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Backstage At The Opera

Tour shares the secrets of world-famous company

By Heather Wood
published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sunday, May 16, 2010

What goes on backstage has fascinated people forever. That's the idea behind the Santa Fe Opera's Backstage Tours -- to let people get a firsthand look at the inner workings of an opera.

If you've ever wondered what goes into one of these world-class productions, you won't want to miss this docent-led, hour-long sneak peek. Start your day with a climb up the meandering drive to this breathtaking 99-acre property just five minutes north of the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. With sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristos and Jemez Mountains, the opera house is set atop its own backdrop of beauty.

This hour-long tour gives you a look at "the opera you don't see," according to Linda Knapp, a backstage tour guide. She and husband Roger Knapp both volunteer at the opera and are just two of the nearly 75 docents who support this organization. Backstage tours are available from May 31-Aug. 28 at 9 a.m., Monday through Saturday.

The magic in this majestic opera house culminates on its dramatic, open-air stage with just a few actors and props, but it takes hundreds of behind-the-scenes "magicians" to make it all happen. Knapp explains that during the summer months, the staff swells from 70 to nearly 700 to produce and manage the multiple, nonconcurrent shows that grace the stage from July 2 to Aug. 28. This year's lineup includes The Tales of Hoffman, Madame Butterfly, The Magic Flute, Life is a Dream and Albert Herring.

Because the shows rotate through the two-month season, the stage sets must be changed on an almost-daily basis. With elaborate props, ongoing rehearsals, and unusual challenges presented by Santa Fe's unique climate and the facility's exposed design, it's no wonder it takes the finest minds to set the stage for success.

The 2,128 seats cascade toward the stage where, said Knapp, "400 lights are all set by hand in this intimate theater." With no rafters there is no fly tower, and thus the need for a creative solution for set changes. Knapp points out that, "because there are no curtains on the stage, all scenery and cast changes must be 'built in' to the production."

With the twinkling lights of Los Alamos as a backdrop, at night it is almost impossible to witness all that occurs on stage as sets roll on, roll off, and roll over 14 traps in the floor, all guided by stagehands dressed in black costumes for minimal distraction to the audience.

Beneath the stage and theater is a football field-size storage area that houses components of the sets such as enormous "marble statues" made of foam, and yards of rolling green shag carpet "grass" that is painted to look like the most pristine lawn. Styrofoam is chiseled, sets are erected, and small front-end loaders maneuver life-sized "trees" in this basement full of smoke and mirrors. Creative minds can make anything in the prop shop, and with an elevator boasting an 18-1Ú2 foot ceiling, they can deliver it.

It takes 75 technical apprentices to come up with solutions such as weighted skirts and long jackets to combat wind that might otherwise lift a hemline or two. And in this high-desert, arid climate, many costumes are equipped with a discreet water-sipping device that runs the length of an actor's sleeve from a hidden bladder, allowing them to raise a hand and refresh their vocal cords for arias that are delivered sans mike.

In the wig shop, 12 people, plus apprentices, work diligently to ensure that each cast member has the perfect "do." With 30-to-40 hours invested in the creation and styling of each human-hair wig, it is easy to see why these stars don't have bad hair days.

Besides the tailgating tradition at the Santa Fe Opera, other unique features of this world-class organization and facility include: a demure dressing area for the cast with a distinct lack of a star-specific dressing rooms; an electric Libretto system in English and Spanish that is reputed to have been designed over margaritas at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen; no prompter's box; wind baffles to protect from storms; and the grace and sweep of the ship's-bow-like roofline covering 26,615 square feet, which is responsible for an annual 60,000 gallons of water catchment used to maintain the landscaping.

Joyce Idema, press and public relations director, has been with the opera for 11 years, and pointed out: "We are famous for our innovation and attention to detail." When you see first-hand just how many people and how many creative solutions go into one of these performances, you'll no doubt have a whole new appreciation for all the talent that's involved, both on and off stage. "And what other opera house offers tailgating?" quipped Idema.

As a result, the Santa Fe Opera holds a special place in the hearts of opera fans from Santa Fe and beyond. There is a fierce loyalty among those who support it with their talent, time and financial gifts. With a waiting-list only docent pool that includes Ruth Thomas, a 25-year veteran volunteer, it is clear that this 501c3 nonprofit organization depends on the generosity of individual and corporate donations as well as volunteer expertise. This is an organization comprised of excellence, from box-office ticketer to prima donna to development director. As Idema said, "Everything matters to this company -- it always has." By touring backstage, you can see for yourself the work and creativity that is behind the bravos.


Santa Fe Opera Backstage Tour
May 31-Aug. 28, 2010
9-10 a.m. daily, Monday through Saturday
$5 per person; children up to 17 free (not recommended for children under 5)
Meet at box office.

Get the complete opera summer schedule and purchase tickets at santafeopera.org.

Getting there Northbound from Santa Fe or Albuquerque: Travel north on U.S. 84/285 to Exit 168: Tesuque Village/Opera Drive/ Ave. Monte Sereno. Turn left at the end of the exit ramp. Turn right onto the frontage road (Opera Drive) and travel 1.4 miles to the opera entrance. For more information, contact the Santa Fe Opera Box Office at 986-5900 or 800-280-4654.

Heather Wood is a freelance writer who writes regularly for the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached through her website at www.HeatherWoodFreelance.com.

copyright © 2010 Heather Wood
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