SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Another opening, another season!

Backstage with Matthew: Another opening, another season!

Welcome to opening day of the 2018-19 season, the 96th season of San Francisco Opera! Today we raise the curtain on another year of thrilling operatic journeys as we delve into eight extraordinary stories of humanity, told through eight productions new to San Francisco, with eight different conductors on the podium, and eight sensational casts. I cannot wait to explore all of these with you!

We’re now just hours away from the exciting energy of Opera Ball, the presentation of the national anthem, and the opening of our production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I thought you might enjoy a little sampling of the myriad activities that have been happening in these days leading up to opening night. Although it’s only two months since we closed the epic Ring, opening a new season always feels like the start of something completely new, engaging and exciting. Let’s peek behind the curtain at what people are up to:

• First the operas themselves. As Reed Fisher, Assistant Director of Cav/Pag notes, this is a production of incredible detail. Set, as it is, on a small street in Buenos Aires, there are copious entry points onto the stage through doors, windows and alleyways. In these last few days, the staging staff has been finalizing the Who/What/Where document that lists all of the entrances and placements of people, props and everything else in the show. Cav/Pag’s “Who/What/Where” list is 50 pages long! (An average show is more like 30.)

• Roy Rallo, Assistant Director of Roberto Devereux (which opens on Saturday) is busy finalizing the flow of the “vitrines” – these are museum-like exhibition cases that feature in various parts of the opera, particularly the overture. Members of the stage crew deftly move the vitrines around, and supernumeraries play the roles of Tudor royals inside the vitrines. We’ve been working out the fine points of how the supers see and hear inside the boxes. We’re finalizing solutions which will likely include ear-pieces provided by the sound department. Some of these technical nuances are only possible once all of the elements come together in final rehearsals.


Supernumeraries inside the vitrines of Roberto Devereux.

• Opening weekend for SFO is a triple-header. Two opera openings and then Opera in the Park at Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Celine Strouts, our Production Associate, oversees all of the concert logistics (setting up a concert venue for 10,000 people from scratch). Although she’s been working intensively on the concert for 6 weeks, in these final few days she is getting into the on-site logistics as equipment begins to arrive today with set-up on Saturday. She’s coordinating 15 different vendors, many City permits, 30-36 crew members, and then patrons who begin arriving at 5am on Sunday for the best places on the lawn!


Mapping out the logistics of Opera in the Park for Sunday’s concert.

• Back to the house, and there is a lot of set-up happening front of house. Jessica Fauver, our Assistant Box Office Manager, tells me that most of their preparation work for opening night was done over the summer. At this point, it’s mainly working with subscribers who need to make last minute changes, preparing tickets for will call, and readying the Box Office for the fast-paced energy of opening night.

• On the other side of the doors, our House Manager, Jamye Divila, is working to prepare the front of house spaces for crowds of thousands. She and her staff have been scouring every inch of the front of house to ensure that it is in spic and span condition, that every light works, that every seat is ready, and that everything is in place. Jamye is also working with our new caterer, Global Gourmet as they prepare for their first public night in the Opera House. She’s been training new volunteer ushers, with 47 new volunteers attending a two-hour session covering the expectations of volunteer ushers, safety issues, scheduling etc. (In the 2017 season, almost 400 people ushered for a total of 3,334 shifts, or approximately 14,500 volunteer hours!)

• The orchestra, chorus, corps de ballet and crew have been deep in final rehearsals over the course of the last few days, but attention is already shifting to new horizons as Tosca began rehearsals on Tuesday and we kicked off with a ‘meet and greet’ at which the Tosca company met each other for the first time. Our debuting maestro for Tosca, Leo Hussain, had his first orchestra reading on Thursday, and we also had the sitzprobe of Sunday’s park concert (a rehearsal with singers and orchestra). Life never stays too still in the War Memorial so even as we prepare to open two productions, we’re very much thinking about what comes next. Detailed technical meetings are happening in the production department around It’s a Wonderful Life, the detailed schedule for Arabella is being finalized by the rehearsal department even while they juggle a large supernumerary cast in Cav/Pag, and there are even conversations happening around the summer season in these days before opening.

Orchestra Rehearsal

Our Tosca, Carmen Giannattasio, in the sitzprobe on Thursday for Opera in the Park, with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

• Although almost everything is now exquisitely prepared, locked-in and rehearsed for our opening two shows, there is one production department that is always working on last minute notes: our properties department headed by Lori Harrison. It’s not that easy to change a set once built, but it’s much easier to switch out a dagger, to change the color of the fake wine (yes, it’s not real….), to devise a new system for a cork to pop out of a bottle, and Lori and her team do a fabulous job staying completely on top of all of the many requests that come their way. Here are a few over the last couple of days:

  • Replacing a wagon wheel to make it safer to ride on. (Cav/Pag)
  • Purchasing new supplies for our magician and juggler. (Cav/Pag)
  • Replacing the bed fabric to better reflect the coloring of the production. (Devereux)
  • Creating a new regal crest for Queen Elizabeth. (Devereux)
  • Finalizing a new parliamentary mace. (Devereux)


Last-minute prop work happening this week in advance of opening.

• But all of the last-minute props needs cannot deflect the team too much from those future shows. At the same time as they’re finalizing our opening operas, they’re working intensively on Tosca, making a crest for Scarpia’s office, painting and upholstering furniture, putting together all of the processional items for the grand liturgical procession. If you can imagine it, props can build it!

Tosca Crest

A Tosca crest in process in the prop shop.

• Our wardrobe team, headed by Tony Gorzycki, are, at this point in the process, ensuring that all of the costumes are ready for both operas, getting dressing rooms turned from one show into the next, receiving costumes from the costume shop that have needed last minute alterations (Roberto’s jacket in Devereux is a good example). As Tony notes, the afternoons get to be like Grand Central Station. In the hour or so before artists arrive, they have to inventory and prepare about 45 pieces of costume and get them into principal artist dressing rooms before the artists arrive.

Devereux costumes

Costumes of the Privy Council from Roberto Devereux.

• And last, but by no means least, is the swirling energy and excitement of the Galas – both the Opera Ball, led by the San Francisco Opera Guild, and the Bravo Gala, organized by our BRAVO! Club. The work that goes into these, from the chairs, the staffs, the volunteers, the designers, and everyone working the events, is intense. We started putting up the tent for Opera Ball over a week ago and it has been taking shape steadily over the past days, creating the feel of an Argentine palace. Both galas are creating fabulous menus, drinks, entertainment and ambience, all around an Argentine/South American feel in honor of the Buenos Aires setting of Cav/Pag. It is amazing what a parking lot can become with an incredible design vision!

Opera Ball entry

Preparing the entry way into the grand tent for Opera Ball.

All of this is just scratching the surface of what is happening at the Opera in these days prior to opening. Tonight all of that energy will come into one incredible whole as the community of San Francisco Opera – audience, artists, artisans, technicians, administrators – gather together in celebration of this communal art-form, an art-form that requires so many pieces to come together perfectly. In doing so, we are privileged to bring to life some of the most transformational works of art ever created and share them on the storied stage of the War Memorial Opera House. Whatever your part in that community of San Francisco Opera, you play a vital role in bringing such thrilling art to this community. Thank you for being a part of something so extraordinary in the life of the Bay Area. Here’s to a stunning season ahead!

Backstage with Matthew: Recreating History
Backstage with Matthew: An Argentine Journey