If you're an opera fan, or even if you're not, you've probably heard about the contentious negotiations between the Metropolitan Opera and its fifteen unions. It's been front page news, as the admin threatens a lockout and federal mediators have been brought in. A lockout has the potential to affect not only the hundreds of workers at the Met, not only the millions of tourist dollars it brings in to itself and surrounding businesses and the businesses that Met workers patronize, but the entire American opera industry. I urge you to visit www.SaveTheMetOpera.com to see the faces and hear the stories of my friends and colleagues there.
I have never sung at the Met, but I work with many people who do, and their plight has inspired the following thoughts.
When I stand up in front of an audience on a gorgeous set and open my mouth to sing, wearing a beautiful handcrafted costume and a carefully styled wig and thirty-forty minutes'worth of carefully applied makeup especially designed for my face, you are only seeing (and hearing) the tip of the iceberg. Scurrying around behind me (because there is very little time to sit) are hundreds of artisans, designers, craftspeople, technicians, artists, and other skilled laborers, each and every one of whom has contributed to what you are seeing and hearing in the spotlight and to your overall theatrical experience.
One of the lessons taught to me as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin --- one of the greatest lessons, for which I am eternally grateful --- was to respect the folks who work backstage. They work insanely hard and do everything in their power to help the soloists and make them look and feel good. They go above and beyond on a daily basis to make MY job easier, and they get none of the glory.
The stories I could tell. How about the time Clare Burovac, Portland Opera's Director of Artistic Operations ran out in the pouring rain before a show to get me a steamer when I had laryngitis. Howard Tsvi Kaplan taking measurements while we were on a job in Kentucky (where I was wearing his gorgeous Marcellina costume) so he could get started building three fantastic costumes for Sarasota Opera's production of Vanessa later in the season (and acting like I was doing him a favor). Or the times I watched Chicago Lyric Opera choristers surreptitiously guide a singer who had jumped in for an ailing colleague at the last minute through critical moments of staging, or pick up a prop a soloist had dropped and discreetly get it back to them or dispose of it, or make sure they had the physical support they needed in a critical moment. Orchestra members, who we soloists often only see in passing as we're heading back to the dressing room, going out of their way to compliment our performances --- in which they were vital collaboraters. I can't count the times a stage manager or assistant stage manager has saved my butt, or that a stagehand has asked me randomly if I need anything, just quietly moved something out of my way, or otherwise did something to make my job easier. One of my dressers at Arizona Opera not only made sure she learned my show so she could always be standing there with water when I came offstage, but insisted on doing my personal laundry and would not take money for it. My dresser at Portland Opera made CONSTANT runs up and down the stairs to keep me supplied with hot water for tea when I was sick. The Tulsa Opera crew and their spouses put on a HUGE potluck barbecue at the dress rehearsal, and every single member of the company is invited.
And we haven't even scratched the surface. Most people, if asked about what goes into creating a show, will mention the "glam" jobs. Of course there are the performers themselves --- soloists, choristers, orchestra, the maestro, the stage director, the rehearsal pianists, dancers, supernumeraries. They may even think about the designers --- set, lighting, costumes, wigs/makeup, sound, props --- and possibly even the teams of artists and craftspeople who realize their designs through hours and hours of highly skilled and often specialized labor. Fewer will think to mention the stagehands --- those guys and gals who are up at 6 a.m. to unload 25 semis' worth of set and equipment, put it all together and make it work, make sure it runs safely and properly for the performances, and are up until 4 in the morning striking, packing, and loading it out on closing night. The electricians and the carpenters and the sound guys. The stage manager, whose job it is to keep everybody safe and the show running --- they are back there calling HUNDREDS of cues --- and the assistant stage managers who help them and make sure you get on stage at the right time. The tech director who oversees the production, making sure every department gets what they need and the show comes in at budget.
I love this video made by the 2009 Santa Fe Opera intern electricians! It's silly and fun but these people work HARD for their money.
Then there are the folks who work in the office doing everything from scheduling rehearsals and coachings and releases to arranging travel and housing and visas, or acting as artist liaisons or doing marketing. The front-of-house people who do things like box office, house management, ushering and patron care. The custodians and groundskeepers. I'm probably forgetting some folks, and to you, my apologies. The point is, we soloists do not acknowledge often enough all these colleagues who represent the BULK of the organization behind us that goes into creating the art we all love so much.
And of course, the administration and the board are vital parts of this equation. Someone must provide a vision and leadership for the company. Someone must be the face of the company in the community. Someone must do the critical and neverending work of fundraising. Soneone must make the hard decisions.
Let's not overlook the audience. If you buy a ticket to hear an opera, you have become an important member of the company. We need you, and not only for financial support. Performing artists need an audience. We need to give to you as much as you need to receive. There is a very special relationship between performers and audiences, and on nights when it's working properly, you can feel the energy crackling between the stage and the seats. It's magical. It's the real reason why opera, and the performing arts, are not now and have never been dying. They evolve, but they do not die, because artistic people come in all forms and with a rainbow of talents. I know many patrons who don't consider themselves artistic, but if you are a patron of the arts, you absolutely are. You are absolutely a vital member of the larger organism that is an opera or ballet or theatre company, or a symphony or chorus. There's a reason Wagner called opera Gesamtkunstwerk.
Please think about this amazing collection of people the next time you enjoy a concert, opera, play, or ballet. And please support them. Sign the petition at SaveThe MetOpera.org and support your local arts organizations.
And soloists, say thank you often and loudly. We may be the faces and bodies and voices that represent this amazing art form, but we are truly nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.