SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Building 19th-Century Paris

Backstage with Matthew: Building 19th-Century Paris

Dear Members of the San Francisco Opera Family,

As we prepare for the Opera’s Centennial Season, I am so excited to share with you the extraordinary creativity surging through the Company. For the fall season alone, we are originating three brand new productions, a level of activity not seen for many years in our scene and costume shops. Our crews are working around the clock to build brand new productions of Antony and Cleopatra, La Traviata, and Orpheus and Eurydice (while also finalizing Don Giovanni). Over the coming months I’ll take you behind the scenes to see each of these operas come to life. Today we’re heading down to our scene shop in Burlingame, and our prop shop at the Opera House, as we check in with our new La Traviata.

San Francisco Opera hasn’t built a new Traviata since 1987, so this is a major moment for the Company, to be unveiled this November under the baton of Music Director Eun Sun Kim. Director Shawna Lucey (now also general director at Opera San Jose), set and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins, and lighting designer Michael Clark, are reuniting after their very successful Tosca in 2018, and have created a beautiful new production in which Violetta and Alfredo will find, and lose, love. They are going back to the world of Marie Duplessis, the real-life courtesan of the 1840s who was the charm of Parisian society until her death at just 23. One of her suitors was the composer Franz Liszt; another was Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the Dumas of Three Musketeers fame. After Duplessis’ death, Dumas fils fictionalized their relationship in La Dame aux Camelias, the basis for La Traviata. There is a fabulous book about Marie Duplessis by Julie Kavanagh that I highly recommend reading.

I was just in Paris a few weeks ago and visited the actual address where Marie Duplessis died: 11 boulevard de la Madeleine.

The building where Marie DuPlessis (the real-life Violetta) died.The building where Marie DuPlessis (the real-life Violetta) died, and one of the inspirations for our new production.

Robert Innes Hopkins has created a stunning set for Violetta’s apartment that captures the soaring windows, gorgeous parquet floor, and urban view out across the street. A fishbowl in which Violetta’s heady life is on permanent display to the world outside.

The Act I model by Robert Innes Hopkins for La TraviataThe Act I model by Robert Innes Hopkins for La Traviata

Just before going to Paris, I had a chance to visit our scene shop a few times and see the painted drop in process, and then, a week later, the finished drop that you see beyond the windows here. It is an exquisitely painted canvas that includes translucent areas that can be lit to give the impression of a lively building across the street. It was amazing to see the fidelity between the original building and this drop!

The painted drop in process, showing the line drawings made by hand, and then the translucent areas. The painted drop in process, showing the line drawings made by hand, and then the translucent areas.

The finished painted drop. The person standing at the top of the photo gives you a sense of scale. The finished painted drop. The person standing at the top of the photo gives you a sense of scale.  

The detailed work of the set itself is remarkable. It is all being built out of wood, but this was not the initial intent. It was to have been built out of aluminum but, given a global shortage of aluminum during the pandemic, our scene shop adapted to a complete wooden build, creating much more traditional scenic flats, splicing together 16-foot lengths of pine to make 32-foot high units (now there is also a shortage of wood!).  

Splicing together lengths of pine for La Traviata using old-school techniques.
Splicing together lengths of pine for
La Traviata using old-school techniques.

The other interesting wood-working application in the Traviata set is the amount of trompe l’oeil that is being used—the creation of 3D effects using 2D techniques. Using our computer-aided router, we are able to make finely detailed flat cutouts that can then be applied to the scenic walls, then painted in trompe l’oeil, creating the crown-molding and relief work that makes the interior so impressive.

These cutouts will be applied to the scenic walls, and then painted with trompe l’oeil effects to create a 3D impression. These cutouts will be applied to the scenic walls, and then painted with trompe l’oeil effects to create a 3D impression.

You can see here the application of some of the cutouts to the scenic flats. You can see here the application of some of the cutouts to the scenic flats.

Another key element of Act I are the huge chandeliers that you see in the set model above. These chandeliers convey the glamor, light, and life of Violetta’s apartment, and it’s crucial that they be made to catch and reflect light. Robert Innes Hopkins provided the model of the chandeliers, and then Chris Largent, our Associate Technical Director, created the build drawings, working out the inner structure and the orientation of the lighting and crystals to realize Robert’s design. 

The build drawings for the chandeliers. The build drawings for the chandeliers.

The chandeliers are a wonderful example of the interdisciplinary nature of set design. The inner metal frame was built in our Burlingame Scene Shop by our metalworkers. Brendan Kierens, our electric shop foreman, then added in the LED lighting fixtures, leaving the final element—the crystals—to our prop department.

The chandelier interior structures, built by our metalworkers. The chandelier interior structures, built by our metalworkers.

The story of the crystals for the chandeliers is a fascinating one that I wanted to share with you. The main crystals in the chandelier are 1.5 inches in diameter and, after an extensive search, Lori Harrison, our master of properties, was able to locate a source. But they only had 270 and she needed 1,500! The cost and wait-time to get them made externally was prohibitive. So, Lori did what she does so well—she figured out how to build them in-house for a fraction of the price! Lori also found that the pre-brought crystals would tend to fracture inside when you drilled them to run the string through to link up the crystals.

Lori began an R&D process with Local 16 crew member Sarah Shores (whom you may remember from prior Backstages with Matthew), working to find a method for manufacturing crystals. They realized that they could craft a mold for a whole string of crystals into which a string could be pre-set, allowing the crystals to harden around the string, avoiding the need for any drilling. Using a silicone rubber mold-maker, they created a negative-space flexible mold for a whole line of crystals.

Casting resin

Sarah then determined the right casting resin that would create absolutely clear crystals. This was an iterative process—first the crystals were too cloudy, but they realized that if they used a mold without a non-stick surface, they would avoid the cloudiness. With the right solution determined, Sarah then mixes the two liquids together and has about three minutes to work before the solution hardens. In that time, she needs to get it the mixed liquid into a vacuum spinner that extracts any air bubbles out of the mixture before she pours it into the mold.  

Mixing the mold
Once the mixture is in the mold, it hardens and then the string of crystals can be popped out, perfectly strung together and ready to hang onto the chandelier.

Both processes in actionIt is amazing to see both the process in action, but also the ingenuity that led to this. It exemplifies the artistry, craftsmanship, and creativity so present within the Opera family: the ability to solve any problem and build anything in-house to fit the need of the production. I cannot wait to see these chandeliers hanging in the Act I set of Traviata and know the ingenuity that went into putting them together.

Chandelier The chandelier on its way to being built with some of the prototype strands of crystals. You can also see the base of the custom-crate that has been built to house the chandeliers when not in the air. We want these set pieces to last for at least 30 to 40 years!

There is still a great deal of work happening as we build La Traviata, but I want to share one more element with you that has just been finished in the scene shop. Act II takes us out of Paris and to the more idyllic world of Alfredo and Violetta’s country home. Robert’s design for this features an outdoor summer house with an arched roof up which run a trellis of beautiful vines and flowers.

pergolaThe scene shop has been working on the roof of this pergola, and it is one of the few places where we have used aluminum in the production (thank goodness our scene shop foreman, John Del Bono, was able to find some!). Metal was needed to ensure a robust arch to the roof, and I was in awe to see Jesse Hazzard on our crew bending metal without heating it—forcing it through a series of three discs, the proximity of which determines the angle of the curvature. You can see in the photos below the machine that does this and the finished curved aluminum. It is then clad in wooden facing and painted with a distressed outdoor finish. The resemblance to the model is extraordinary.

realistic detailIt is a privilege to be down in the shop and to see this kind of detailed work happening, to see the skills and techniques that go into creating such beautiful scenery—techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation and that we are continuing in the building of a production like this through our IATSE crews from Local 16 and Local 800. We have amazing crews, taking the vision of a designer and turning it into a stunning set, crafted to move effortlessly on stage, last for decades, and look completely realistic from the audience. From painted drops to parquet floors to outdoor pergolas to grand chandeliers, the San Francisco Opera crew are bringing all the elements of La Traviata to life, ready to share with you this November! I cannot wait for us to experience it together, and I hope that you’ve secured your subscription to see this and all of the exciting new works onstage in our Centennial Season!

Members of the crew working on La Traviata in our Burlingame scene shopMembers of the crew working on La Traviata in our Burlingame scene shop under the leadership of Scene Shop Foreman John Del Bono (third from left) and Scenic Artist in Charge Steve McNally (far left).