Backstage with Matthew: A Little Valkyrie Magic
In these Backstage emails I enjoy illuminating things before they happen in performance, allowing you to see aspects of our work knowing the skills and talents behind them. But there was one trick that I wanted to leave until after the Ring, because it is such a great coup de théâtre that I didn’t want to break that fourth wall. But now we’re finished, I thought you might enjoy knowing how we do the Ride of the Valkyries in the Ring, and … with whom!
For those of you who were not able to see Die Walküre in either this or a prior season, here’s a clip from the moment in question as our fearless warrior maidens descend from the clouds to Brünnhilde’s rock. In this production our Valkyries are eight female parachutists, dressed in 1930s aviation wear, not dissimilar to what you might imagine Amelia Earhart wearing.
When we did the original Walküre in 2009, we started by using some of the singers as the parachutists, but it became clear that it was incredibly complex to get them untethered from their flying equipment in time for them to make it onstage for their singing lines. So thus evolved a little sleight of hand…
Rather than flying in the singers, we actually fly in members of our stage crew, dressed in the same outfits. As they fly from stage left to stage right (right to left if you’re sitting in the audience), they disappear into the wings, to be replaced by the singing Valkyries, emerging as they stuff their parachutes into their backpacks.
Five crew members take on this flying adventure and for them, it’s just another of the many things that they work on during the performance. As you may recall, the Ride of the Valkyries takes place after an intermission, and so the flying crew begin working on the intermission shift, helping to get the act changed. They peel off mid-intermission to go and get into costume up on the third floor, then down to the basement to get into make-up, all in a matter of minutes.
Then back to the stage where they are strapped into harnesses. Two minutes before the act begins, they are flown into the stratosphere.
As the act starts and you hear that unmistakable music of the Ride of the Valkyries, all five crew members are lifted up, suspended high in the fly tower, waiting for the scrim to rise (the large surface on which the projections happen). As the scrim rises, other crew members begin tracking the parachutists across and down in a diagonal line. Once they reach the stage, they either get unclipped by two crew members, or they get hoisted up back into the fly tower for another descent. Safety is absolutely paramount in all of this. As the Valkyries tell me, they have 100% confidence in their colleagues: when you’re suspended 25 feet in the air, it’s good to know that you’re part of one of the finest and safest stage crews in the world.
Back in 2011 when we did the Ring, only one of the flying crew members was a woman (Sarah Shores who is actually a skydiver and who you may recall from my Backstage email on the fireplace in Girls of the Golden West). I was so happy that, this year, four of the five flying Valkyries were female, and I thought it might be interesting to share three of their stories with you. Our other two Valkyries this year were Sarah Shores and Mike Chapman.
When I asked electrician Sophie Landau how the Valkyries were selected, she noted wryly that “Some are born Valkyrie, some achieve Valkyrie, and others have Valkyrie thrust upon them.” Sophie is a born Valkyrie. This is her fourth season with the Opera, but theater was always an interest for her – she was pretending to be a TV host from age 3, acted through high school in Davis and, while there, started taking a scene shop class. From there she made it to the Union and the stage of the War Memorial. When she wasn’t flying through the air in the Ring, she was operating spotlights in Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, helping with the pyrotechnics in Siegfried, and working on the deck in Walküre.
A member of our props crew for 21 seasons, Beth Ozarow has an incredible history with the company and is a wonderful example of the longevity that is seen in so many disciplines and that makes this Company such a family. She worked as the Back-up Stage Right Key for 15 years (the props keys oversee all the props activities on a particular side of the stage). She now specializes in supporting the rehearsal process in the Zellerbach Rehearsal Halls, ensuring that all of the props needed in rehearsals are in good order and, very importantly, making adaptations to the props as the rehearsals unfold. She attended art school and is a specialist in fabrication and sculpture. She didn’t have a theatrical background, but ended up working as a fabricator in Providence one season and got the bug! Beth tells me that you can’t not get goosebumps when you’re suspended in the air and that Valkyrie music begins: it’s exhilarating.
Patricia Hewett tells me that she suffers from stage fright (as many of us would!) but that in doing this Valkyrie work she feels pure joy going across the stage. She jokes that it’s “by far the best way to get from stage left to stage right!” She’s been with the Opera for 11 years, but with the Union (Local 16 of the IATSE) for 20 years, with her initial work as an electrician. But her time at SFO has always been in the props crew where she enjoys being a “master of being a jack of all trades.” Patricia has many interests from scuba diving to painting to having owned a vintage store in New York. Like Beth, her main focus is the support of the rehearsal process but everyone has their specific duties once it comes to the performances. One of Patricia’s key duties: she operates the puppet toad in Das Rheingold!
Denni Sayers, our Associate Director and Co-Choreographer on the Ring, worked with the crew members to ensure as realistic a motion as possible, also helping them to avoid challenges like hitting Brünnhilde’s rock. Sophie went skydiving about a week before rehearsals began, and that helped with some of the realism. They all tell me that, while it’s not too comfortable at first, you get used to it and they are all used to wearing harnesses for working at heights in the theater anyway. These flying harnesses are just better padded! They also say that while they’re doing the Ring, flying becomes something of a life focus. Patricia says that she would notice everything about anything airborne – birds, planes, etc. – and that she had great flying dreams. Sophie tells me that if she could have a superpower, it would have to be flight!
Beth, Patricia and Sophie, as well as Sarah and Mike, are amazing exemplars of the skills, the passion, the dedication that goes into working backstage and the fearless determination to do what needs to be done to make the show the very best it can be.
And, when they’re done flying? Well, Beth and Patricia don’t have any props duties once they’re into the final act of Walküre, so they are released. But for Sophie, it’s back to the electrics duties as she’s a member of the fire watch team in the very final scene. Parachuting in from the heavens is just another of the many extraordinary duties happening backstage in a performance at San Francisco Opera!