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Life Backstage – The Magic Behind The Curtain at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

January 30, 2012

by Philip David Morehead (Head of Music Staff – Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Philip David Morehead

Dublin High School’s award-winning drama and music programs will soon enjoy a brand new, state of the art, 500-seat Performing Arts Centre. Many of the new theatre’s features will greatly enhance the tools available for the unsung heroes that work backstage. To learn more about life backstage, turned to a veteran of live theatre, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Head of Music Staff Philip David Morehead.

I have been fortunate to spend the past thirty years working for one of the best opera houses in the world, Lyric Opera of Chicago. Most people have some familiarity with the lives of the opera stars, who get the media attention, but know little about the people who work behind the scenes to make the performances possible. There are hundreds of them on some productions, including, of course, the orchestra and the chorus, but in addition to those groups there are the music staff (especially  backstage conductors and prompter—more about this remarkable person later), stagehands, costume people, dressers, tech people, lighting folks, sound experts, and the stage management. It’s this latter category I’d like to touch on here.

Stage management includes the stage manager (SM), one or more assistant stage managers (ASM), and usually an assistant stage director (AD). The AD assists the Stage Director in the process of mounting the show (telling the singers where to move, how to interact, how to interpret their roles, etc.). In most opera houses, once the show has passed opening night, the Stage Director leaves and the AD is responsible for maintaining the quality of the performances and for dealing with understudies (their training and their preparation in case they need to go on for an ailing artist).

Backstage - Lyric Opera of Chicago

The ASMs are responsible for the nitty-gritty of running the show, handling such matters as entrances of artists, making sure they have the right props (say, a handkerchief or a sword), and handling any of the myriad problems that may arise. The ASMs also deal directly with the stagehands, often cueing their movement of scenery and other activities. There is usually one ASM on each side of the stage, and if the show is complicated there may be additional ASMs on one or both sides of the stage as needed. They are in command (under the Stage Manager), and an experienced artist will not do anything without the proper cue from an ASM. In smaller theaters they may also handle some backstage musical cues, whereas in large theaters a music staff member will ordinarily handle such matters.

Caroline Moores - Stage Manager

The most important person in the theater, without exception, is the Stage Manager, who is ultimately responsible for every aspect of a performance. The SM knows everything there is to know about a production, including theatrical, technical, and musical aspects. In preparation of a show, the SM handles the smooth running of the rehearsals, dealing with problems as they arise, keeping track of changes, managing the stagehands, etc. In performance, the SM maintains the proper timing of the show, gives all the necessary cues for lighting, sound, and set changes: the SM is the final arbiter for anything that goes on during the performance. A good stage manager is like gold and makes the difference between a smoothly running machine and (horrors) the unthinkable opposite. The SMs I have had the privilege of working with at Lyric Opera are remarkable, and I have the highest respect for their work. As I write this I am in my office listening to a performance of Aida, a very complex opera involving hundreds of cast and crew members, and each performance runs like clockwork and without a hitch because of the expertise of our superb stage manager.

Susan Hult - Prompter

In conclusion, a few words about a music staff member who is a mystery to most opera-goers, partly because there are only four opera houses in the US that employ one: the prompter. The four opera houses are Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The prompter is an institution imported from Italy; he or she sits in a little box at the front of the stage facing the singers covered by a low hood that blocks their activities from the audience and directs the sound of their voice toward the singers. The prompter helps the singers with their vocal entrances—sometimes with hand gestures, sometimes with the first word or two of their text (since the singers are performing from memory, this can be very helpful)—and the prompter can often help avoid musical mishaps—for example, by preventing mistaken entrances. Especially in the US, where opera houses are particularly large (Lyric Opera seats 3,500, the Metropolitan close to 4,000), this can be very helpful, since the conductor is so far from the stage.

If all goes well, the audience will be totally unaware of the work of all of these people: they should be invisible and inaudible to the audience. But they are all indispensable in the proper running of that most complex of all the art forms, opera.

Mr. Morehead is proud that his granddaughter Emily has found a home on the stage – and backstage – with Dublin High School‘s award-winning drama program. The Dublin High Drama Club‘s next production is the Moss Hart and George Kaufman classic American comedy “You Can’t Take It With You” (read more…)

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