Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Upstairs / downstairs at the SF Opera House
The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House was built in 1932 and is one of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States (or so says Wikipedia, dubious authority on all things). The outside is impressive, if not a little blocky, but it's the inside that's the real treat.
If you're a fancy person attending the opera (my daughter and I like to practice manners these days by pretending we're two fancy ladies attending the opera—do they burp loudly? do they fart?), this is what you see
But if you are really lucky regular person, like myself who rode in here on my kid's coat tails, you get to see it too. During rehearsals, parents were allowed to sit in the house and watch when we weren't needed to herd kids through the basement halls, and during performances we can watch from standing room, which is at the back of the orchestra seating (great view, but you're, of course, standing). BUT during the first run through (after the piano rehearsal and before full dress) I decided to conduct a self-guided tour of the Opera House, figuring it was a good opportunity to compare views from different seat levels (i.e., those I can afford, and those I can't). What luck—the door to Box K was open! So I sat in the best box in the house (dead center) and watched most of the second half. These seats regularly go for $275 a piece—if you can get one, and I understand there's a waiting list. While enjoying the excellent view and the comfy velvet chair under my butt, I tried to imagine who usually sits there. Gettys? Hewlitts? No—I later found out—the mayor. Gosh.
Our evenings at the Opera usually start here, at the North Stage Door. We enter, wave at security, and kids go to sign themselves in.
We then proceed to this door, which leads to Dressing Room 8, which houses all the girl supers for this production. Note cardboard star on the, a nice touch from the girls' dressers. On dress rehearsal night, I led my husband—who was woofing down the sandwich I packed him during intermission—through the basement labyrinth to this door. He didn't hear me say "And this is the dressing room" and so followed me in. Dressers, wranglers, and various others in authority here swooped down on him "This is a GIRLS room!!! And there is no food allowed in dressing rooms EVER!!! OUT OUT OUT!!!!!" He was mortified and blamed it all on me. I said to someone else later that evening "It probably wouldn't have been as bad if he barged in waving a gun," and they agreed "A sandwich is definitely worse." My bad.
In the dressing room, each girl had her place at the mirror, with her name and costume list tapped up. The dressers also added a little touch for opening night. I can't believe how wonderful everyone has been with the kids. They've made such an effort to make this a special experience for kids. We all really appreciate it especially because this is Big Art, and we know in the larger scale of things, it's not all about them. The kids know this too, and I think it's been a good experience for them to be part of something so important and larger than themselves.
Once girls get their costume undergarments on, it's across the hall to the hair shop. This is where other members of the cast also go for wigs. It seems nearly the only people in the production who are in their own hair are the children. Wigs are a very big deal in the opera: They're very expensive, made of human hair, and no one except the wig people are allowed to handle them (probably union rules).
When a call comes over the basement loud speaker for the kids, they line up in the hall. They usually then have quite a while to wait for their call to report to the stage. At first the facts that they cannot sit in their costumes and that the costumes are very delicate was a small problem, but they developed an impressive repertoire of hand games, including the classic Rock, Scissor, Paper; some sort of speed patty cake; and a counting game called Chopsticks. Here's Sophie teaching one of the dressers to play Chopsticks.
And she's ready to go!
Once the kids are taken to backstage to line up for their entrance, I'm free to continue my basement tour. The halls are like a maze, with pipes carrying the steam heat throughout the building running across the ceiling. I sort of felt like I was in the bowels of the Titanic.
There's all sort of interesting things down there.
Boxes of legs (I learned that legs are the narrow curtains that frame the sides of the stage—gosh, I was worried about that!)
An on-site laundry
For performers who are onstage barefoot, there are flipflops for backstage wear.
And where might these stairs go?
Into the basement of the basement, evidently, where they store lights and the boiler is located:
You get the feeling some people spend a significant part of their lives in this basement, and there's lots of signs of personalizing space.
Alas, our locker—where we keep a supply of colored pencils ( no pens!) and a paper flower kit (no glue required), a supply of snacks, and a portable chess board—is more temporary. But we're thrilled to be here now. And we truly thank everyone who has been part of it.