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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.

Bumps, thunks and clunks: offstage with Figaro

Figaro marks the first time in a year I will not be running supertext for one of our shows. I'm actually only the backup supertext operator; our principal accompanist, Tom Webb, is the primary operator. So, unless he is playing in the pit for a show, he runs titles. By some funny circumstance, in the past few years we've had keyboard on almost every show. So Hansel & Gretel was the only show I saw from the house last year; before that, it was 2009's La Boheme. Gone are the days when I used to be able to sit in the house like a regular opera fan!

Anyway, despite being released from title duty, I won't get to watch this one either. For Figaro I will be backstage making noises. On purpose.

Offstage noises -- knocks, crashes, chimes, dings, whistles, wind, etc -- are sometimes made by stage management, sometimes by stagehands, sometimes by orchestra musicians, and sometimes by the singers themselves.
Singers will knock on doors. Percussionists have been known to play wind machines backstage (most recently, in The Flying Dutchman). Stage managers or props crews drop crash boxes.

What's a crash box? A crash box is, well, a box, usually a large wooden or metal crate, that holds an assortment of items and is dropped from backstage to simulate, well, a crash. Typical things inside crash boxes include cutlery, glassware, china, and wooden blocks. This website has an absolutely terrific description of how to create a radio crash box (which is smaller than a theater crash box, since they don't need the sound to resonate over a large space). I love his crash box recipe:

One broken ceramic coffee mug, one crushed aluminum can, a few pennies, a few screws, one piece of wood (about the size of a fist), and two handfuls of pea-sized gravel. Don't use glasses or wine bottles because they powderize too much. Ceramic coffee mugs are sturdier and sound similar.

I called our stage manager to ask about the contents of the Figaro crash box. "I'll have to double check for you," she said, over the phone. And then, "It's basically a trash can full of silverware."

It's a trash can full of metal things. To make the crash, they fill a second bucket with this stuff and drop it into the trash can.

Having a crash box made of a trash can might, apparently, be a little problematic:

Noises Blog- trash

In Figaro, there are plenty of other offstage noises; so many that they're too much for stage management to handle. The noises come at incredibly specific times, almost always in the middle of recits, so whoever makes the noises has to be able to read music and essentially "perform" them, as if they were an instrumental solo. (Which, in essence, they are).

Hence, the librarian.

For Figaro, you will get to experience my company debut as bell-ringer, ratchet-player (i.e. door locker), and door-knocker. My company debut! I'm very proud.

I'm also very nervous. Very, very nervous.

In prioritized order from least to most terrifying: knock, bell, ratchet.

The ratchet is the most-used offstage sound effect. What is a ratchet? It looks like this...

Noises Blog- ratchet

…and is used to simulate the sound of a door locking. The ratchet is the scariest for a number of reasons:

1. It advances the plot, and the singers onstage often pause their action until they hear the ratchet noise, since they're either supposed to be a) locking a door; b) unlocking a door; or c) proceeding through a newly-unlocked door. This means that if I miss a cue, there's likely a singer onstage who's standing unnaturally beside a door.

2. The ratchet occurs entirely in the recits, which move quickly and have no set tempo. My Italian comprehension is fluent enough that I can follow without a problem, but I'm listening from backstage, where it's not always easy to hear.

3. I'm listening from backstage. This also means I'm watching from backstage. Although my cues are musical, they're also dependent on whether or not the singer has reached the door. I play the ratchet on a specific beat … unless, for example, Susanna is not quite through the door. So I have to watch the score, wait for my cue, and then decide if the cue can be played in the appropriate place or if it has to be delayed. All the while, I have to watch the singers on a monitor, because the way the set is constructed means I can't see directly onto the stage from backstage.

4. The ratchet is amplified. This means I can't cough or sneeze or talk. The mic comes up pretty close to the cue, and is cut immediately after the sound effect, BUT STILL. The stagehands nearby also have to pay attention and remain silent.

I should say that this sort of flash decision making is the kind of thing a stage manager does all the time, in every show. THEY ARE AWESOME.

Here's a funny story about a confluence of these factors, which took place the other night at the piano dress rehearsal. We had added a few cues to my score, one of which being a cue which, unlike the others, is cued by the stage manager, who is in my direct line of sight. She held up her hand, telling me to stand by, and so I prepped the ratchet, holding it at the ready up close to the mic. At just that moment, four very tall supernumeraries exited the stage, walking directly between me and the stage manager, who was suddenly obstructed from view. I stood on my tiptoes to see her, and as I did, I lost my balance, fell back onto my feet, and accidentally played the ratchet loudly and directly into the microphone. Awesome.

The bell is played just a handful of times, close to the beginning of the opera. There's nothing too interesting to tell you about the bell. I ring it. Then I walk to another side of the stage and ring it again a few more times. Then I hand it to David Pittsinger -- our Count -- and he walks through a door and rings it onstage! The biggest challenge of the bell is making sure to hold the clapper (that's the name of the thing inside the bell that makes it ring) because otherwise you get the occasional errrant bell ring, and that is no good at all.

The knock is fun. I knock the door during the middle of the Act II finale, just before one of Figaro's entrances. He can't knock the door himself because he opens it at the very instant the knock ends. In the entrance, Figaro walks through the door while the entire chorus presses themselves up against the doorframe, peering "inside" the room onstage. The reason the knock is so fun is because I'm also pressed up against the door, just out of sight! There is no place for me to exit after knocking, so I press myself very firmly up against the wall, just on the other side of the door, hold my breath, and try not to move. Around me, the chorus peers onto the stage. Figaro sings.

Ironically, it's also the knock that feels the most like playing an instrument. I have to take my cue directly from the conductor (via backstage monitor) because it's in time with the orchestra music.

As I said, these shenanigans make me terribly nervous. I was curious as to just how nervous, so last night I wore a heart monitor. Check it:

Noises Blog- Heart Rate

For reference, my resting heart rate is around 58, and my heart rate when running is about 140. Surprisingly, I'm pretty sure that giant spike is the final bell ring.

I'll leave you with some photos of the tableau backstage, which differs wildly from what you see from the house.

Noises Blog- Backstage Light

Noises Blog- rails

Noises Blog- Figaro set

Noises Blog- Figaro Set Pieces

Noises Blog- Steps

Noises Blog- This end up

Noises Blog- Typical Jon

This is Jon Wangsgard, one of our ASMs, who helpfully demonstrated a common occurence at the stage. In case you can't tell, here's that sign behind him:

Noises Blog- The Sign

The props tables:

Noises Blog- Props Table 1

Noises Blog- Props Table 2

And thank heaven we have these:

Noises Blog- Scales

Here's the stage manager's secret stash:

Noises Blog- SM Desk

… plus her handy emergency phone.

Noises Blog- Soup Can

The area all around the stage manager is in a huge sight line (a place backstage that's visible to the audience), and since people kept walking through it, there was only one solution:

Noises Blog- Sidewalk

Our stage foreman, Rick Schreiner, has a "special" office.

Noises Blog- Rick 1

Yes, that's an office. See?

Noises Blog- Rick 2

Here's our lovely harpsichord for the show, provided by harpsichord builder Byron Will. Isn't it beautiful?

Noises Blog- Harpsichord

We are unbelievably excited to open this show Friday night. It's a wonderfully charming Figaro! We hope to see you there!