OPERA'S UNSUNG HEROES? TAKE A PEEK BACKSTAGE

 

 

 

Opera Fan: “You work at the Met?! How COOL! What do you do?” 

Stagehand: “I make the magic happen!” 

I ask that people will take the time to read the recent article from METOPERANEWS.COM on the labor disputes happening at the Metropolitan Opera that I shared on my Facebook page. Not just opera fans, but anyone interested in labor rights, decent and safe working conditions and fair wages. Anyone who has ever been moved by any kind of music, theatre, dance, painting, photography or sculpture. Anyone who is passionate about anything - be it sports, agriculture, space. You know there are thousands of hard working people “behind the scenes”. 

The “people behind the scenes” at the Metropolitan Opera need your support and understanding of what really goes on back stage at the Met. Please read on for a just a small taste of what goes on, on a daily basis. I am only covering a small portion of only some of the people backstage without whom this incredible machine could not even begin to work! 

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People are struck by the awe inspiring sets at the Met - often so enormous they take up the entire width, height and depth of the main stage, like TURANDOT or LA BOHEME (and that’s only what you see from the house)!! Our breath is taken away by the beauty, realistic or expressionistic artistry, or haunting edginess, and recently the incredible projections that are shown in all different areas of the stage. All of these stir within us tranquility, uneasiness, annoyance, laughter, sadness, anger, envy (who wouldn’t want to live in some of those places?!). When the curtain rises we hear an audible gasp, a sigh of beauty or disgust, bringing pleasure or stirring deep unsettling feelings from within; they are taken in by the intricate, artistic detail and striking beauty, obscurity, or frivolity of the costumes, wigs and makeup. All of this happening on a different plane or emotion than even the music and singing. Add the unworldly music that moves us so?! It can be Heaven on Earth! 

These things are made possible only because of people backstage. People who, during the season, are at the Met anywhere from 10 to 15/16 hours a day, six days a week from September through mid May (next season planned into June). The hours are long, the work is extremely heavy and often dangerous, with many sets being extremely high, awkward to push, pull, keep up on end, fit together; it’s necessary for the workers to climb high above the stage floor or crawl along the floor underneath sets, with full, heavy tool belts. If anyone has seen IL TRITTICO, LA BOHEME or BILLY BUDD, take a moment to imagine how those all go together. ALL within an extremely short period of time! And that is just for what you see on stage during one particular show. The “controlled chaos” of this intricate, exact ballet of taking apart and moving a set to one wagon (“wagons” are basically the other stages of the same size that are behind, left and right of the main stage that are not seen by the audience but can slide onto the main stage) bringing the next scene or act onto the stage, putting together, bringing and guiding drops and lights down that are being flown in from above, bringing a piece up from the lifts down below. Often the crew have to wait on stage during a show, unseen, to wait for their cues to do a move that may not happen for 30 or more minutes or sometimes for the entire show, and they cannot leave and are often not in the most comfortable of positions (remember the huge staircase in AGRIPPINA? Or the latest GIOVANNI set with the houses moving back and forth?) 

However, before that show is even seen that evening of the performance, another full show has been on stage for rehearsal (or performance if it’s Saturday) with full lighting and, and depending on timing of production date, full costumes, wigs and makeup. When that rehearsal or show ends, the crew has to take that show apart, store the proper places for each piece - whether that be on stage level or taken down three levels to be stored - among the usually-up-to seven other productions in the house at one time! This complete production change is done in a matter of hours before that next performance. Keep in mind, there is a different show every single night at the Met! (For the 2021-22 season, 24 different productions are scheduled, 6 of which are brand new productions to the Met!). It is extremely stressful and fast paced with very tight deadlines to curtain. Then, as one show closes its run (maybe just for a few months before its brought back for a few perforamances), a new one is brought in - so the one show is completely taken apart, physically loaded by hand and stored in containers “just so” so they do not get damaged, and another new one is physically unloaded by hand, taken down three levels on the scenic lift to be built - much of which will be in rehearsal rooms and eventually taken up to stage level….. often times only to be taken back down to the building area to store until its next performance in a few days, as there is often little or no room up on stage level due to other shows that need to be on stage level or are just too big to be taken apart between shows. 

During the day - before and during the stage rehearsals - there are numerous rehearsal rooms that the crew take care of. For the larger rehearsal rooms, the crew build and set up exact size “mock up” sets for the shows, but more often than not, they set up parts of the actual set for those rehearsals. Often times, scheduled rehearsals get changed, as a previous rehearsal may go better or not as well as planned, and the director decides to do something other than what is on the day’s hourly call sheet - all of which the entire crew have scheduled their day around. When this happens, the crew is in that rehearsal room in a heartbeat to change THOSE sets to what is needed. And sometimes they have to quickly take up old and redo new “markings” - the tape laid down to exact dimensions of things, boundaries, walls, etc. that may not be in place physically. They are right there for the singers, directors, conductors - and in all actuality, for you, the audience. 

At any and every opera house, the stage crew, costumes, wigs, makeup, props, lighting - are there so that you, the audience, can be taken into a whole new realm and have those other worldly experiences that add to the glorious melodic or edgy music that moves us all. They are there for the singers so that we all may delve even deeper into our characters with the costumes, wigs, makeup to help us become the people we are on stage and be in our [characters’] actual surroundings - be it a hovel for a home, a cave, a castle, a tug boat, a cathedral, Café Momus on Christmas Eve, or come to find out it’s all in the character’s head or a dream. 

The Metropolitan Opera, when running, is a 24 hour operation, with people building and taking apart sets around the clock. During the “off season”, the crew work American Ballet Theatre, but also dismantle the opera sets from the previous season, do any repairs needed, store the sets in containers out of town (remember they are loaded and unloaded by hand). At these same out-of-town sites, the next seasons’ sets have to be inspected, cleaned, dried, (usually outside in all kinds of weather) possibly repaired, repainted, put together and lighting done, etc, only to be taken apart, stored and rebuilt again sometime later that season. 

What these backstage crew members do is arduous, heavy, often dangerous work. They do not get paid unless they work! They do not get health benefits or vacation pay unless they work a certain amount of hours. It takes years to build up a few perks like getting off a few hours early one day a week. 

We all love and have experienced a myriad of all kinds of concerts and recitals; and aren’t they are magnificent?! They are incredible, unique, beautiful, fulfilling art forms in and of themselves that are indispensable. But if you want opera? A full scale opera? A “Metropolitan Opera” scale opera? You need stage hands. Professional, experienced stagehands. We expect nothing less than to hear only professional singers and musicians led by professional conductors and stage directors! We must expect nothing less than professional, experienced grips, prop people, carpenters, costumers, wig and make up people, scenic artists, lighting and sound technicians…. You need every person behind that stage! And at the Met, there can be only professionals! 

Every person back stage is an unsung hero - pardon the pun - but perhaps it should be an intended pun. They literally ARE the UNSUNG HEROS of opera. Please give each one the respect they deserve, and please be supportive of the wages they deserve. 

- Beverly Thiele 

Feb 22, 2021

 

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