Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There's Only One Smoking Gun?

The Metropolitan Opera House. Twenty-seven productions, 4-6 of which are performed in rolling rep. at any given time, over a 32-week season, 6 shows a week. Nothing stops it except hijacked planes or three feet of snow. Between rehearsals and performances, they mount an average of 12 operas--most of which are fully staged--every week. Average opera length: at least four hours. Average midday switch from one opera to the next: at least three hours. Average number of outside gigs that Met stagehands do outside "the Building," during the opera season? About Zero-point-Seven. You do the math.

I walked into the Building as a 35-year-old with a fair amount of experience in the business--including touring around the world to many different theatres--but when I made it as far as the Met stage--as one of 53 (fifty-three!) electricians for the rehearsals of a new production of Die Zauberflote--my mouth hung agape, and stayed that way for about three months. The scale of activity at the Metropolitan Opera House, plainly, is unmatched.

But the first performance I worked at the Met was the 501st performance of Die Walkure (Kill the Wabbit...) September 29, 2004. As I walked down the Stage Left wing, a man swept by me enrobed in Norse Caveman drag and carrying a huge spear, who looked an awful lot like the famed tenor Placido Domingo. This would be because it was, in fact, Placido Domingo. Five hours after the curtain rose, some other guy with a spear, named Wotan, summoned a set-engulfing ring of fire and the house curtain came in for good. (Or, at least until the audience filed out and the "Night Gang" filed in. From September until May it's essentially a 24-hour-a-day enterprise.) In the interim, I had born witness to the traffic patterns of carpenter and prop guy, stage manager and assistant conductor, dresser and artist. "Artist?" I thought. What, are they painting or singing here?" I stayed for three years.

Last night, April 28, 2009, I went back to work there for the first time in 18 months. What was the opera? Die Walkure, having worked its way up to performance # 521. Security guys at the stagedoor? The same. Stage Left Carpentry crew? The same. Strike force of heavily armed sopranos at the top of Act III? Same. Maestro? James Levine (yes, opera freaks, it was Valery Gergiev back in '04) Norse Guy? Still Mr. Domingo. Triple rig of smoke machines that provide the smoke part of the smoke-and-mirror effects at the end of the opera? The saaa.. HEY! Wait a minute -- what the hell's that? Three smoke guns have been replaced by one that feeds three parts of the Stage Left set with an impressive array of hoses, plenums and stragically perforated PVC piping.

They Don't Make Five-Hour German Opera Like They Used To...

Change does not usually come swiftly to the opera house, until it does. For the stagehands, one classic manifestation is that whenever a particular production is first mounted, whatever technology they used at the time is forever bonded to that production no matter how often it's revived. In other words, one night you're struggling with an electrics prop or a chandlier that up close looks like Dr. Frankenstein got medieval with some sheet metal and a spot welder--for a 1985 Zeffirelli production of Tosca--and the next, you're programming robotic lights for a very modrene re-design of 2005's Madama Butterfly. Old shows chug along until a General Manager or a Board smites it with the Divine Hand of Upper Management and commissions a completely new design.

And yet, last night, I found an anomaly--a more efficient smoke gun rig in an old Met production. It's as if a Galapogos turtle mutated and shed a few vestigial organs as it plodded around Darwin's favorite islands. My Electrician brothers have been tweaking here and there--even at the Met, evolution cannot be denied. All will be well and good until a comet hits, and from the ashes a new "intelligent designer" rises up and says, "OK -- now you're a platypus," and Poof! A wholly new species of Die Walkure, genus Wagner will be birthed.


  1. It's called the "Smoke Daddy 4000" and it will be in my Spring 2010 catalog. :)

  2. nice read andy, sounds like a theater-cross between Der Ring des Nibelungen and The Honorable Urashima Taro. smoke 'em if you got 'em i always say.

  3. The teutonic reputation for brutality is well deserved - some of their operas last 3 days...

  4. That's funny Andy. I was listening to that opera on the Saturday afternoon broadcast as the commentators effusively described the new fire and smoke effects. And I thought to myself, "too bad Andy doesn't work there any more. He would have enjoyed it." Go figure.

    Mike L. (Elmira)