Backstage at Santa Fe Opera : How do they do it?

On Tuesday afternoon, Susanne and I showed up for a tour of the Santa Fe Opera venue. Docents divided the 40-some guests that had arrived for the tour into three groups of twelve. Our docent and her docent-in-training assistant started us off in the big bucks seats. Down in the first few rows, they go $150 (est) each .

Immediately in front of the first row of seats, separating them from the stage, is a open-top tank filled with water. The docent assures us that it is not a “moat” designed to protect the cast from the audience, or vice versa. It was installed when the original stage was in stalled and the entire opera “house” was open to the sky. The water provided a boost to the acoustic quality.

Every seat back in the opera house has an electronic libretto display the presents a translation of the lyrics being sung in the theatrical language of the opera – Italian, Spanish, English, German, Russian or whatever language the opera’s librettist wrote in. Audience members may choose English or Spanish translations.

The first Santa Fe Opera facility seated about 400. The current opera house, which was built to replace the original when it burned down, seats more than 2000. When rebuilt, a roof was added over the stage and the first floor of seats, also known as the orchestra.

Later, a roof also was added over the mezzanine seats. But the open air quality of the venue was not completely abandoned. The stage can be opened at the rear so that the audience can view a performance against a scenic New Mexico backdrop.

The orchestra pit is on an elevator that lowers the musicians out of sight. Similarly, there is a elevator behind the stage. It is used primarily for raising sets and props to the stage level from a loading dock. It also can be used as a device for raising cast members such as a chorus as part of a performance.

The wings of the stage have a series of doors that can be opened to allow performers to enter and leave as part of the performance. They also allow sets and props to brought onstage, important because the stage has no fly-away space for sets.

In the wings, each door has a light over it so that a performer can be cued when it is time to enter. The lights are controlled by the stage manager, whose station also controls other aspects of the performance including lighting.

Off of stage right are the dressing rooms and make-up rooms for the performers. Male majors and female majors have separate rooms that include dressers and make-up artists. We visited when La Boheme was to be performed the next evening. The performers’ hats, labeled by the name of the performer and the role he or she was playing, were on manikin heads on shelves above the dressing table and make-up mirrors.

The dressing rooms for the minor male and females, are larger rooms but do not include dressers or make-up artists. Each performer is expected to dress himself or herself and apply their own make-up. Behind the dressing rooms is the costume shop where are fabrics cut and dyed, costumes sewn, and stored between performances.

Behind that is the wig room. As one would imagine, wigs play a large role in operas, with period pieces and extravagantly dramatic performances being staged. The wig master is not employed by the Santa Fe Opera but is a private contractor who is signed by the opera for the season. He has worked for several different operas. He does not have to solicit work since his reputation in the world of opera is such that the producers come to him. When his season is over at Santa Fe, he will takes his wigs to the Dallas Opera.

While almost all his wigs are made with human hair, white wigs as used in roles for judges, diplomats and males of the 17th and 18th centuries, are made from yak hair. We are told that human hair deteriorates too rapidly when dyed white.

For this season, with its variety of off-beat operas, the wig options are varied and colorful.

At the conclusion of the stage and backstage tour, we are told about the adjacent building, which replicates the main stage area of the theater itself. It is used for blocking stage movements and for rehearsal when the next opera must be rehearsed while the current opera’s sets and props are still in place. It is also the scene for a series of free talks offered to ticket holders about an hour and a half before each performance. This allows the audience to have prior knowledge of many of the night’s performance, and fits the social nature of a night at the opera, wherethose attending he opera are encouraged to bring or purchase picnic lunches and dine al fresco before the night’s performance.

William Ernest Waites and Susanne Waites, proprietors of online galleries at ZuniLink, Native-JewelryLink, Native-PotteryLInk and TribalWorks, are in Santa Fe for Indian Market, about which this blog will concern itself in the coming days. In the meantime, a visit to Santa Fe without a visit tothe Santa Fe Opera would be a shame. The Waites are scheduled to attend a performance in the next week.