SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: The Fine Detail of Fidelio

Backstage with Matthew: The Fine Detail of Fidelio

Dear Members of the San Francisco Opera Family,

On Thursday we opened our brand-new production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio—an extraordinary ode to the liberating power of love and the release from oppression. Conducted by Eun Sun Kim, directed by Matthew Ozawa and with a fabulous cast headlined by Elza van den Heever and Russell Thomas, this is a powerful expression of catharsis at a time when catharsis is so deeply needed.

Our production of Fidelio is set in a modern-day detention center, finding a particularly poignant layer of resonance with today's global detention crisis. Political imprisonment, the detention of innocent civilians, the abuse of power in a system of oppression—these are all fundamentals in Beethoven’s own telling of the story, and they resonate greatly in this contemporary setting.

Backstage with MatthewPrisoners in detention cages on the set of Fidelio (photo by Cory Weaver)

The contemporary setting makes this a particularly interesting production for our Props department—the department that takes care of any physical items onstage that are neither scenery nor costumes. I recently had a tour of the Fidelio props with our Props Master, Lori Harrison. Lori shared that this production has required particular collaboration across the different stage crews, Props intersecting with Lighting, Projections, Carpentry, Sound, Scenic Artists, Wardrobe and Costume. Think about the many disciplines required to make things like the following:

  • A 1990s laptop that needs to be functional but that needs a new power-source (Props, electrics and video)

  • Onstage office lamps that have to be rewired to run off hidden batteries. (Props and electrics)

  • Television monitors that have to be wall-mounted but removable in a matter of seconds. (Props, electrics, sound and carpentry)

  • Weaponry belts that have to be filled with a variety of usable items. (Props, costume and wardrobe)

  • ID badges that need photographs of soloists in costume (Props, costume, and our badge making system!)

Backstage with MatthewInter-departmental crew collaborations: (l) a lamp hooked up to a hidden battery pack; and (r) television monitors that had to be removed quickly for the set change.

These inter-departmental collaborations require back and forth to problem solve and find options that work for the needs of the production and the singers. This a production that requires ingenuity, careful sourcing, and a knack for bringing a verisimilitude to the stage picture.

The production intentionally avoids an overly specific time or place. Director Matthew Ozawa and designer Alex Nichols wanted to create a setting that speaks to the universality of the detention crisis. Many of the props are from the 1970s and 1980s—recent enough that they can be shopped for rather than built in many instances. Shopping for props is an art in and of itself! I thought you might be interested to know some of the many sources from which Lori and her team created the production.

  • One of the greatest sources of props is flea markets! Lori adores flea markets and regularly spends weekends scoping them out, even if not for a particular opera. For this production she was able to secure things like the upstairs green office chair—a major find from the Alameda Point Antiques Faire

  • The Berkeley Outlet is a specialty used office furniture store that came in particularly handy for Fidelio. Often the source for period-specific film shoots, it yielded up things like the period water cooler that you’ll see in Act I.

Backstage with MatthewLocal finds: (l) from the Alameda Point Antiques Faire, and (r) from the Berkeley Outlet.

  • Our own equipment came in handy in various places. The sound department was able to provide some older equipment slated for recycling or trade-in including a couple of hand-held video cameras that are used in the finale of Act II, as well as some old security cameras.

Backstage with MatthewProp cameras provided by the SFO sound department.

  • We even have a little personal verisimilitude for the cast. Marzelline is the daughter of Rocco and so his upstairs office has some photos of his operatic daughter. The photos are actual photos of soprano Anne-Marie Macintosh as a child!

  • Not everything came pre-existing and some of the items had to be fashioned anew. The gun cabinet on the upper level in Act I that houses Rocco’s prize collection of antique guns was built by the Props team, but utilized grating that was sitting in the basement of the War Memorial and that they kindly allowed us to use! The War Memorial also donated a couple of old-fashioned circuit breaker boxes that feature in Act II. The “Interrogation Manual” book that sits on the desk upstairs was made by Patricia Hewett, who amongst many other things is skilled in book binding. 

Backstage with MatthewFound objects from the War Memorial: (l) Props Master Lori Harrison with grating used to make a firearms cabinet, and (r) old transformers.

The Act II setting involves a huge amount of file boxes—some 458 in total. They are stacked high in what is the basement and ominous sub-basement of the detention center. (Maybe one day I’ll have to do a Backstage with Matthew about our own sub-basement in the Opera House!) Although the scenic cube itself remains onstage throughout the opera, the change of look from Act I to Act II is substantial. All of the cage grating has to be removed, as do the surveillance monitors and office-setup, and it all has to be replaced by the basement furniture, boxes, and Florestan’s torture chamber. Switching out all of this in the intermission is one of the most complex prop changes that we’ve seen between acts, and is a choreographed interplay of the stage crew. This change is accomplished using two wagons that roll in for the intermission – one is built with scenic pieces from the drive-in Barber of Seville; the other is a simple unit just for the boxes. Both of these allow easy access to the upper level.

Backstage with MatthewThe wagons used to make possible the intermission act change.

Backstage with MatthewMoving the stacks of boxes into place for Act II.

You can get a glimpse of how involved the intermission change is on this sped-up video.

But, going back to the boxes, the Props crew had to come up with a way to maneuver these large stacks of boxes. Fred Wielandt on our Props crew came up with an ingenious system. In the lowest box of a stack he attached a weighted metal plate with a large metal flange and pole that creates the ‘tree-trunk’ for the boxes. Each box then had a hole drilled into it (off-center to allow for realistic stacking), and then a plastic washer clamps down everything at the top and keeps the stack robust. Each box then gets treated with aging and paperwork (if you look closely you’ll note that we borrowed some of the paperwork from our other big office production, Janáček’s The Makropulos Case—Emilia Marty is the main character!).

Backstage with MatthewManufacturing the stacks of boxes used in Act II.

One of the absolutely critical parts of Fidelio from the Props perspective is the weaponry, and I wanted to share with you some of what it has taken to ‘arm’ this production in a realistic but safe way. My very first Backstage with Matthew back in 2016 took us into the world of the Opera’s armory with SFO’s Master Armorer Scott Barringer. Scott and fellow member of the props team, John Matlock gave me a tour of the rather extensive weaponry used in Fidelio.

The collaboration between departments I mentioned earlier is very much the case when it comes to weaponry. Weaponry in this production has been an intersection between Scott and John along with Lori, our Costume Designer Jessica Jahn, and our Costume Supervisor Jai Alltizer. Weapons require belts and holsters, along with bullet proof vests—all of this has to be researched and communicated between Props, Costumes and Wardrobe, including the choice of weapons. Some of the characters have specialized weapons (for example Rocco’s antique collection I mentioned earlier, or Don Pizarro’s beretta), and all of the characters’ weaponry is tied to their role in the story (e.g. prison guards vs. special ops forces).

Backstage with MatthewA guide to firearms used in the production along with Don Pizarro’s beretta.

Although there are some rifles in Act II, the majority of the weapons are handguns and Scott tells me that the 38 handguns in Fidelio rival Forza del destino and The Rake’s Progress for weapon-count. Gun safety is absolutely paramount, and Scott and John are responsible for handing off the guns to singers and supers as they enter the stage, and collecting them when they leave. We have a locked case—the “rolling armory” that has custom-built racks for all of the guns, named by chorister, principal or supernumary so that we know whose weapon is still out onstage. The rolling armory includes a chart of the various calibers used in the opera for quick reference.

Backstage with MatthewJohn Matlock and Scott Barringer with the “Rolling Armory”

To bring a realistic production like Fidelio to life takes incredible detail in every element if it is to feel authentic to you, the audience. As you can see, the ingenuity that makes possible this detail is in the DNA of our Props department and all of the crews of the Opera. Lori and her team are masters at sleuthing from every source possible and, where nothing can be found, making from scratch. It’s this level of authenticity that allows us, the audience, deep into the story-telling power of the opera. In Fidelio that connectivity is transformational and I cannot wait for you to experience how all of these elements come together and provide the frame for this extraordinary opera.

With warmest wishes,

Backstage with Matthew: Rediscovering Opera
Backstage with Matthew: We’re ready for your return!