Backstage with Matthew October 31, 2017

Backstage with Matthew: Crafting the Gold Rush

With the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West less than a month away, the energy and fervor around the Company is palpable as all the details lock into place. It is shaping up to be one of the most impactful new operas seen on our (or any!) stage. As you may know, it’s a work born out of a series of letters written by Louise Clappe (a.k.a. Dame Shirley) who lived in the Sierra in the mining camps of Downieville and Rich Bar between 1851 and 1852. Her letters transport us with veracity into the world of the Gold Rush, doing so in part because of her evocative details. Take this description of a fireplace in her humble abode: 

The mantle-piece…is formed of a beam of wood covered with strips of tin procured from cans, upon which still remains in black hieroglyphics, the names of the different eatables which they formerly contained.

At the end of Act I of the opera, this fireplace features as one of the properties (or props) that director/librettist Peter Sellars and set designer David Gropman use to portray the primitive but quirkily decorated world of Dame Shirley’s home. How to take this snippet of text and turn it into something reflective of the broader aesthetic of Gold Rush décor? The story of our fireplace is a good example of the thrilling journeys that occur in our Prop Shop, tucked away in the eaves of the roof of the Opera House, and overseen by our incredible Properties Master, Lori Harrison.

The San Francisco Opera prop shop.

This particular prop is, in large part, the beautiful craftsmanship of Sarah Shores, who is in her 11th year with the Company. Sarah’s journey to San Francisco Opera is indicative of the fabulous variety of backgrounds that come together in this Company. She studied English and creative writing at university but had a background in theater growing up on the East Coast. Early in her career, Sarah had focused on scenic building but when she came out to the Bay Area, was placed by the Union (IATSE Local 16) at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to work on special effects there with Geoff Heron, as well as spending time working for TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. Those special effects skills were perfect training for the Opera, specializing particularly in metalwork (Sarah developed an early fascination for welding).

Prop creation is a symbiotic fusion of research, craft and artistry, bringing together historically accurate pieces with a sense of aesthetic connection to the production, and a logistical understanding of how the piece will be used and moved on stage.

The original research on the mantelpiece was moving in a more traditional stone fireplace direction, and got as far as the building of prototype stonework. 

Early research into the fireplace including stonework prototypes.
Early research into the fireplace including stonework prototypes.

However, a replica wooden framework, built to test size and shape, began to take on a life of its own. Some early research into Tramp Art—in which found objects are layered into fabulously detailed sculptures—led to the idea that this fireplace should be a spectacularly detailed piece with, to quote Peter Sellars a “dazzling star cluster that’s exploding in your mind.” 

Some of the research into tramp art which became a guiding aesthetic for the fireplace. 

Working with David Gropman, Sarah began to sketch out the fireplace design (seen below) and taking Dame Shirley’s reference to tin cans to create a fireplace fully ‘shingled’ in colorful and decorative used cans. 

Lori Harrison had found some antique cans which gave a strong sense of design direction, but it would have been far too expensive to cover the fireplace in those relics, so they were blended with two other sources. Firstly, a call was put out to the Company to donate used cans, particularly those with the image printed onto the can; and secondly, replica cans were created using historically original labels glued onto aluminum, shellacked and cut. David Gropman gave a sense of color and overall design objective, but Sarah had the freedom to create her own tramp-art patterning on the fireplace. As you get deeper into the fireplace, darker cans are used to create a sense of depth, and on the side larger shingles are used to help keep the process more efficient.

Sarah’s sketches for the fireplace, building off discussions with designer David Gropman. 

A call to action! The request to the Company to bring in old cans!
A call to action! The request to the Company to bring in old cans! 

the raw materials for the shingles
Clockwise from top left: the raw materials for the shingles; Lori Harrison looking through canning research;
Sarah Shores; replica labels being manufactured.  

This was the perfect project for an old broken machine that John del Bono (then on our props crew, now running our Burlingame scenic shop) had received some years ago and fixed into working order. The video below demonstrates Sarah using the machine to cut the shingles, bend the edges and press them to keep them all safe and smooth to the touch. It’s a machine that’s squirreled away under a staircase but occasionally gets called into action!

link to video of cutting cans into shingles
Click to watch the video above to see the machine in action.

Once cut, the shingles are nailed to the fireplace using a pneumatic nail gun. Sarah plans on going back and adding nail patterns as part of the art once the fireplace is fully covered, in further homage to the tramp art style (the added nails will also help keep the shingles secure when the fireplace is shipped to other companies). 

The can shingles are added to the wooden fireplace. 

Sarah still has to finish wrapping the sides and top in shingles. The ‘dazzling star clusters’ also need to be added and Sarah is in the process of layering those together using specially cut shapes built up on a plywood base on which the star cluster is geometrically drawn. Finally, Sarah and Lori and others in the props crew, will begin building out the fireplace grate, distressing the fireplace to give a used look, and adding other accoutrements of a hearth.

The dazzling star clusters being created. 

The artistic genes run strong in Sarah’s family (her husband is also a stagehand, working for ACME Scenery in Brisbane, CA), including her two daughters. When she can, she works for the Opera’s ARIA Education Program, helping to train and nurture a love for the theatrical arts in new generations. As she says, this is a place where you are always learning, always curious, always building new skills.

Sarah Shores and Lori Harrison with Dame Shirley’s fireplace: a work of art in progress.

The Girls fireplace is a great example of the work of our amazing properties department. The attention to detail, the respect for historical fidelity, and the ability to create anything imaginable, is a critical part of our world, and the craftsmanship in this tramp art fireplace speaks powerfully to the talented people who make great art on our stage possible. 

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