There was a lot of laughter in class this week. As soon as we arrived, we were given a challenge: suppose we had built the props for an opera, and during the rehearsal period (otherwise known as the last minute) the director wanted us to make modifications. For Prop Supervisor Cindy Felice, this comes as no surprise. Sometimes the lights at the set change the colors of the props and they need to be repainted. Or a prop can be too heavy for a singer to carry comfortably. Or say, the anvils in Il Trovatore don’t clang properly. Or the director simply changes her/his mind at the last minute and requests small--or significant—changes.
We students were given lists of actual modifications that Cindy and her department had to execute in previous operas. My table was given this scenario:
The pots of flowers need to appear more wilted & dead, as if Figaro landed on them when he jumped from the window. Please make them more comic.
Our teacher Alexis had provided us with props that we could modify and grapple with to resolve our various problems. Our group grabbed a bunch of plastic flowers, leaves, and baskets that we then crushed and discolored to make them appear as if someone had jumped into them from above. [We knew this was a trick question, however, because Figaro did not land on them, he just covered for Cherubino.] We added a real shoe into the mix for humorous effect, and voilà, our prop was ready.
The rest of the class also came up with fun and creative solutions to their challenges, amidst much laughter and delight.
Cindy spoke in detail about the challenges that face the prop department. One thing to keep in mind is that props are not usually what they seem—they are made to create an illusion from afar, and to keep the performers safe. Did you know that occasionally they are asked to use explosives? If you saw Portland Opera’s production of Così fan tutte two years ago, you might recall the anatomical heart that exploded into a wall of flame. Since 9/11, you need a pyrotechnic license to handle it—which Cindy has. I expect she is in some demand on the 4th of July.
Another crucial element in any opera production is the costumes. Costume Shop Manager Frances Britt has been working with Portland Opera since its inception in 1964.
She started out singing in the opera chorus, and for 32 years has worked in the costume shop, where we joined her and met one of her talented assistants. Figaro also spends long hours at the opera—the longest of anyone, in fact-- and divides his time between the costume shop and marketing offices. His sparkling personality, friendly demeanor, and ability to remain calm during a crisis make him fit well with the rest of the opera staff.
Frances draws on her extensive experience and expertise to handle a thousand details involved with the creation or rental of the costumes, masks, and headdresses-- the sewing, the altering, the ornamenting, the labeling, the fitting, and the washing. She even attends all rehearsals and performances so that afterwards she can bring the costumes back to the opera offices for laundry or repair. This work can keep her busy until 1:00 a.m, long after the rest of the crew has gone home. “You do what you have to get the show on the road,” she says.
Our teacher Alexis shared with us the secret of décolletage. Did you know it can be painted on? And that ‘toupee tape’ is used to keep the bodice clinging to the skin? It works well but yes, it’s a pain to remove.
Both Cindy and Frances impressed me with their expertise, resourcefulness and creativity—as well as their willingness to work brutally long hours under tight deadlines. Their passion for what they do is phenomenal. Portland Opera audiences are so fortunate to have them working behind the scenes to make the illusion of the opera world appear a reality.