Opera Stage Management 101 – Part Two: The Personnel

The character list (in Italian and English) for Donizetti's DON PASQUALE

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.

As discussed in the first installment of this blog series, there are generally speaking a lot more people involved in an opera as compared to a musical. Today we focus on the differences in titles and duties, including a few that are not present in musical theatre.

Conductor/ Maestro

In musical theatre, you likely had a music director, who might have deferred to the director on “final calls” for the artistic side, and may even have been forgotten during notes sessions of a rehearsal. In opera, the conductor is a generally a more powerful figure. As a term of respect, the honorific title of Maestro is used. (The feminine Maestra is an option, though many women prefer the original term, similar to using actor for all genders instead of specifying actress.) When in doubt, use Maestro both in person and when discussing him/her to others out of respect, rather than their given name. There are of course many exceptions to this, but better safe than sorry when you’re starting out.

Stage Director

You’re likely used to the director running things in a musical or play. I’m not quite sure why the added word is included here – perhaps to contrast to the music director, sometimes still a term used in opera companies? The stage director still decides the pictures and overall concept of the show, though you may be surprised a bit by the deference given to the conductor. Also, if the company engages an assistant stage director, then the stage manager’s role can really change. Assistant directors (and often the stage director if no assistant is on contract) are the ones to keep track of all blocking (stage movement). I still tend to record as much as I can, especially movement patterns to call spotlights later, and certainly the tracking of props and costume elements involved. However, there are so many other factors usually in an opera, that it’s often a relief to not follow every single small detail of blocking. It also may mean that you’re even less on the stage director’s radar to be told about changes he/she makes, however.

The Performers/Artists

In musical theatre, you generally call them actors. The stereotype is that there isn’t much acting in opera. While I find that acting has gotten more attention in recent decades, it’s certainly not the main focus – the music is. As a result, you’ll want to start using some other terms like singers, performers or artists when referring to your group of people onstage. There are also subdivisions including:

Principals

These are your lead roles – and yes, I doublechecked the spelling vs. principles. Principals typically have their own rehearsals during daytime hours. Their solo numbers are called arias, which are often preceded by a conversational (and frequently expositional) piece with limited underscoring called a recitative or recit. Different voice types tend to be typecast to play certain kinds of roles:

  • Soprano – the highest female voice; generally plays the love interest and may very well end up dead by the end of the opera
  • Mezzo-Soprano – what you likely called “alto” in the past; rarely plays leading roles (except Carmen), but is more likely to be seen as the best friend, a witch, or in a pants role playing a young boy, if she gets a principal role at all; alto voices still exist in opera, but are technically lower voices than the ones that are usually heard
  • Tenor – the highest male voice; generally plays the hero and/or romantic interest (note, countertenors sing especially high)
  • Baritone – often considered the “easiest to listen to,” this male mid-range voice often represents the father figure or best friend
  • Bass – the lowest male voice; often plays the villain

Comprimario

These are the featured/supporting roles in an opera. If a company has a young artists program, comprimario (cohm-pree-MAH-ree-oh) roles may be filled from this pool, or from the chorus for a smaller production, especially if it’s only a few lines.

Chorus

Similar to the chorus in a musical, the chorus both sings as well as fills out the stage picture. Opera choristers tend to have day jobs, and their rehearsals are limited to usually 2 or 3 times a week, with a schedule set way in advance of the stage manager coming on board. They often have been rehearsing the music for a month or more in advance, led by their chorus master. Many operas also have a children’s chorus that is separate from the adult chorus.

Supernumeraries

Often shortened to “supers,” these are the non-singing extras of the opera world. They may be costumed as servants, spearcarriers, members of the clergy or other appropriate characters to add to the scene. Many times, they are your do-ers for scene shifts that need to happen in view of the audience, or are used to carry in a royal person on a litter. Some make a career out of being in show after show with a company, but others may be first timers, hired because they needed a bodybuilder or a child to fit the production’s need….or they gave a large donation at the last opera gala fundraiser. Professional dancers or trained fight combatants may also be used. Supers are often not given a score nor know any of the language being sung. As a result, they rely heavily on stage management to know when it’s their turn. They may or may not rehearse the same nights as the Chorus.

Covers

Covers are the understudies of the opera world. Some may be guaranteed performances, especially if the company has family or student matinee performances.  Some may be vocal covers, who would only cover the role musically but not physically go onstage, particularly if the original singer needs to mark during tech. Study covers may be assigned from a young artists program as an educational opportunity to learn the role for future use, but not for any performance at the moment. If a cover has another role in the opera, especially as a chorus member, alternate plans may need to be made should he or she perform as a principal.

Assistant Stage Managers

This role is likely the most different in scope in comparison to musical theatre. In addition to tracking all of the backstage production elements, assistant stage managers cue entrances for performers, and may fill in for anyone missing from a given rehearsal for blocking purposes. More on this later.

Scheduler

In large opera companies, especially those in festival formats, the scheduler takes on the daily call part of a normal theatre stage manager’s job. After receiving a rehearsal schedule request from the stage manager of each production (in conjunction with the stage director), the scheduler puts the entire company’s daily schedule together for distribution, including wig and costume fittings, vocal coachings, any young artist program classes, and more.

Coaches

These members of the music staff may or may not be directly involved with rehearsal, especially if part of a larger festival format. Any singer may have vocal coaching sessions, which could focus on diction, pronunciation and interpretation.

Répétiteur

Learn to say this word (reh-peh-ti-TUER), and you’ll instantly gain a bit more respect, in my opinion. Even in the musical theatre word, “accompanist” is a term that is used but can actually come across as derogatory. Just as I and others don’t like being called a “techie” as a sophomoric term – do you call the performers “acties”? – pianists prefer to be called pianists or this fancy word. In opera (as in musical theatre), these musicians are in the rehearsal hall representing an entire orchestra. On occasion, they may continue playing piano or harpsichord for performances, especially during recitatives.

Orchestra Manager

Consider this person as somewhat the stage manager of the orchestra. The conductor usually hands the cut list over to the orchestra manager, who then makes sure that all orchestral parts are marked with notations of measures that are being skipped for this particular production. He or she is also in charge of all rehearsal hours for the musicians and determining start and stop times. You’ll want to make sure your own watch is synced to theirs (often atomic time), as well as what length of time they were told was budgeted for a given rehearsal. If your running time is close to going into overtime, the company may choose to have an “orchestra start time” that is different than the published curtain time, taking into account holding the house and the length of your preshow speech. Communication is key with this person. During tech, they are also the “keeper” of the orchestra break time, and will often start the tuning when the clock hits the prediscussed moment, regardless of other tech readiness, as to not waste any minutes of precious orchestra time. They will also watch to make sure the orchestra gets the break and other stipulations required in their contracts as to the physical setup of the orchestra space.

Penguins

This is one of my favorite opera terms, and generally only used in preparation for the end of opening night. Opera bows are often longer than musical theatre stage managers are used to having. The chorus master will often come out on stage with the chorus to take a bow. (If the chorus isn’t used in the final act of production, this may even happen partway through the opera, after their last act.) During bows, the conductor will make his or her way up from the pit to be pulled onstage by the lead female towards the end. Opening night, the stage director and designers also take a bow. As they were originally mostly men in tuxedos, the term “penguin bows” began to be used to indicate this group of people.

You can find many additional opera terms on the Opera America website.

Next post in series: Part Three - Setting up your score

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