Opera Stage Management 101 – Part One: Generalities

Photo of an operatic musical score
Closeup of a stage manager’s score for Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE (Ricordi translation)

This blog series was published first on the Stage Managers’ Association website. At the time of writing, I am a Director-at-Large on the SMA Board, and have also been a past Secretary, Vice Chair, and frequent host of social gatherings for the organization.

One thing I’ve learned over my 20-plus-year career in stage management is that there is no one way to do things. There are different cultures within each company including things like who will run the production meeting. The SM Survey has proved that we do not all call cues or set up our books the same way. That said, I’ve enjoyed working in many different genres, and there are some generalities that make stage managing an opera different than stage managing a musical. When you come from the musical theatre world (like I did), some of those differences can be jarring, confusing…or just weird. It certainly can be daunting. This blog series has been formulating in my mind for a while now, and I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve picked up over the last decade or so. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Today’s post will start with some of the generalities.

The Score

Typically, the music is given the most importance in an opera production, and instead of a script, you use a musical score. Stage managers usually call off a piano reduction, combining the major elements of a full orchestra, whereas in musical theatre you might call off the libretto (text without the music). In a later post, I’ll give you some tips on how to set yours up to your best use. One of the first things you’ll need to do is track down which version/edition is the primary one your team will be using. Because the majority of operas were written centuries ago in another language, find out whether you might be using the Schirmer or the Ricordi translation, for example. Because of public domain, quite a few of them can be found online via IMSLP.org, if you want to look at it ahead of time or aren’t provided one. If English lyrics are printed, yet you are performing it in the original language, be aware that the translations are often done with liberty and may not be taken word for word. While not critical, literal translations can be helpful for things like understanding jokes or prop handoff timing. Most of the time, a stage manager can get by with English lyrics, along with the original language. You need not know Italian or French to stage manage it (or even to sing it), but you’ll often recognize some word bases similar to your native tongue, as well as get to know more words the more you work in the genre. I’m still looking for a single Italian opera where someone doesn’t cry out, “Pietà!” at some point during the narrative.

A Lot in a Little Amount of Time

Opera is big. Generally speaking, operas involve the most people onstage (choruses of 30 don’t make anyone blink an eye), behind the scenes, and in the orchestra pit. Organizing everything happens on a much bigger scale than your standard “straight” play, along the lines of the largest scale musicals or bigger. However, the rehearsal timeline for an opera production tends to occur in less time than other genres, and is often done in a fairly piecemeal format. Many singers make careers out of performing the same roles at multiple places, and the expectation is that they will arrive to the first rehearsal with the music already learned. The first singthrough is therefore more about setting tempi (the plural of tempo, the speed of the music), breaths, and confirming cuts in the music. Rehearsals can be split between various groups of people, and you may not get everyone in the same rehearsal hall until the final room run before tech. Because the voice is so important, schedules are made around not wearing out vocal cords* or stamina. (Another big difference – the majority of operas do not amplify sound with microphones, other than for playback monitors.) Things are often marked (sung softly and/or down an octave), so stage management really needs to be able to read the music to follow along, especially during technical rehearsals onstage. Finally, with a full orchestra you add many more people, often with union rules for length of service. You may only get all of your elements together on one or two evenings for three hours before you open (using just piano for the larger portion of a short tech process). Stage management is about pulling all of these puzzle pieces together and helping others fill in the gaps from having separate rehearsals – even if that means filling in physically for missing performers, if it affects the staging. On the plus (and weird to me) side, once you finally get everyone together, you end up being called to work much less. The opera standard is to have a day off the day before opening, and performances are rarely two days in a row, let alone a two-show day like most musical theatre. Vocal rest is a much-appreciated/expected thing. If you’re used to working in musical theatre, the days between are bonus days for stage management, even if you end up working on paperwork to catch up. Oh yes, the paperwork. More on that in another blog.

Remounts/Rentals

Because opera is big and takes a lot to put together, as well as the time constraints to do it, production designs are often re-used for many years. You may have a set (or full rental package including props and/or costumes) that was built many years ago, or a director who is known for his or her updated time period and concept for a given classic title. As a stage manager, figuring out what all those pieces are, whether they all arrived (or will arrive), and how they are all to be used can be an extra challenge, very much dependent on the paperwork that may or may not accompany it. Hopefully you have a strong technical director, production manager, prop master, and costume coordinator to help divvy up the responsibilities for your venue.

Places Calls and Cueing of Entrances

This is probably the biggest, strangest difference when you come from a non-opera background: Why the heck can’t the performers (not actors – more on that in our next post) get themselves onstage? Well, by the time you get to the final room run, it may be only the first time the chorus has ever been in the same room with the leads. They hopefully have figured out by now that their first scene they exit stage left, and the second one they enter stage right….but they have no real understanding that there are 25 minutes for them to make the crossover. During that time, they likely have a costume change, perhaps even a wig change, and they’ve been downstairs in their dressing room. The music has been piping through the system, but it might be repetitive and it’s quite likely it’s in another language, or perhaps it’s being marked and you can’t even tell who’s onstage at the moment. The chorus may never have been given this music either. To help keep things rolling along, the stage manager marks places calls in their score, generally five minutes or so before an entrance. In the middle of calling all light cues and other duties, the stage manager will turn on the backstage paging system and say a variant of, “This is a places call for Mr. Smith. Places, please for Mr. Smith.” (Depending on the need, a side of the stage may added and/or a description of a group of people instead of individual names.) Assistant stage managers will often then put a secondary places call in their scores at the two-minute mark, and ask for the singer to be paged again if not visible on deck. Yes, in opera, the standard is that people are ready and waiting a lot earlier. If I call two minutes for top of act places in theatre, I often have antsy actors wondering why I called them so early, especially if we have to hold the house or the curtain speech goes long. In opera, two minutes is late.

In addition to getting the performers to the stage, assistant stage managers help cue them for actual entrances. Some principals will take their cues on their own (for better or for worse), but an assistant stage manager is ultimately the source for the correct entrance timing. The width of the set and masking legs can change entrance timing from the rehearsal hall, and with so many people involved, it’s often easier for the director to simply say, “bring them all on a measure earlier.” The ASM then moves their cue in their score, and it’s easily adjusted.

Scene Shifts Can Be Long and Awkward

One of my least favorite opera traditions is the pause (often pronounced POW-zuh). In the musical theatre world, we do “in-one” scenes while a scene shift is happening upstage behind the drop. Changes happen fluidly, as quietly as possible, and blackouts between scenes are often just long enough for the curtain to rise. I still remember being stunned during my first opera upon learning that between two scenes we were going to bring in the curtain, raise the houselights a little, and expect the audience to just sit there during a long scene shift….which folks were truly excited when we were able to complete in under four minutes. Really??? With the use of supertitles (the screen used for translations above the stage) or similar, you can give the audience a little instruction to stay seated, which helps. However, I’m a fan of the productions that do a little something more with the break between acts/scenes. I still think the standard “orchestra tune” prior to a show is a bit awkward as many musicals don’t do it – and I generally still have trouble telling when they’re done. However, when an additional tune is included in one of these pauses as well, the length isn’t quite as obvious. Meanwhile, my favorite recent pause “fix” occurred during Chuck Hudson’s Don Pasquale. He set the opera in the glamorous age of Hollywood, with the title character as essentially a Norma Desmond-type, a silent movie star who never made it to colorized talkies. Black and white films were projected during the pauses (with piano underscoring a la the silent film era) depicting Pasquale’s rise and fall. It did mean our scene shifts had definite target end times (two minutes each, which could be a struggle if we had an issue backstage), but the audience was entertained while we changed the scenery.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the people involved in putting together an opera.

*Yes, it’s vocal cords, not vocal chords. I’ve certainly typed that wrong in my past.

Continue to Part Two…..

6 thoughts on “Opera Stage Management 101 – Part One: Generalities”

  1. This is a great blog entry. Thank you for detailing these differences. Super helpful! I am looking forward to your next opera post!

    1. Thanks Sam. It’s been fun to pull the thoughts together, as I’ve been sharing them with other stage managers for a while now.

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