Tales from stage management

Tales from stage management

Jenna Simeonov

Any performer worth their salt knows that the first order of business on any contract is to make friends with the stage managers. Without them and their endless attention to detail, the artist may miss his cue, or find herself out onstage without that vital prop, or miss his mark and sing that big aria tragically outside of his light. Stage managers are an organized bunch, a team who knows everything about you, and what you’ll need next. They help directors, singers, conductors, schedulers, wardrobe and make-up departments; they’re the glue that holds the show together, and they stay humbly obscured in their extensive black wardrobe, standing just out of the audience’s sight.

So, writing about opera simply wouldn’t be complete without talking to the stage managers about their work. Backstage heroes Joanna Barrotta and Mike Lewandowski share their hilarious tales from the job, and clues to the very special world just behind the opera stage.

What’s your favourite part about stage managing for opera?

Mike: I would have to say my favourite part about stage managing for opera is the scale. It doesn’t get much bigger. This makes it for an interesting environment, and there is never a dull moment. It keeps things interesting and no day is ever the same. Despite the large scale, it is a fairly small world, and you do get to develop a lot of friendships with some amazing people, some who you may only see every few years. You do feel a sense of community.

Joanna: Stage managing for opera is always an adventure. The expectations of how singers perform has changed dramatically since I began stage managing. Singers need to act, emote, evoke feeling from their audience, but no longer just through their voice. It’s been so interesting to watch singers develop this skill that may not have been as deeply required when they began their careers.

But truly, the best part is when you sit there and get to listen to Christine Goerke and Stefan Vinke belt out the Act III duet of Siegfried in the rehearsal hall, just because they felt like singing full-out that day. Stage management is a cool career, but stage managing in opera means being surrounded by music. It changes your life.

Mike: As stage managers we are also very lucky that we not only get to know the singers very well, and everyone else involved in the process. As most people know it takes a village, and as stage managers we are lucky to get to interact with all these people, from Production Assistants, Wardrobe, Wigs & Makeup, Props, Lighting, Designers, Scheduling Manager, Company Manager, Production Manager, Technical Director, Music Department, General Manager, crew and on and on. Stage managers truly know what everyone else is doing at all times. (And if they don’t, they are sure to read the production notes and find out!)

Joanna Barrotta.

What was your most memorable prop from an opera?

Mike: Do a live horse & donkey count? Since they had to be paged to the stage, I suppose they were a performer. In that case, the most memorable prop would have to be the rubber chickens from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The chorus had to use them in a scene, where they were working away in a slaughter house. They had to look realistic enough and well had to be gutted. It sounds gross, and the effect was very realistic, as the chickens had fake guts inside them. The chorus had to pretend to cut them open and clean them up. How do you do that every night? You add zippers, so as they were fake-cutting the chickens, they would neatly unzip them and ‘clean’ them up. It sounds gross but they were fantastic.

Jo: An enema pump in Ariadne auf Naxos.

Mike Lewandowski. Photo by Cara Tierney.

What’s the best thing you’ve gotten to say on a call mic?

Jo: Not on a public mic (thank kittens), but this happened over headset on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the stage manager asked how we were doing for beginners for the top of Act II and, without thinking, I clicked open my mic and said “I have four lovers.” The tech department and crew didn’t miss a beat, with responses like “Is that why you’re always so tired, Jo?” or “Enough energy for a fifth?” Sigh.

Mike: I personally can’t remember a particular moment, I’m sure it involved me calling “super prostitutes” to the stage. Though my favourite call that involved me was ‘I believe we have a Valkyrie down’. During the dress rehearsal of Die Walküre, a performer fell during “The Ride of the Valkyries”, and was not getting up. I had to come out onstage and see if I could help her, all the while the orchestra continuing to play, performers singing and the entire theatre looking at me.

What’s your favourite colour for spike tape?

Mike: Blue. And while we are on the subject of spike tape, I prefer cloth tape over vinyl tape. Please, if you want to keep your stage manager happy, get them cloth tape.

Jo: Honestly, it is a small victory when you choose a colour that the singer can see and the director or designer doesn’t scream about. Size can matter more than colour ;).

Do you have a favourite show mishap story?

Jo: This one isn’t really a mishap, but at the Canadian Opera Company, the stage managers collect quotes during the rehearsal period. Here’s one of my favourites: “Children, don’t hold your balls in front of your mouths when you need to sing.”

Mike: During a dress rehearsal, an upset singer decided to flip maestro the bird, and walk off the stage. This happened towards the end of the show, in a particularly busy part, when the stage manager had to keep her eyes on the score and call cues. As the time for curtain calls came, she called for him to stand by, to which I had to say “Umm, I don’t think he will bow, he has left,” to which the very confused stage manager said, “What?!” She didn’t see any of the above happen.

Readers, share your stories of stage manager greatness in the comments below!

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