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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Week Six: Putting it Together- Build it!

Logan is taking our Summer Opera Education Class: "Putting it Together."  We asked her to share her experiences throughout this 8-week interactive class.  Updates will be posted weekly.  Enjoy!

Week six: “Putting it Together: Build it!”


Tonight, we had many guest lecturers: Technical Director Kelly Knight, Props Supervisor Cindy Felice, and Costume Shop Manager Frances Britt. Last week we learned about conceptually designing the set of an opera.  Tonight these brilliant women taught us how to turn those ideas, sketches, and models into sets, props, and costumes to bring opera to life.


Our first speaker was Cindy Felice to discuss props. Right off the bat, we had an exercise where we were given a list of props for Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco, and we had to separate the props into categories of ‘buy,’ ‘build,’ or ‘pull from stock.’ We also needed to decide what information we needed from the director in order to obtain the best props that matched the director’s vision. After we completed this exercise, Ms. Felice began to discuss the actual process of collecting props. She begins with a list from the director and estimates the cost of what was requested. That list is then returned to the director to be approved. Sometimes items are added or taken away from the initial list, but after it has been approved, it is returned to Ms. Felice to begin finding the most cost effective solutions for obtaining the items on the list. Some props–such as fake plants, fake food, and furniture–that have been used in past productions are stored in a large warehouse and can be reused. Some props are unique to certain productions and need to be purchased, and some need to be built. Finally, after all props are assembled, they are taken to the first rehearsal. Ms. Felice told us she always tries her best to get the props to the singers as early in rehearsals as she can, so the singers can get used to working with the props and so adjustments can be made. Some of the props from previous Portland Opera productions were on a display table in the back of the room. These included two exotic lamps with fake flickering candles from Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, a fake, suckling roast pig from Verdi’s Falstaff, and even a breakaway milk pitcher used inHumperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.


Next, Kelly Knight spoke to us about turning the set design concept into a reality. She began by saying that her main duty is to translate “art speak” (which she described as gestures, imaginative adjectives, and onomatopoeia) into “tech speak” (technical terms and techniques that can help the “art speak” take physical form). Another one of her duties is to make the schematics of the set created by the set designer fit the theater where the opera will be performed. Ms. Knight takes photos of a scale model of the set from many angles to visualize aspects of lighting, rigging, etc. so that nothing on stage will interfere or get in the way of the performers, or negatively impact the audience sight lines. She then takes sketches of the set design and scans them into a computer to make the sketch dimensions match the stage it’s being performed on, all the while keeping the approved budget in mind. Some elements of the stage would sometimes need to be downsized to save money, but as long as the designer is satisfied, all should be well.


Another part of being a Technical Director is figuring out the mechanics of a set. For example, in the upcoming production of Postcard from Morocco, a large portion of the set needs to be lowered forward without any rigging being visible to the audience. This is a big feat that at first seemed impossible (without a lot of money anyway). Fortunately, Ms. Knight has a background in acrobatic rigging for circuses. She demonstrated the idea of a “capstan wench” for this technical effect, using a model of the set and a spool of thread, where the top two corners of the set would be lowered using rope or a chain and would be controlled by the stage crew turning the capstan wench. It is an elegant solution for a difficult challenge.


Finally, we were visited by Costume Shop Manager Frances Britt. Ms. Britt has been with the Portland Opera since its genesis, beginning on stage as a singer.  She has been behind the scenes in the costume shop since 1980. She began her portion of the evening by sharing some costumes from the upcoming productions of Strauss’s Salome and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, as well as last season’s Rinaldo by Handel. Each costume was strikingly beautiful. My favorites were two ball gowns used in Rinaldo. One was crimson with intricate gold patterns, and the other a royal blue with designs that reminded me of peacock feathers. Ms. Britt also showed us the Postcard from Morocco ‘Costume Bible.’ This is a book filled with designs for each costume, fabric samples to be used, and notes from the designer. Each production has one of these ‘bibles.’ Ms. Britt shared with us that the costume designer hired for each opera (if new costumes are needed) sends design sketches for the costumes.  As she builds each costume, Ms. Britt photographs each stage of completion to document the progress. Those photos are then sent back to the designer for notes and ideas. Although these ideas are often brilliant, they can sometimes get expensive. One of the requirements for a large overcoat was a particular fabric for the cuffs on the sleeves. Ms. Britt passed around a silver, metallic fabric for us to see and feel.  One yard of this fabric cost $395! Certainly it was beautiful and seemed durable, and it was exactly what the designer wanted.


Unfortunately, class ran out of time once more. Tonight however, Ms. Britt was gracious enough to provide us with a tour of the costume shop. We even got the chance to see the costume shop cat Figaro again! Ms. Britt showed us the many stations for cutting, draping, and sewing; the racks and racks of hats, shoes, and costumes; the large vats for dying and much more. Tonight provided a magnificent view of everything that goes into prop, set, and costume construction.


Truly yours,


Logan Stewart


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