It’s a Monday afternoon, just four days from the premiere of the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of La bohème, and the beginning of the company’s 63rd season. When the audience settles into their seats and Puccini’s beloved score begins, they’ll see one face of the opera, just one facet, the one they were intended to see.
But there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes before, during, and after a performance. And make no mistake, the rehearsal scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on June 24 is a performance — a trial run-through — tested before a live audience. Before the premiere, there are three technical rehearsals, a full dress rehearsal with piano, and two full dress orchestra rehearsals. Monday night is the first of the orchestra dress rehearsals. That means a prop crew, stagehands, lighting technicians, stage managers, wardrobe assistants, and makeup artists will be working diligently throughout the evening. As many as 700 of them pour into Santa Fe, starting in late April, to work here for the season. Just as surely as the performers need to make all their cues during a given performance, the crews working behind the scenes also need to make theirs. And some will still be working long after the audience has left the house.
On the stage, in the wings, in the wardrobe area, the makeup room, and even in the prop room, men and women are doing their jobs. But beneath the focus, there’s a hint of nervousness. After all, there’s a lot at stake: This dress rehearsal is tantamount to the real thing, and the reputation of the SFO demands perfection.
2 ½ hours to showtime
The parking lot is already halfway full as guests arrive for a private, pre-show dinner. A custodian sweeps the walkway outside the box office and the gates leading to the open-air Crosby Theatre, named for the legendary John Crosby, who founded the SFO in 1957. Kyle Gray, the opera’s community strategies manager, tells Pasatiempo that it’s Youth Night — the first of four over a season that stretches from June 28 to Aug. 24 — and they’re expecting to fill nearly all of the house’s 2,128 seats. Over the course of the summer, about 5,000 schoolchildren and their chaperones will attend performances at the opera house, many of them from the Pueblo Opera Program, which involves 21 regional pueblos and reservations.
2 hours to showtime
About two dozen ushers dressed in neatly matching outfits are seated in the empty house as they receive instructions for the evening. Onstage, a crew is moving scenery into place: a sparkling Parisian cityscape of blue, silver, purple, and magenta, and the Latin Quarter garret that four of the titular bohemians call their home. It’s a sparse interior, with little besides a wood-burning stove.
The crew members, all in yellow hard hats, wheel the sets into position. When not in use, the sets are stored three levels below the theater, about 60 feet down, in a warehouse with a ceiling that looks like it’s 20 feet high. It’s large enough to accommodate scenery for a season’s worth of operas. The sets are delivered to the rear of the stage via elevator — one large enough to accommodate a Ford F-150 pickup.
The late afternoon sun bears down on the stagehands, who raise a panel to block it so they can see what they’re doing. By the time the production starts, the panel will be gone and the audience’s view of the stage will, once more, reveal the landscape and twilight sky.
1½ hours to showtime
Backstage, one floor down, workers in the wardrobe department are getting the costumes ready, pressing, steaming, and brushing them off, and brushing out the wigs. The pastel bonnets for the children’s chorus are lined up on a shelf, and military-style marching band hats for Act 2 — each one topped by a red plume — sit atop Styrofoam heads. In a wide hallway just outside the wardrobe room, clothing racks crammed with Victorian-era Parisian fashions are pushed up against the walls.
“We’re kind of the last line of defense before they hit the stage,” says Madison Miller, a wardrobe assistant.
The wardrobe team is assigned to the production’s six principal characters, and they look after the stars throughout the night. Miller shadows soprano Vanessa Vasquez, who plays Mimì, the beleaguered seamstress at the center of Bohème’s action. She ensures that Vasquez has all the elements of her costume — a green frock coat, maroon gloves, and scarf — before going onstage, and stays by her side backstage with a water bottle, a package of Ricola cough drops, and an old-fashioned handheld fan.
“If you take care of a principal, you’re their person for the remainder of the run,” Miller says. “You have to make sure they’re at their best before they go on stage.”
Miller normally works at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California. This is her first season at the Santa Fe Opera.
“I’m actually from Albuquerque, so it’s nice to be back in my home state,” she says as she departs for a round of group stretching — a helpful routine for people who spend a night on their feet, constantly moving. The wardrobe supervisor, her assistants, and the 14 dressers breathe in and raise their arms over their heads as they begin to stretch.
On a bench outside of wardrobe, chorus member Ricardo Garcia, still in his street clothes, laces his inline roller skates to rehearse a scene for Act 2. From the audience, the skates’ slim profile will make them look just like ice skates. Garcia is from Castro Valley, California. He’s one of 42 apprentice artists here for the season. It’s also his first season at the SFO.
He looks relaxed, but admits, “You always get the jitters a little bit before a performance. But we’re able to channel it into some good energy. Usually, a lot of the administration pops in and watches the rehearsals, but tonight, there’s people in the audience who are coming to watch an actual show. They say there’s only 12 shows this season, but, to me, there’s 15. Because in the last week of rehearsals, you’re always on. It’s always a real show.”
1 hour and 15 minutes to showtime
Across the hall, makeup artist Meredith Keister is applying Vasquez’s burgundy eye shadow. The singer, eyes closed, is apparently calm. She’s seated in front of a bank of mirrors — brightly lit by fluorescents in a salon-style room. In the chair across from her, soprano Gabriella Reyes, who plays the role of the independent-minded Musetta, sits patiently beneath the practiced hand of another makeup artist. The singers are silent but attentive to the chatter of the artists, nodding slightly as the rouge is applied to their cheeks. The women are always attended to first.
“For female principals 45 minutes is standard, and that’s with prep, makeup, and putting the wigs on,” says Keister, a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “For men, it takes about 20 minutes.”
The makeup artists start at 7 p.m. and stay through the final act, at the ready to do touch-ups, if needed. “She kisses,” Keister says, gesturing to Vasquez. “I expect that in between scenes I’ll have to redo her lipstick.”
During the production, Mimì gets increasingly sick. The makeup Keister applies to her cheeks makes them look hollow, creating the illusion of a woman battling consumption.
“I’m sorry, we take your beauty away,” she says to Vasquez, who only smiles.
1 hour to showtime
Back on the stage, the scenery is set for Act 1. Upstage, a backdrop of the Paris skyline transforms the 52-foot-wide stage into a crowded, industrial-era metropolis. The bohemians’ garret is downstage, center right. Its windows are frosted to suggest an icy winter. Chorus members practice their skating behind the garret, and a stagehand kneels on the floor downstage, polishing gleaming pools of clear acrylic designed to look like puddles of melting ice. Everyone — cast and crew alike — is upbeat. The energy is electric.
45 minutes to showtime
In the basement, where the sets live, you must stay on the path marked in yellow — for safety reasons, says Sullivan Peraino, the company’s external affairs manager. The sets for The Pearl Fishers, Jenufa, and The Thirteenth Child — all appearing this season — are in various stages of completion. They take up most of the room on either side of the path. Storerooms are piled floor to ceiling with props from past productions of Ariadne auf Naxos, The Magic Flute, and others. From the hall, you can see a heap of woven baskets, bouquets of fake white flowers wrapped in plastic, Greek and Roman statuary, masks that look like something out of a Venetian carnival, and racks of rifles from a past production of Candide: It’s a veritable cabinet of curiosities. The head of a monkey, with a six-foot span of dragonfly wings jutting from its sides, hangs over the entrance to one room. No one knows what production this oddity appeared in.
It’s peaceful here. Quiet. Three stories up, the activity is ratcheting up. It’s getting down to the wire.
30 minutes until showtime
The gates outside the theater open and people start streaming into the house. Many are dressed in elegant black evening gowns or dresses. Most men wear jackets and ties. The Youth Night children head up to the mezzanine. They can’t be seen from the orchestra seats, but you can’t miss the cacophony of excited voices and stamping feet. Somewhere, a trumpet player runs through scales. In a stairwell behind the theater, La bohème’s stage manager, Chelsea Antrim Dennis, talks to the 18-member stage crew. Most of them are in full costume, dressed as well-to-do Parisians, ruffians, and waiters: With no curtain, set changes between acts happen in full view of the audience. Their costumes are designed to keep the illusion going.
“You’ve got this,” Dennis says, adding, “When Mimì dies, when you hear that music — try not to cry.”
They snicker at the notion.
In the wings, stage right, a console about four feet wide and seven feet high — with rows of buttons, intercom switches, and a bank of video screens — allows Dennis to see the stage from different angles, including a view of the conductor. She’ll be there all night, in remote contact with her crew via a headset. She’s already in position, in this dark corner, under dim blue lights.
“As the performance goes through, I follow along in my musical score,” says Dennis, who after the SFO season will return to Los Angeles, where she is the production stage manager for the Los Angeles Opera. This is her 15th season with the Santa Fe Opera. “I’m calling a cue every time the lighting changes, and I can see when it’s been executed.” She gestures to the video screens. “There’s a light-board operator pushing a button for every cue I call. ... There are three assistant stage managers who orchestrate everybody on the deck.
“It’s kind of like air traffic control for opera.”
Dennis follows every measure of the score. “I try to sneak in a piece of fruit if I can,” she says. On the console to her left is water bottle and a small shiny apple.
10 minutes to showtime
Dennis flicks a switch and a light goes off in the orchestra lounge, the signal for the musicians to move into the pit.
5 minutes to showtime
Dennis pages the performers for Act 1, Scene 1. They trickle into the wings behind her. It’s warm, even at this hour. The chatter of the audience creates a palpable sense of anticipation. The near-silent cast and crew in the now-crowded wings only add to it.
Showtime, the beginning of Act 1
On Dennis’ cue, the musicians quickly tune their instruments. The murmur in the house dies. Conductor Jader Bignamini signals the spritely overture to begin. A moment later, Rodolfo (tenor Mario Chang) and Marcello (baritone Zachary Nelson) begin their scena e duetto (simple duet), which introduces us to their characters. Smoke created by a fog machine rises from the chimney of the fake wood-burning stove.
Baton in hand, Bignamini’s arms rise and fall to the strains of the music. Dennis can’t see the musicians in her monitor — only Bignamini can be made out in the dim light. He appears enraptured, mouthing the lyrics in time with the singers onstage.
Visibly nervous, Vasquez paces back and forth in the wings. She clutches a thick, unlit candle she needs for her first scene. Miller is trying to keep up, and when Vasquez eventually stops, the young wardrobe assistant offers her a sip of water.
End of Act 1
Vasquez makes her first appearance onstage, knocking at the door of the Latin Quarter garret and seeking a light for her candle. The props team is in the wings, getting the Act 2 Café Momus props ready, spraying Reddi-Wip (or a similar brand) into plastic bowls that look like crystal — stand-ins for fancy Parisian desserts. They are surprisingly convincing.
Just before Act 2
The chorus — some dressed as Parisian citizens, some as members of a marching band — start filtering into the wings in preparation for Act 2. They’re joined by a children’s chorus, the girls wearing period-era bonnets in bright and cheerful pastels. They speak in hushed whispers, stifling nervous laughter.
At stage right, the prop and stage crews gather café tables, chairs, and trays laden with fruits, meats, and the sumptuous-looking deserts, ready for the roughly 120-second set changeover.
As the last vestiges of daylight vanish over the Sangre de Cristos, a dusky sky settles over a make-believe Paris.
Beginning of Act 2
The chorus sings as the garret is pulled out of view, replaced by the set for Café Momus. The stage swells with middle-class Parisians and their children. The waiters — all part of the prop team — bring out the food sporadically as the scene goes on.
At the front of the house, near the orchestra pit, director Mary Birnbaum types notes on a laptop. She’ll discuss them with the production staff after the performance is over.
Production and facilities director Paul Horpedahl walks up the aisle. “Nothing has gone wrong yet,” he says, “so I’m perfectly content.”
End of Act 3
Before moving into Act 4, the crew dismantles the Act 3 set and hauls it to an offstage elevator. Another garret set is wheeled in. It’s identical to the first, except for one major detail: It’s built to fracture, echoing the tragic events of the final act.
A narrow bed, piled with pillows, is brought in. Production and recruiting coordinator Tracy Armagost explains that Vasquez needs to be propped up during her death scene because lying down makes it harder to sing.
After changing out of their heavy woolen clothes, the almost 30-person stage and prop crews fill the wings once more, relieved to be out of costume on this hot summer night.
They stand in rapt attention as a dying Mimì sings to her beloved, the elegiac voices of clarinets and strings in soulful accompaniment. Some of the stage crew have tears in their eyes. Miller is among them, quietly sniffling, as Dennis’ earlier directive — try not to cry — goes unheeded.
One at a time, the principals head out to the stage for their bows. The applause is modest, it seems — or perhaps it just sounds muffled to the people backstage. But when Vasquez heads out to join them, she’s hit with a stunning eruption of howls and hollers and shouts of “Bravo!” Grinning broadly, she makes room for Bignamini at the center of the ensemble and, hand in hand, they take their bows.
“I’ve always felt that my bows at the end are in gratitude to the audience, rather than a self-serving opportunity,” Vasquez said later. “In that moment, I feel an immense amount of appreciation to everyone involved in making the production possible ... without an audience we can’t be artists.” ◀