Tag Archives: backstage

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Technical Rehearsals

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on constructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

The first feature of an operatic production to have the benefit of a rehearsal is the scenery. As soon as the scenic artist and the scene-painters have finished their work the stage-manager orders a scenic rehearsal. This might be called a performance of an opera without music. The scenes are set up and changed, light effects tried, and mechanical properties like Talepulka, the “Lohengrin” swan, and the “Siegfried” dragon “worked” and tested until all goes as smoothly as it should at a performance. This is a rehearsal for the men who set and change the scenes—the master-machinist and his subordinates—and for those who manage the light effects—the gas-engineer and the “gas-boys”—and for the property-master and his men. Before the scene can be set it is necessary to “run the stage,” that is, to get everything in the line of properties, such as stands of arms, chairs, and tables, and scenery, ready to be put in place. If there is a “runway,” which is an elevation like the rocky ascent in the second act of “Die Walküre,” or the rise of ground toward the Wartburg in “Tannhäuser,” it is “built” by the stage-carpenters; and for this purpose the stage is divided into “bridges”—sections of the stage-floor that can be raised on slots. Meanwhile the “grips,” as the scene-shifters are called, have hold of the side scenes ready to shove them on, and the “fly-men” who work the drops and borders are at the ropes in the first fly-gallery.

The scene set, it is carefully inspected by the scenic artist and stage-manager, who determine whether any features require alteration. A tower may hide a good perspective bit in the drop: it may be found that a set-tree at the prompt-centre second entrance will fill up a perplexing gap—but changes are rarely needed after the scene has been painted, because a very good idea of it was formed from the model. The length of a scenic rehearsal depends upon the number of the light-effects and mechanical properties. For instance, in the first act of “Siegfried” the light-effects are so numerous and complicated that it is a current saving in opera-houses that the success of this act is “all a matter of gas.” When all effects and contrivances of this kind have heen thoroughly tested, the stage-manager gives the order: “Strike!” The “grips” shove off the side-scenes, the flymen raise the drops, the “clearers” run off the properties and set-pieces, and the stage-carpenters lower the bridges. The scene of the second act is immediately set, and the time required for the change of scene noted. If the change is not so quickly accomplished as it should be, it is repeated until the weak spot in the work is discovered.

When all know their parts, the stage is at last given up to features of the productions other than the scenery. The work is performed with scenery, light-effects, properties, chorus, ballet, and supers, but without the principals and orchestra, the solo répétiteur being at the piano. There are two or three such “arrangement” rehearsals for drilling the chorus and supers in the stage “business.” These rehearsals are followed by two in which the artists take part; the final test being the general rehearsal with orchestra. Then at last the work is ready for production.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Constructing a God

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpt when you are finished here! The following details the construction of a large idol for the Met’s 1888 production of “Ferdinand Cortez”. As an added bonus, you can read the original New York Times’ review of that production.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

[T]he property-master had made out a list of the articles to be manufactured in his department. He had not been hampered by the problem of historical accuracy. He found drawings of Mexican antiquities from which he made sketches of the Mexican implements of war and peace to be used in the opera, and from a genuine Mexican relic of that period, seen by chance in the show window of a store, he obtained his scheme for the principal property in the work, the image of the god Talepulka. He found he could have all these historically correct, except that he did not think it necessary to go to the length of decorating the idol with a paste made from a mixture of grain with human blood. A problem arose, however, when he considered the construction of the idol. He ascertained from the libretto that the idol and the back wall of the temple are shattered by an explosion, and that, just before the catastrophe, flames flash from the idol’s eyes and mouth. He consulted with the gas-engineer, who had already considered the matter, and concluded that it would be most practical to produce the flames by means of gas supplied through a hose running from the wings.

The property-master then made the following note in his plot book: “Flames leap up high from the heathen image—the gas-hose must be detached and drawn into the wings immediately afterward so as not to be visible when the image has fallen apart.” The necessity of having the gas-hose detached determined the method of shattering the idol. It is a theatrical principle that a mechanical property should be so constructed that it can be worked by the smallest possible number of men. This principle was kept in view when the method of shattering Talepulka was determined upon. The god was divided from top to bottom into two irregular pieces. These were held together by a line, invisible from the audience, which was tied around the image near the pedestal. Another line, leading into the wings, was attached to the side of the top of one of the pieces. At the first report of the explosion a man concealed behind the pedestal, whose duty it also is to detach the gas-hose, cuts the line fastened around the idol, and the pieces slightly separate, so that the image seems to have cracked in two jagged pieces. At the next report a man in the wings pulls at the other line and the two pieces fall apart.

The manner in which the effect of flames flashing from the eyes and the mouth of Talepulka was produced was only outlined in the statement that it was accomplished by gas supplied through a hose. The complete device of the gas-engineer, a functionary who in a modern theatrical establishment of the first rank must also be an electrician, was as follows: Behind the image the flow of gas was divided into two channels by a T. One stream fed concealed gas-jets near the eyes and mouth, which were lighted before the curtain rose and played over large sprinkler burners in the eyes and mouth. These burners were attached to a pipe fed by the second stream. When the time arrived for the fire to flash, the man behind the pedestal turned on the second stream of gas, which, as soon as it issued from the sprinkler-burners, was ignited by the jets. By freeing and checking this stream of gas the man caused the image to flash fire at brief intervals. Thus only two men were required to work this important property.

Constructing the "Talepulka" prop
Constructing the "Talepulka" prop

The idol was but one of four hundred and fifty-six properties which were manufactured on the premises for the production of “Ferdinand Cortez,” and when it is considered that the average number of properties required for an opera or music-drama is three hundred and fifty, it will be understood that the yearly manufacture of these for an opera-house which every season adds some three works to its repertoire is an industry of great magnitude. For instance, one ton and a half of clay was needed for modelling the Mexican idol, and that property represents three months’ work. It was first sketched in miniature, then ”scaled”—that is, projected full size on a huge drawing-board—next modelled in clay, and then cast in plaster. The modelling and casting of properties are done in a room in the basement of the building, on the o-p-side [Eric: opposite-prompt side, in this case, stage-left] of the stage. The idol was cast in twenty pieces. These were transferred from the modelling-room to the property workshop on the third floor of the building, prompt side, where are also several other rooms in which properties are made, the two armories, the scenic artist’s studio, and the property-master’s office. In the workshop the properties are finished in papier-maché, the casts being used as moulds. They are not filled with pulp, which is one method of making papier-maché, but with layers of paper. The first layer is of white paper, moistened so that it will adapt itself to the shape of the cast. Layer after layer of brown paper is then pasted over it. The cast having been thus filled is placed in an oven heated by alcohol, and baked until the layers of paper form one coherent mass the shape of the cast. Properties thus manufactured have the desirable qualities of strength and lightness.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Introduction

In 1888, Scribner’s Magazine published a wonderful article called “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”. The author, Gustav Kobbé, visits the backstage areas of the Metropolitan Opera. He describes the various shops and workers who create an opera, from conception to opening night. It is one of the most fantastic and detailed looks at the practical construction of a theatrical production I’ve run across from this time period, and so I am presenting all of the relevant parts on properties in their entirety. As the article is quite long, I’ve broken it up to run over the next few days; this will also allow me to take a break from writing during the Thanksgiving holiday. Enjoy!

The Property Workshop at the Metropolitan Opera-House, 1888
The Property Workshop at the Metropolitan Opera-House, 1888

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

The regions in which the labor of preparing a musico-dramatic work for production goes on are a veritable bee-hive of activity. They embrace, besides the rooms of the heads of the various departments—musical conductor, stage-manager, scenic artist, costumer, property-master, gas-engineer, and master carpenter—those in which their ideas are materialized. Connected, for instance, with the property department is a modelling-room, a casting-room, two rooms in which such properties as flowers, grass-mats, and birds are manufactured, two armories, and three or four apartments in which properties are stored—but this is taking the reader a little too far behind the footlights for the present.

Some idea of the labor this involves may be formed from the statement that at the Metropolitan Opera-House it took from August, 1887, until January, 1888, to mobilize this host for the conquest of Mexico under “Ferdinand Cortez,” [Eric: an opera by Gaspare Spontini] a period of about the same length as that usually consumed at large opera-houses in preparing a work for production. On the 1st of August, 1887, the managing director handed the libretto to the members of his staff. They immediately set to work to exhaust the bibliography of the episode lying at the basis of the action as thoroughly as though they intended to write a history.

I said that spectacular works (“scene-painter’s and property-master’s pieces”) called for a far greater quantity of material features than “Tristan and Isolde.” It can be stated of Wagner’s works in general that the properties required for their production are less numerous and that as a rule the scenery is less gorgeous than that required for spectacular opera. Yet it is more difficult to mount a Wagner opera or music-drama than it is to mount the “Queen of Sheba,” “Merlin,” “Aida,” “L’Africaine,” or “Ferdinand Cortez.” The reason is that Wagner’s works call for quality instead of quantity… [The property-master] is confronted with problems of great intricacy, the solution of which requires mechanical genius as distinguished from the mere manual dexterity called for in the manufacture of swords, shields, and numerous other properties. Indeed, the mechanical properties used in Wagner’s works are constant objects of study, attempts to improve them by simplifying the apparatus for working them being made from time to time.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

San Francisco Opera

First of all, tomorrow is Propmaster Day, so mark your calendar. At last year’s S*P*A*M conference, the office of the Mayor of Louisville presented the attendees with a plaque proclaiming July 24th to be Propmaster Day. I say we celebrate it every year. More importantly, that we keep Propmaster Day in our hearts all year ’round.

As part of this year’s conference, we were given a tour of the San Francisco Opera by Lori Harrison, their master of properties. First of all, the stage is huge.

Standing on the front of the stage facing the audience
Standing on the front of the stage facing the audience

They do their entire season in repertory, sometimes having two changeovers a day when a matinée and evening show are different. Ms. Harrison told us they have about sixteen people in the properties department during the season. Even though more and more operas are being brought in from other shops and opera houses, they still have a lot of work in the props department. Frequently, shops do not understand the rigors and particulars of opera, and furniture pieces need to be rebuilt. Even when props have been built for other operas, the San Francisco Opera has its own unique characteristics that may require rebuilding or adaptation to make the props fit through all the openings and passageways in the path from storage to stage. Finally, as many of us know, a bulk of the props in a show spring forth from the rehearsal process. Even an opera that was “set in stone” at another opera house will have additions and changes to the props before it is performed at the San Francisco Opera.

Giant prop hands
Giant prop hands stored backstage

You have to hand it to the San Francisco Opera; they have a lot of work to do and not a lot of room to do it in. Props are stored throughout the catwalks and on shelves tucked in every little nook and cranny. There is also a small hand props room for common and reusable items on another floor; in addition, they have a warehouse off-site to store larger furniture pieces.

An original wind machine from 1932
An original wind machine from 1932

In one of these hidden corners, we came across one of the Opera’s original wind machines dating back to 1932. The fan was about six feet (1.8m) in diameter, and in place of blades were lengths of rubber tubing. They also stored an old-fashioned thunder machine, but it was inside a box and hanging from the ceiling.

Perhaps most striking was the props shop itself; it was much smaller than the props shop at the Public Theatre, and they probably build a lot more large props from scratch, and employ a lot more artisans than us. It just goes to show that there’s always a more efficient way to use the space you’re given.

I found a great article on the making of an opera from 1999 in the San Francisco Weekly. If you read through to the second page, it starts talking about props, and Lori Harrison has a lot of great insights into the process. She says one thing in particular though that I really want to point out:

As the first woman to run the San Francisco Opera prop shop, Harrison, who’s now in her second season in that position, says that it took awhile for some people to get used to the idea of having her in charge. “And some are still getting used to it,” she admits. But while she was prepared for a certain amount of prejudice, there was one particular issue when she first started that caught her off guard. “The question asked was would I rather be called a ‘prop master’ or a ‘prop mistress,'” she says.

“I think ‘master’ works a little better. It expresses mastery over something.”

Hear, hear. To all the prop masters of the world, male or female, have a Happy Propmasters Day tomorrow.