization does not exist as a money-making business, but instead is a company that exists to present art, essentially functioning on a combination of ticket sales and fund-raising. Grand Opera is very expensive to produce. Because it is for the general public to enjoy, it is impossible to make enough money from ticket sales to cover the actual costs of producing it. Each year, budgets are formed to decide the guidelines that determine where money will be spent, so that no department exceeds the amount of money that the company can afford to spend. The Director of Finance and Administration, along with the General Director and heads of the various departments, is responsible for making sure that budgets are formed and followed, and for keeping track of finances throughout the year, as well as generally overseeing the business end of the company.

The Director of Development and the Director of Marketing work with the Director of Finance and Administration to actively keep track of what money is raised. The Director of Development heads the Development Department. This department raises money through donations, private and government grants. Some people in the Development Department are in charge of applying for grants for the company. Other people are in charge of securing corporate sponsorships. For-profit companies donate a certain portion of their profits to non-profit organizations that are working in their communities or that interest them in some way. There are also jobs in the Development Department that deal with individual gifts. This means that an individual person or family gives a donation to the opera to support its programs.

Of course, the other source of income for an opera company comes from Box Office sales. The War Memorial Opera House has 3,148 seats and averages more than 75 performances each year—which totals more than 236,100 seats that have to be sold every year! That’s a lot of seats! The Marketing Department is the division that makes sure the seats are sold each year. There are many different parts of marketing opera. One is placing advertisements so that people know that the opera is around. Any ads that you see in the newspaper, at bus stops, on television, or hear on the radio, the Marketing Department put there. The Marketing Department works with an outside advertising agency to determine what type of ad will be most successful in reaching the Company’s target audience, and to determine the costs of specifically placing those ads.

A department that works closely with Marketing is the Communications Department. The Communications Department makes sure that everyone knows what is going on at the Opera. One way to do this is by writing a press release. A press release is a news article that explains an event that is happening with the company, such as the opening of a show. Press releases usually contain lots of information about places, times, people and other details that people are interested in. They are sent to the media: newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations. The media then decide if it is something a specific audience will enjoy and may decide to print a story about the event in the newspaper or do a story on nightly news or radio. This is called press coverage and is something that big companies always strive for, particularly in the performing arts where tickets need to be sold. Press coverage stirs up interest and often times makes people decide to go to the show!

One of the other things that can make people decide they want to come to an opera, is the information they get about it on the Internet. At the San Francisco Opera, the Information Services Department handles the development and maintenance of our website (including the interactive portion of it, such as ticket sales). This department keeps the staff trained in the use of current technology and they keep us on good terms with our computers. They also develop and maintain the other electronic structures that help us stay connected to each other and to the world outside the Opera House. They keep us connected.

The educational pages on the website are developed and maintained in collaboration with the Education Director. This person is responsible for ensuring that opera is part of the arts education in schools, community centers and other venues where people gather to learn. The Education Director creates programs for students and other people in the community and is responsible for helping teachers bring opera into their classrooms. By being exposed to opera at a younger age, young people have more opportunity to learn about the art form and understand the music and history of opera. By bringing the art of opera out to the community, people of all ages get a chance to experience the thrill of live opera, often for the first time.

Another big part of San Francisco Opera that is not found at all opera companies is the San Francisco Opera Center. The Opera Center is dedicated to providing training for young artists and each year auditions young singers to take part in their programs. Once accepted, singers receive quality vocal training and are given exciting performance opportunities that nurture their careers. These opportunities start in the Merola Opera summer training program. The Merola Opera Program is an independent organization that trains young opera singers. Once the singers have completed the Merola program, they may be considered for further training within the San Francisco Opera Center.

Before operas may be sold or marketed, they must be created and staged. Each opera has a Director who is hired by the opera company. The Director is responsible for making decisions about what the themes will be and how the production will look from the design of the set to the movement of the singers on stage. In preparing the production, the Director works with the set, lighting, sound, costume, and prop designers who function as a creative team. Each designer then works with their own crew, a team of crafts people who actually build the show. The Set Designer is trained in the creative and technical process of designing backdrops, large props and general background pieces for the opera. The Set Designer drafts plans and then a model of the set, which is given to the carpenters and scenic artists who build the full-sized set. The Lighting Designer works with the Director to create the lighting for the production. Lighting is central to the mood of the opera; a scene set in bright white light has a different feeling than one set in softer blue lighting, which may denote evening or a romantic scene. The Costume Designer is responsible for working with the rest of the creative team to decide what the dress for the characters will be. On a historically based production, the Costume Designers do background research into the time period to make sure that the dress is as appropriate as the sets are. In the case of period operas, such as The Barber of Seville, many Costume Designers have done research into the time period to see how the people of the time would have dressed, and to assure that the cast has costumes that they actually might have worn. On productions with more abstract concepts, the Designer uses more of his or her own imagination to design costuming. A team of sewing experts, or stitchers, then sets to actually measuring performers and assembling the costumes.The Props Designer is responsible for finding, designing and/or constructing the props that will be used on stage. This can include everything from clothing accessories like purses, to swords, to wall lamps, to giant puppets. The Props Designer also works with a crew of craftspeople who take care of the properties after they have assembled them. When any opera is in production, a huge amount of creative collaboration is required throughout the departments in order to arrive at the end result, the fully staged opera.

Backstage there are sometimes hundreds of people working to make sure that the people on stage are under the right lighting and have the right props and backdrops. These are the Stage Crews; they are responsible for running the show- making sure everything happens in the right place, at the right time. The Stage Manager is the conductor of movement on and off stage. The Stage Manager really runs the show backstage, usually connected to several different areas on a headset. She often relies on video monitors, as well as audio communication, to keep on top of what is happening at any moment during the production. The Sound Crew maintain the audio and video equipment that keep the Stage Management team in the know. The Stage Manager and his or her assistants are responsible for calling lighting and sound cues, being sure that artists are available for their entrances, and coordinating the chorus and supernumeraries, or extras, in crowd scenes that are often large and difficult to manage. For that reason, in the very short rehearsal time they try to perfect large scenes so that the confusion backstage is minimal and the masses move at the right times. In opera, the Stage Manager must know how to read music and follow a score, the book containing the music and text for the opera. This way, he or she can follow along with the Conductor and understand where the opera is going, in order to be prepared for the next scene at all times. The Stage Manager’s score is usually filled with notes and markings so that they remember all the cues that fill the opera. The people on the other end of headsets attached to the stage manager can range from electricians, to sound specialists, to carpenters who have built the sets, to costume staff waiting to help the artists change in the wings (the area off-stage to the sides). The Wig and Make-up crews are always available between scenes to touch up the artists as they come off-stage. They are often the ones responsible for the same artist playing a teenager in the first act, aging to an adult in the second and finishing as an old man in the final act!

Behind the scenes, there is another team of people working to make every opera season happen. These people are our Volunteers, and they give their time to the opera without pay, simply because they feel passionately about opera and want to make sure it continues. Volunteers work almost daily with the San Francisco Opera Association, the San Francisco Opera Guild and with the Merola Opera program, working in widely varied positions, from decision-making positions on the Board of Directors to hands-on positions in office administration to monitoring during dress rehearsals.

As you can see, there are a variety of different jobs at the opera—something for everyone—and we can never forget the most important people in making the opera happen—you! The audience is responsible for buying tickets and enjoying the performance, as well as providing feedback about whether or not they liked the particular performance so that the company knows if it is pleasing the public or not. Just like all the departments at the opera, the audience is very important because without you, there is no reason for all of it to happen!

Questions and Activities

In general, jobs at the opera can be divided into two categories: specialists and generalists. What skills are necessary for the specialists such as the set designers, lighting designers, costume designers, stage managers and departmental directors? What skills are necessary for the generalists such as the development staff? Where is there crossover in traditional “schooled” learning and on-the-job training? Which department do you think you would like to work with at the opera?

Costume Designer

Draw a costume for any character in The Barber of Seville. The costume can be traditional, modern or abstract, but you must explain why you made the choices you did.


What product or company do you think should sponsor The Barber of Seville? Write a proposal to the president of the company explaining why you think it would be beneficial for them to give funding to a production of The Barber of Seville. Remember to tell the president what benefits there are for her or his company!

General Director

If you were running a company, which aspect do you think would be more important to you, spending money on artistic expenses or maintaining a balanced budget? Do you think one outweighs the other? Write a statement of your philosophy as if you were the General Director and had been asked how you make your decisions.

Information Services

If you were to design a website for The Barber of Seville, what would it look like? Who would it reach? Who would be the “audience”? What would the website look like?


Create an advertisement for The Barber of Seville. Decide whether you should put it on TV, radio, newspaper, a bus, etc. Include whatever you feel is the biggest “selling point” of the opera—what makes it exciting? Why should people come to see it? First, write it as a presentation that you might make if you wanted San Francisco Opera to use your ad. Second, rehearse the ad with others and present it as though you were actually acting in it. Your classmates can take the role of the Marketing Staff who will decide if this ad represents San Francisco Opera successfully enough to get aired.


Think of an event that your class will have around the time of your class viewing of The Barber of Seville. Write a press release about the event, including the date, the time, the people involved, and why it would be exciting or fun to attend. It can be a fictional event or a real event—but if it’s real, remember to send the principal or your school newspaper your press release!

Set and Lighting Design

Think of a different setting that you could have for The Barber of Seville. Are there any themes in The Barber of Seville that would work in a different time period? Describe the set and the tone of the lighting—is it a happy atmosphere or a sad one? Where is your production set? When? What is the weather like? What set and lighting elements tell the audience about the physical world of the opera?

Write a letter to the department you are interested in and ask any questions that you might have. You can send the letter to the Education Department and we will forward it to the appropriate person.

The address is:

Education Department, San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102