Backstage with Matthew Blog

Backstage with Matthew: A House Built for the Ages

On October 11th we will raise the curtain on a brand-new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, beginning an exciting three-season journey through the operas Mozart wrote with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. In a unique approach, The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni will be produced on a shared set, but a set that evolves through time. A beautiful, grand Neo-Classical American house will take us from the 1780s through the 1930s and into a dystopian 2090s. The house becomes a metaphor for different forms of society; an evolving (although not always positively) arc of human interactions. In this Backstage with Matthew we’re going to catch up with the final developments in our Burlingame Scene Shop as they bring this exciting new legacy production to life.

Figaro Set drawings

Set Designer Erhard Rom’s concept for our Neo-Classical American manor house.

Directed by Michael Cavanagh with set designs by Erhard Rom, costumes by Constance Hoffman and lighting by Jane Cox, it was crucial that the production be flexible, accommodating Da Ponte’s fast-paced plots which move quickly from room to room in the grand house, as well as to its surround grounds. In fact, the production has become so flexible that we even have changes of location that haven’t been traditionally done in other productions, such as a brief move to the kitchen in Act 1!

prop sauasge

The props crew preparing the kitchen sequence – real or fake?

In creating a flexible set, Erhard Rom developed a brilliant concept that contrasts two different looks for the walls of the manor house; some of the walls are as you would expect, fully completed three-dimensional examples of Neo-Classical architecture, but some walls appear as architectural drawings, still featuring the graph lines of the architect’s rendering. The interaction of the two gives a sense of a house in constant flux and creation, but also lighten up the scenery, allowing grandeur without weight.

Figaro Set drawings

Erhard Rom’s designs give a sense of how the three-dimensional set pieces (gray elements) interact with the architectural drawing set pieces (white elements).

In creating this complex scenery, our Scene Shop has made extensive use of a new tool that we’ve recently acquired: a computer aided router (or a CNC router). It takes a computer generated image and cuts it in three dimensions, allowing rapid and repetitive cutting of stock pieces needed to create architectural scenery. Dylan Maxson in our Scene Shop has overseen the integration of the new CNC router and tells me that it has been used in some capacity in every element of the set!

Dylan Figaro Set drawings

Dylan Maxson with the CNC router, cutting out some recurring pieces used to craft the Figaro set.

Dylan has been putting the router to the test, and even programmed it to produce sculptural artwork, like the busts of Mozart and Da Ponte that will adorn the top of the walls of the great rooms. Interestingly, there is no known bust or bas relief of Lorenzo Da Ponte, so Scenic Artist in Charge Steve McNally took a two-dimensional image and, using the same computer program he used to create the cherubs for Tosca, he created a three-dimensional rendering that has then been cut using the router.

 Figaro Set drawings

figaro set piece

figaro set piece

A stylized 3D rendering of Da Ponte is carved out of wood on the CNC router, producing a rough cut, which is then finished by hand.

The CNC router was also very instrumental in creating the beautiful parquet wood flooring, which features a complex interleaved wooden pattern. To give a sense of depth, the flooring darkens in color as it heads towards the edges of the stage, so it’s essential that each of these interlocking pieces be in the right place. The solution? Each piece is stamped with a unique reference code, invisible to the audience but easy to spot for the stage crew!

Figaro Set drawings books


The shape of the parquet flooring panels, and the numbering system that will ensure their correct placement.

Finally, one of the more unanticipated uses for the router was to carve large, table-sized stencils that allowed the scenic artists to more quickly paint the graph-like lines onto the set walls that make them look like architectural drawings.

 grid Figaro Set drawings

The table-sized stencil used to paint the graph lines onto the set was also created by the CNC router.

Scenic painting gives so much dimensionality to a set, and you’ll see a number of examples in Figaro. I saw the grand column structures on multiple visits to the scene shop. The carpentry crew assembled the various pieces, and the scenic artists then gave them an elegant gray paint. But on a return visit they’d added a spatter texture to the columns that brings so much depth and character to the fluting. It’s these subtle touches that allow a set to really read under stage lights, creating a sense of realism and beauty that reaches every seat in the house.

column pieces column pieces

The impact of detailed paintwork: on the left are the columns with just a flat gray base, on the right spackled paintwork adds a realistic stone effect.

Although scenic painting is more obviously seen in the architectural drawings of the set, it’s also there in unexpected ways in the three-dimensional scenery. Incorporated into the set are some very clever uses of trompe l’oeil painting with elements painted to look as though dimensional. Here you can see Scenic Artist Lauren Abrams adding beautiful molding details to our walls just through the use of paint.

Lauren Figaro Set drawings

column pieces

Scenic artist Lauren Abrams creating trompe l’oeil effects.

Scenic painting is seen on a grand scale with the drops of the Mozart-Da Ponte Cycle, both the “show drop” which is taken from an architectural study by Thomas Jefferson, and then what we call the Garden Drop – a beautiful hand-painted rendering of a stylized view out onto the Potomac River, which will be used as a backdrop for the outdoor scenes in Figaro.

Figaro Set drawings

The show drop, based on sketches by Thomas Jefferson.

When I was last down at the Scene Shop, Scenic Artist in Charge Steve McNally was working with his team on creating the Garden Drop. They began with a 78-by-40-foot piece of muslin that will fill the entire stage and fills most of the Scene Shop! It is laid out, starched and then marked out in a grid pattern using black cotton (avoiding drawing any lines on the fabric). Steve took the photo-realistic design by Erhard Rom and created a simplified version, which was then set onto the grid. He then created a version that just showed the outlines of the trees, and these outlines were painted onto the fabric with a paint/sawdust mixture that gives a texture to the edges of the trees and stops them from being too hard-edged. The Opera’s highly skilled scenic painters then replicate the design square-by-square. In just 5 days, a beautiful drop emerged, now hanging in the fly tower of the Opera House!


 scenary scenary




From photorealistic design to exquisitely hand-painted show drop, showing the stages of the process.

Returning to the physical scenery, there’s a wonderful story that I wanted to share with you about one piece of the Figaro set. In this production, the entire house is still being finished and there’s an air of construction that pervades the scenery and even the costumes. (Constance Hoffman has picked fabrics and colors for the Chorus that give the impression of being covered in construction dust!) In the first scene of the opera, Figaro and Susanna are measuring a bedroom for furniture that they will acquire after they are married, but the room is still under construction and is filled with a large wooden scaffold. The story behind the creation of this scaffold is a great example of the creativity and resourcefulness of our crew, as well as the unexpected generosity of a community member.

The design of the scaffold calls for stripped lumber – the kind of logs that you would see used in a wood cabin, with all the bark removed. Sounds pretty simple, right? But it turns out that you cannot buy stripped lumber commercially anymore and the Scene Shop was growing concerned about how to create this piece. It so happened that one of the stage crew knew a landowner up in the North Bay whose forest had been ravaged by fire last year. Out of a terrible tragedy came a surprising opportunity: he had a large acreage filled with fire-stripped lumber. He generously invited our crew to go up and select the logs that worked. So, give an extra special nod to the Figaro scaffold. To Susanna and Figaro this scaffold represents beginning a new life together, and to us at San Francisco Opera, it also stands as a tribute to those impacted by the recent natural fire disasters that have been devastating our Northern California communities.

 wood wood wood

The stripped lumber used in the Figaro scaffold, both in its untreated state and then its finished state. You can then see the constructed scaffolding backstage during technical rehearsals.

My last visit down to the Scene Shop was just before they transported the set up to the Opera House for the initial technical rehearsals. It was like a great Lego project! All of the architectural elements were being assembled onto the scenic flats to create the massive 28 feet high walls that will define the house structure: three-dimensional elements fusing with painted elements to create the great house of Mozart and Da Ponte.

all together

Putting all the pieces together: the three-dimensional pieces and architectural drawings are attached before being transported up to the Opera House.

One of my favorite aspects of this new set is something you’ll never see from the house. It’s the stamps on the back of the scenery. First are the logos of the San Francisco Opera IATSE Local 16 stage crew and the Scenic Artists, IATSE Local 800, marks of great pride by some of the finest craftspeople in the world. Then there is an additional mark, one that will come to be seen quite regularly on our scenery, and one you won’t see anywhere else: “Mozart Trilogy.”

 back wall back wall

Scenic marks on the rear of the scenery close-up and in situ onstage.

The journey begins!

Backstage with Matthew: Backstage on the Road
Backstage with Matthew: Emerging from the Depths