Backstage with Matthew Blog

Backstage with Matthew: Emerging from the Depths

As I reflect back on our 2018-19 season, I am so grateful for the amazing artistic journeys that we went on together this past year. One of the most deeply impactful for so many of us was Rusalka and I wanted to close out the summer with another glimpse of one of the many elements that came together so perfectly in this glorious production. Back in May we explored the crafts of Rusalka. This time we descend into the watery depths to explore the elevators that allowed characters to emerge so effortlessly through the water.

rising from the depths

Emerging from the waters in Rusalka. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Stage elevators are a form of automation and so fall under the jurisdiction of our carpentry department and our Master Carpenter David Hatch. Working with David is Philip Heron, our Automatic and Rigging Foreman, and his brother David Heron, our Automation Layout Technician. They bring an immense amount of experience to our stage and ensure smooth, seamless and safe operation of any automation effects, along with our Technical Direction team, Erik Walstad, Ryan O’Steen and Chris Largent.

Technical Direction team

David Hatch, Philip Heron and David Heron with the newly in-house-designed and -engineered elevator system in the basement, directly underneath the stage.

The Rusalka effects were particularly seamless because of major changes in our automation processes this year. Prior to Rusalka, elevators were much more manual, with the most recent ones being made for Magic Flute and thus called the “Flute Lifts.” The first generation of Flute Lifts involved 5-6 people heaving on a rope, utilizing a pulley system to create some mechanical advantage. The platform was simple and unprotected, meaning that singers could catch themselves or their clothing on edges of the system or the trap, but this was a standard theatrical elevator for decades.

flute lift

The first generation Flute lift, in use here for Dream of the Red Chamber in 2016. Note the simple lift platform at the top of the black stairs. (Photos courtesy of Philip Heron)

The second generation of the Flute Lifts, as used in Rheingold (think of Erda’s entrance and Alberich’s disappearances), took the same basic platform and approach, but utilized point hoists up in the grid over 100 ft. high. The point hoists took the heavy lifting out, but the system required a line to be run down from the grid, through the stage and then across the underside of the stage to the trap. It was incredibly complex to set up, and required a lot of work to remove when we moved from production to production.

black stairs


The second generation system in place for Das Rheingold, linked up to the mechanical point hoists in the fly tower.

The new system – not yet named, but let’s call them the Rusalka Lifts for now! – brings everything down into one place in the basement, underneath the stage. Winches from Tait Towers connect directly to the elevator system - space-age-looking Perspex boxes (think of a Star Trek teleport machine), all connected to a computerized control unit. The winches are the beating heart of the system, and everything has been designed for maximum flexibility. These winches can be used in other theatrical needs, such as operating “travelers” – scenery that tracks on and off stage on a horizontal axis. We’ll be using the same winches for traveling scenery in our new Marriage of Figaro later this fall.



The winch set up in relation to the elevator chamber, and then a close up of the winch showing the four different lines coming into the unit.

In addition to different uses, the winches can also be configured to have different connection points for the lines coming in and out. Flexibility was absolutely central as we created this new system down in our scene shop in Burlingame. The system also monitors the loads being borne and can shut off the system if appropriate levels are exceeded. One of the key challenges of the Flute Lifts was that they didn’t always raise evenly across all corners, leading to jerks as the system had to right itself mid lift. The Rusalka Lifts avoid that problem completely.

Whereas the Flute Lifts were exposed platforms, the Rusalka Lifts are now enclosed boxes that a performer enters before being transported up to the stage level. This is not only safer, but is aesthetically tighter as well, particularly in Rusalka with all of the swirling mist that we have on stage (a blend of liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide). Using a contained unit stops the mist from getting pulled down into the basement.


One of the Perspex-door chambers into which the performer enters and is transported up to the stage.

Performers enter the lift and are secured in to ensure safety protocols are met as the lift ascends. As I can attest from doing it myself, it looks tight, but it actually feels quite roomy and secure once you are in there.

dancer in lift

One of our dancers secured into the elevator chamber.

Because you are, by default, standing on the stage floor when the lift is brought down, you always have an open space above you, which helps reduce any sense of being trapped. Interestingly, because of the depth of the stage floor in Rusalka, the elevator had to account for that to allow the performers to be propelled to the right height. Philip showed me how the floor of the elevator was built up to accommodate that.

 showing off lift

Philip Heron showing the unit that had to be added to the elevator given the depth of the Rusalka scenery.

The software and technology to both create and operate this system has come along so much in recent years. While the winches were purchased, the remainder of the system was designed and built in-house. It was a great collaboration between the technical department of the theater, the stage crew, and our scene shop down in Burlingame. Both Heron brothers note how unique of a collaboration the project has been, and how exciting it has been to have that level of interaction between all of our production elements.

From a performer’s standpoint, the lifts are smooth and incredibly safe. With all of the swirling mist onstage, it could be challenging in the early rehearsals for a performer to find the mark. But the singers and dancers who used the lifts became incredibly adept at it, and were able to create absolutely seamless entrances and exits through the lake. The effect was stunning!


A television monitor down in the trap room was connected to an infrared camera positioned above the stage to identify the four trap areas (red squares) and give those in the basement a full view of the stage.

There was a very clear protocol of how performers entered the lifts and how and when the lifts moved. As you’ll notice in some of these images, there were a number of different people on hand. In addition to the stage crew, there was a stage manager (Jenny Harber) who ensured everything happened at exactly the right time, and was in touch with the stage manager calling the show at the stage management console (Darin Burnett). There was also a dresser on hand (Linda Edwards) in case there were any last-minute adjustment to be made, as there was the night I was down there.

 rachel in lift

rachel in lift

Rachel Willis-Sørensen prepares to enter the elevator prior to her first Rusalka entrance in Act 1, and is then secured into the elevator prior to the ride up to stage.

The actual operation of the lift is through a computer console equivalent to that used up on the fly-rail, and operated by David Heron. The system could technically be operated from the “rail” (the area from where the fly system is operated), but it’s much safer to keep the operating console in the same place as the equipment.


David Heron with the operating controls for the Rusalka lifts.

The Rusalka Lifts were used by Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Laura Krumm, and our female dancers. The lifts were used in Acts 1 and 3 and in those acts it could get busy down there with four separate elevators in use, each with its own winch system.

dance corps

Members of our dance corps entering the elevators prior to their entrance in Act 1.

Philip summarized the new system beautifully: “You take traditional rigging techniques, add a high-tech winch, and you have unparalleled flexibility and replicability.”

This new system will be used in many different ways in the years ahead and its benefit was so clearly seen in the magical world of Rusalka this year.

Thank you for an extraordinary year of opera. We’ll be back in rehearsals for Billy Budd at the end of July and we’re eager to share with you another thrilling season of opera on the War Memorial stage.

And yes, I did take a turn in the elevators…

matthew lift

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