The following is one of several interviews conducted by students of Ron DeMarco’s properties class at Emerson College.
Props in the Desert: Randy Lutz and the Santa Fe Opera
by Sam Weisberg
In the middle of the desert, The Santa Fe Opera puts on world-renowned productions of new operas and standards from the traditional repertoire, and at the center of their props division is Randy Lutz, the company’s Properties Director, keeping singers supplied with top-of-the-line stage properties to be used in rehearsal and performance.
The theatre bug bit Lutz early on, doing shows throughout his pre-college years both at his high school in Mt. Carmel, PA and at his church. When he first enrolled at Bloomsburg University, however, he was actually a pre-med student! It wasn’t until his grades started dropping in chemistry that he decided to ditch the pre-med track altogether and take up a major in technical theater—mainly pursuing stage carpentry. After graduating, a number of recommendations led him to apply to work at the Santa Fe Opera—where he would later go on to have great success.
However, in an ironic twist the first communication he heard from the company was not, in fact, a job offer, but rather a rejection letter of his application. Disheartened, he was surprised to get a call and, eventually, another piece of mail from the opera. As fate would have it, the main candidate for the job had dropped out, and the company hired Lutz as a staff Stage Carpenter in 1979.
Finishing his first season with the opera, Lutz was unsure if he would return the next year or if he would be offered a long-term position. He opted instead to go elsewhere, working at the Santa Fe Festival Theatre for a season as a stage carpenter. The opera’s call was too strong, though, and Lutz returned the following season as the Assistant Run Crew Chief, and became Head Properties Run Crew Chief after that.
Despite all this, Lutz had yet to make his transition into the world of props construction. His opportunity did not come until 1992, when, while loading scenery and props for a Santa Fe Opera production for the opera in Miami, Florida, he was asked by the Santa Fe Opera technical Director, if he would like to return next season as the company’s properties manager. A long-time fan of props work, Lutz happily agreed, and is now on his 33rd season with the opera.
Lutz’s job requires a very specialized set of skills—dipping both into creative and managerial realms. As Properties Director, he serves as the head of the props department—making him responsible for all the hiring of apprentice and staff props positions the company offers in the field (a massive 39 people, with local over-hire!).
To take on this enormous responsibility, Lutz spends the majority of his winter and spring traveling around the country to interview candidates and search for new talent to join the prop crew at the opera. So far this year, Lutz has already spent time in New York, Austin, and Lincoln, NE, interviewing candidates at Juilliard, NYU, the New York area, KCATCF Region V in Lincoln and at USITT/SW, in Austin. Lutz often presents workshops at regional and national theatre festivals and conferences, as well. Lutz serves as a responder for allied crafts and prop construction and design for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, which has him traveling to festivals around the nation where he can see rising stars in the prop world. Lutz loves this part of his job because it allows him to not only interview people interested in working in the props department at The Santa Fe Opera, but to have one-on-one access to students and professors at some of the country’s best tech and theatre production programs. Many of the trips to New York City are to meet with designers and for seasonal prop and fabric shopping. Traveling to design presentations for the Santa Fe Opera and keeping an eye on new talent helps Lutz stay on the cutting-edge of the props world, making his time back in Santa Fe even more productive and exciting.
When not on the road, being the Properties Director at the Santa Fe Opera allows Lutz a very unique blend of administrative and creative work. From the end of summer through the fall, he’s working with opera administrators to plan out the next two years of productions. It’s during this time that Lutz gets to flex the most of his creative muscles, serving, in his own words, as the “liaison between the designer and director with our production teams.”
Surprisingly, much of Lutz’s creative work is not done in the shop—unlike many of his colleagues. Instead, he oversees the process as a whole, making decisions about keeping the integrity of designer’s vision, doing drawings and research throughout the construction, and acquiring props—working with the builders and designers to see the project through to completion. What Lutz loves about this arrangement is that it gives him time to do what he enjoys most—experimenting! When he does work in the shop, Lutz gets to spend his time coming up with novel solutions to seemingly impossible problems—a challenge, to be sure, but one that makes the job so special.
One such “impossible” prop was for a “Dream Play” inside of an opera. The prop was a tree that had to drop its leaves, blossom flowers, drop those flowers, and then grow new leaves again—and it all had to happen while the tree was inside of a wagon. To achieve this incredibly difficult feat, Lutz used a combination of pneumatics and cable line. The cables had the leaves and flowers attached in order of appearance, so that the pneumatics would push them out on cue. Of course, it took up until opening night to get this system to work correctly, but, once it did, it came off without a hitch.
On a day-to-day basis, Lutz deals with something that affects very few props masters—winds up to forty miles per hour! The Santa Fe Opera works in one of the most architecturally unique theaters in the world—a large auditorium with a stage that is exposed to the elements. The stage itself and the theatre house do have roofs over them, but the sidewalls are open to the stars and night air of the New Mexico desert—along with its wind and rain. With this audience-pleasing structure comes an entirely different set of problems for Lutz—the large gusts of wind that frequently sweep through the stage.
One such gust came in the middle of a production of La Traviata, with, for lack of a better word, entertaining results. During the first Act, a banquet table with high-backed chairs was located at left of center stage. In the earlier numbers, the chorus used the table for a feast, pulling out chairs and creating some controlled messiness onstage. When they left, however, many failed to push their chairs all the way under the table—leaving a gap between the backs of the chairs and the side of the table. At this point, the leading singer came on to deliver her first Act aria—where, of course, she had to sing and then sit in one of the chairs down stage—with all the other side chairs and table behind her. As if on cue, a giant gust of wind came through the theatre mid-aria, knocking down every chair at the table in one fell swoop—except the one chair that the singer was seated in.
It’s moments like these that make Lutz’s job unique to many other prop masters in the country. Be it falling chairs or tablecloth sails (another unfortunate incident in which everything on the table was promptly thrown from it), Mother Nature always makes herself known at the Santa Fe Opera, and Lutz gets to face her head on. To combat this problem, Lutz makes a habit out of practices that are not commonplace for many prop masters, including weighting down props and furniture, and stashing extra copies of paper goods around the set—so that the artist always has a back-up if one blows away.
Wind may be unpredictable, but there is one element of Lutz’s work at the Opera that is set in stone—the music. Unlike props masters at regular theatre companies, working at an opera house means that Lutz is not only dealing with the demands of the script on his work—but also the demands of the score. Surprisingly, Lutz has found that the music classes he took in school have benefited him greatly in his props work. One of the unique elements of working in technical theatre for opera is that the pacing of scenes and “dialogue” is set by the conductor’s baton—not the actors’ moods. This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Lutz can use his music skills to open up a score and find out exactly how much time he has for an actor to use a prop onstage. On the other hand, if a prop malfunctions or doesn’t work, there is no improvisation that can be done on the actors part; once the music is going, it doesn’t stop. One example of this was in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rakes Progress, where a singer had to use a bread machine. This “bread machine” had to be able to make a loaf of bread from a stone before the music in the scene finished—which meant that Lutz had to make sure that the prop functioned within the allotted time span so that the singer could operate the machine while watching the conductor. It worked! Also unlike straight theatre, the performers are often not present for tech rehearsals in an opera setting—which forces Lutz to design and fine-tune props without the person using them present until dress rehearsals.
All of these challenges have their rewards, though. Singers, designers and directors often tell Lutz that his department’s props are some of the best they’ve worked with. In a field where performers will often do the same opera scene tens or even hundreds of times over their career, it is high praise indeed to know that your work on one of them has stood out. In the end, Lutz stays at the opera for the same reason many come to see it. When all the elements of a production come together, and the artists are singing, acting, and using his props, Lutz is proud of the quality of his work. He feels that life is full of props and that they are a beautiful thing—and when the curtain rises on a finished production and the artists start to sing, he has only one word: “magic.”