He Was Backstage. She Was Front of House. It Was a Match Made in Opera.

He Was Backstage. She Was Front of House. It Was a Match Made in Opera.

Chris Largent and Jamye Divila

Maybe you’ve seen her: the commanding presence patrolling the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, curly hair and eyes smiling behind a pair of glasses.

Jamye Divila has been the front-of-house manager at San Francisco’s historic Beaux-Arts theater since 2016. She’s a force of comfort when emotions run high, a beacon of strength when direction is required. With a staff of 42, plus a roster of over 400 volunteers, she ensures ticket-holders find their refreshments, take their seats, and enjoy the best possible time at the opera house, no hassle required.

This high-powered professional also once ran away to join the circus.

It’s all part of the long, winding road that led her to the opera house—and led her to meeting her spouse of one year, San Francisco Opera associate technical director and North Stage Door podcast host Chris Largent.

But to find each other in the opera house is no easy feat. San Francisco Opera alone employs an estimated 1,000 full-time and seasonal employees. And it shares the opera house with another large arts organization, the San Francisco Ballet.

So to unravel the mystery of how these newlyweds first met, they shared their story via telephone from Divila’s home state of Texas.

Growing up in San Antonio, Divila never had a strong interest in opera necessarily. But her family was all about music, she says: Her mother played the piano, while her sister grew to master the cello.

Opera crept into her life in subtle ways, though. A fan of the theater, Divila never missed a chance to see the hit Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera, absorbed by its fantasy world of crashing chandeliers and haunted prima donnas.

And then there were those trips with her aunt to Las Vegas, where she would lose herself watching the waters of the Bellagio Fountain dance to the voices of opera greats like Luciano Pavarotti, broadcast through the fountain’s speaker system.

She enjoyed great spectacles, great theater, so when a job opened up with the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, she ditched Texas to be part of the traveling show. That initial leap led to more Bay Area opportunities: at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the San Francisco Playhouse and more.

Divila believes in living life “out loud.” She identifies publicly as lesbian. “You have to be who you are in front of everyone. That is a strength,” she says.

But despite San Francisco’s reputation as a leader in America’s LGBTQ+ rights movement, Divila knew just as acutely that living “out loud” came with risks. Not everyone has been accepting.

living “out loud” comes with risks

“Living in San Francisco for the last 20 years, I have even seen the violence personally,” she says. “I have been attacked for being lesbian and called a dyke while I walk on the street. I had a couple of straight guys follow me into a gay club and then corner me in the bathroom. It was one of the most scary experiences of my life.”

She was looking for a workspace, a home away from home, that felt safe. So was her future partner, Chris Largent.

Originally from Saginaw, Michigan, Largent was born to not one but two church organists — a situation, he’s quick to point out, “which is not normal.” His household naturally was filled with music, just like Divila’s. But opera was an early influence.

Largent describes his father as a “big opera nerd, in a good way.” Whenever Largent or his sister had to stay home sick, their father would whip out one of two VHS tapes for their amusement. One option was a musical theater version of Peter Pan. The other was a Metropolitan Opera recording of Hansel and Gretel. Largent still gushes about it.

“The set itself, for a child at least, was just massive,” he recalls. “I remember it was huge and so detailed and whimsical when it needed to be whimsical and scary when it needed to be scary. It was really cool.”

His father occasionally directed opera at a community theater, and soon Largent was on the technical team, learning the ins and outs of set construction, props, lighting and more.

“By the time I was a freshman [in high school], I was full-blown volunteering like 40-plus hours a week at our community theater,” Largent says. He even pulled double-duty on the tech team and as an extra nun in the opera Suor Angelica. His father lovingly nicknamed him “Sister Mary Black-and-Decker.”

Largent is transgender. But he found acceptance at home and in the theater. “Myself, I was raised with short hair, so my entire childhood, I was mistaken for a boy. Like, my entire childhood, until we realized that transgender was a thing,” he says. “Luckily because there is an LGBTQ presence in theater—it’s pretty dominant—I was able to be like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m transgender.’ And everyone’s like: ‘Yay. Great. Do your work.’”

Still, he found himself preemptively bringing up his gender identity in job interviews as he climbed upward in the field of technical theater. Part of his reasoning was practical: It was good to know in case of medical emergencies.

But part of it was the need to find a job that felt safe from violence and discrimination. Just last year, in 2020, the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group tallied the murder of 44 transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. It was the highest number the group had on record since it started collecting statistics in 2013.

“I have definitely lived a very out life. I'm very fortunate that it has not come back to me as violence. Usually it’s a person not understanding and avoiding me or not ever wanting to look me in the eyes. The odd social cues of othering,” Largent says. “Wherever I ended up needing to go for work, it’s always the question of: Well, am I safe?”

Largent ended up landing the assistant technical director position at San Francisco Opera. It was soon after his arrival that he first noticed Divila.

San Francisco Opera was preparing for its 2018 production of The Ring of the Nibelung, an epic composed of four separate operas. It was a massive undertaking. And to get Largent acclimated to his new position, his supervisor was taking him on a backstage tour.

Divila happened to be checking in right at that moment. Largent remembers she showed a lot of care for her staff. He looked her over: “She was wearing a silky dress, and she had a tattoo on the back of her leg, which was the ‘I heart you’ sign in sign language with an infinity symbol through it.”

He knew sign language too. He thought to himself: “Oh, that’s cute.”

But after that, their paths didn’t cross. He worked backstage. She worked in the front of the opera house. They each went their separate ways.

That all changed in February 2019, when the I.A.T.S.E. Local 16 labor union held its crowd management symposium. Divila and Largent were both assigned to go. There were lunch breaks. Coffee breaks. Group activities. The usual pillars of professional development seminars. In those moments between presentations, Largent and Divila started to connect.

It seemed like the start of a friendship, nothing more. They didn’t even think to exchange phone numbers. But then the very next week, they were thrown together again: this time for first aid training. They started to get a “vibe.” Suddenly they were texting, they were Facebook friends, they were growing steadily closer. Then Divila invited Largent to see a theater production called HOME.

“The show was really beautiful because it was kind of proposing what is home, but through movement and music and theater,” Largent recalls. That’s a sentiment Divila shares: “It made both of us think, in that moment, what is home and what makes you feel safe and what makes you feel cared for.”

In the dark of the theater, they started to hold hands.

Later, after the show, they went out for pizza, Divila remembers. “He got up to go to the bathroom, and this woman at another table literally leans over and she looks at me and she’s like, ‘Girl, do you know your boyfriend is gay?’”

Divila didn’t miss a beat. “I was like, ‘Yes, so am I,’” she says. “I laughed to myself. It felt so easy, just hanging out with him.”

But after her experiences with anti-LGBTQ+ violence, she was initially wary about being affectionate in public. It took time for Divila to let her guard down. She noticed her relationship with Largent wasn’t attracting the same kind of negative attention her previous relationships with women had.

“I pass as ‘stealth,’ which is what the community sometimes calls it when somebody who’s transgender can pass as cisgendered,” Largent explains. “Everyone thinks we’re just some straight white couple hanging out and sipping martinis. We don't drink martinis, but, you know, whatever straight couples do.”

Divila found she could hold hands with Largent in ordinary places like the grocery store. It was something she had always been scared to do previously.

“With that ability to pass, I find it even more important to be open and to be clear and to be honest and to put it out there,” Divila says. “I've seen that violence. And if we can make someone understand our story and respect us and love us and therefore treat anyone coming after us the same way, then that's important.”

“It’s part of our fight,” Largent agrees.

Nowadays, Largent wears a little transgender symbol as a pin on his lapel when giving tours, a sign he hopes will make others feel welcome. He and Divila welcome the questions of colleagues and visitors who need help understanding what it means to be LGBTQ+.

“That has been my goal from day one: to make the opera house really accepting and an inclusive place to be,” Divila explains. “I say art is for everyone. I say that to my ushers every night. And I remind them of that and say, ‘This is what it is. We accept anyone who walks through that door.’”

As they tell their story, Largent makes the sign for “home” with his fingers. Divila makes note of it. “The opera becomes your family,” she says. “It becomes a big part of you.”

And it shapes the rhythm of their days. Largent still works backstage, while Divila’s still up front with the public, but now they make time to meet in the middle. When Largent gets off work at the end of the day, he grabs dinner with Divila. They stroll under the gold-leaf ceiling together before she assumes control for the evening rush.

“The building is just this thing that demands respect but also creates such beautiful things. We walk the halls together every day,” Divila says.

Jamye Divila and Chris Largent

So when they decided to get married in 2019, they took their engagement photos right there, in the halls of the War Memorial Opera House, festooned with flowers for the opening night of Romeo and Juliet. They tied the knot on January 13, 2020, a match forged through opera—and the comfort of finding a home through art.

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