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A corridor bustles with a couple dozen people in various stages of character — wigs askew, makeup in progress, costumes untied — about 20 minutes before the final dress rehearsal for San Diego Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly. A tenor’s warm-up arpeggios punctuate the din from down the hall. Chorus members adjust the obis holding up their kimonos.
The transportation into this world is sudden, the clamor instantly greeting whoever happens to walk through the artists’ entrance of the Civic Center Theatre on opera night.
Down a few hallways, a clock backstage reads 6:14 and 51, 50, 49, 48 seconds. The curtain is due to rise at 6:30. A petite woman with wavy, short silver hair notices a visitor who’s come to see her work. “I’m going to be a little bit uncommunicative right now,” she says. “We’ve got some major problems going on.”
Peters rejoins a cluster of crew members puzzling over an unexpected hiccup: A piece of the set, a flag panel rigged to descend from the ceiling, has torn and can’t be used.
For Mary Yankee Peters, who has been stage manager for San Diego Opera’s productions for 20 years, cacophony and crisis are part of a night’s work. The only way her work goes unnoticed — the ultimate goal of someone behind the scenes — is if everything goes off without a hitch.
Peters dashes to pick up a radio handset. Her calm voice belies her harried expression as she delivers the news to the cast that the set they’ve been practicing with for weeks will be suddenly different tonight, their first run in front of a full audience.
Just then a woman in pink comes flying around the corner. “Mary, we need an electrician.” The last stand of violas in the orchestra pit has a broken light fixture and the pair of musicians can’t see the music. Peters speaks into her headset and sends a crew member to fix the problem, and turns her attention back to the flag issue.
Within a few minutes, the crew has decided that none of the flags can be used at all. It’s 6:25 and 30, 29, 28 seconds. On the radio, Peters announces the change and directs everyone to their places to start the show.
It’s Peters’ job to manage every production the opera company does — no small achievement considering the host of people that must be in the right place at the right time pushing the right buttons or singing the right piece from the right spot on stage. She and her team have set everything up beforehand, but it is on her cue that the pieces fall into place. This is the fifth production for the opera this season, which began in January.
Peters is an opera enthusiast, but not in some elite, snooty way. She loves the high drama, the music, the elaborate lights and sets, the renowned singers. She thinks of it when she wakes up and when she falls asleep, she says. She talks about the productions when she’s walking with her husband, John David Peters — a veteran with the company, the opera’s longtime carpenter. On days off, the couple goes camping or rides bikes or swims in the ocean in Pacific Beach, where they live. For Peters, opera is as quotidian as the sunsets that typify San Diego evenings — daily, but extraordinary.
When it comes to a contemporary relevance for this centuries-old art form, Peters speaks plainly.
“There’s nothing to replace it,” she says. “It’s what people need, especially right now.”
In this economy, a night out at the opera might be dismissed as a luxury, an expense that can be cut. But in coming to the opera, people remove themselves from their immediate problems, their concerns about their houses or their jobs or their bank accounts, Peters says. Opera attunes them to something bigger — the universals of love and life and hardship and human relationship, she says.
Moreover, to be here, backstage at this rehearsal, is to see how many people would be out of work if the company were to be suddenly without an audience. Besides Peters, there are 10 staff members for music and production and 19 stagehands backstage. In the cast, there are nine principal singers, 29 chorus members and 35 extras. In the orchestra, 60 people. In wardrobes and wigs, nearly 30.
Minutes before the show begins, it feels as though all nearly 200 of them are going to cram into one square foot near Peters’ console. The air is warm and tight. Even through layers of makeup, the singers’ eyes shine. Meanwhile, Peters is whispering commands into her headset, calling places and readying her crew to start the show. She is the only one who has all of the headset channels audible — she can hear and talk to everyone backstage.
At 6:27:47, a man with tousled white hair greets Peters. “Ciao,” he says, kissing her on the cheek.
She returns the greeting. “Ciao, maestro — we might have to start a little late,” she says in a rush. He nods and prepares to walk out to the pit where horns and strings and woodwinds are warming up. Carpenters and stagehands of all stripes scamper to arrange set pieces and props.
“Places, please — all chorus and all cast to places,” she says. Backstage fills with chorus members, principals and extras, including 11 kids. On stage, the opera director thanks sponsors and greets the audience — elementary school children who’ve come to watch this rehearsal, which is intended as a complete run-through with no stops, a chance to practice Opening Night.
At 6:32 Peters calls, “Standing by, everybody,” and calls a direction for the house lights. The pit continues to buzz with instruments warming up, as a couple of singers backstage chirp and blow air through their lips to relax and warm up their voices.
At 6:34:05 the maestro enters the pit. He raises his baton and begins the music.
Peters springs to action. The lighting levels have been preset and numbered, but it is Peters who calls them. “Light cue 1.5… go! Light cue 2… go!” she says into her headset, following a musical score in the binder in front of her.
This is essentially Peters’ desk, this console with three mounted monitors. One shows what’s happening onstage, one shows the conductor and one shows the light cues. A Gumby toy on the console is a mascot, a bit of a good-luck charm, she says. A mat under her feet identifies her spot in white letters: “MYP.”
At 6:35:25, the first sung notes of the opera fill the air. For the next three hours, the cast will tell the story of the tumultuous marriage of a young American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, to a young Japanese geisha known as Madama Butterfly; his abandonment of her and the son they had together; and the fallout when he returns to Japan with an American wife.
All of the cues and directions have been set up beforehand, but nothing happens without Peters. “I always tell people I really don’t do anything,” she says. “It’s just that nobody does anything until I say so.”
In this show, she is the one to command the release of hundreds of thousands of pieces of torn tissue paper in four colors designed to resemble cherry blossom petals. The flowers are strewn by Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki, when they realize Pinkerton is coming back.
At the top of Act III, Peters’ call of “Go!” cues stagehands to lower a gangplank to allow American sailors to descend onto the stage as if from a ship. A minute later, she calls “Go!” again, and the gangplank is pulled up.
About 20 minutes later, after Butterfly has realized that Pinkerton has brought his American wife to Japan, Peters says “Go!” A massive sheet of red silk falls and hangs from the rafters. Thirty seconds after that, the sheet drops entirely. Madama Butterfly has taken her own life.
That the curtain’s fall had been carefully pre-planned does not squelch any of its power to heighten the drama of Butterfly’s action onstage. Peters sees the work of her team as an integral part of the creativity of the production.
“Opera is such a visceral art form — there is such an emotional response with the lights and the music,” she says. “I think that where and how I say ‘Go!’ and when those lights change and how those cues are given is part of the magic.”
In San Diego, opera season is usually five months in the springtime. In the other months, Peters is the master scheduler. She schedules staging rehearsals, musical rehearsals, costume fittings, vocal coaching. She keeps the paperwork, organized with a rainbow of Post-It notes, and lists tasks for her team. She’s already filed preliminary calendars for the next two seasons.
She’s knows that curtain calls are usually three to four minutes; she times the tuning for the orchestra and factors that into the schedule. She knows how many intermissions an opera should have. And she knows what that will mean for the production’s budget, considering how much time for which the company will have to compensate the artists and crew.
Before she started as the production stage manager in 1989, Peters spent a season with San Diego Opera as an intern in 1984. The oldest of 12 kids, Peters was living on the East Coast, singing with small opera companies before she was bitten by the backstage bug. But in San Diego, she met John David Peters, already working as a carpenter here. By 1986, they were a couple, and Peters moved southwest for good.
In their spare time, they hire themselves out for corporate gigs or to lend a hand to other opera companies around the country. They’ve been doing the Stanford University commencement for 10 years.
The Peters take their work home with them.
“If there’s been a problem one day, the idea that we could come home and pretend that problem doesn’t exist is ridiculous,” she says. “Sometimes it’ll be Sunday morning, and I’ll wake up, stretch, and say to John David, ‘Now, what about rail cue 37?’”
She says she loves to work with her husband. Some marriages break up over the hours that opera professionals keep during productions if only one spouse is involved, she says. The Peters, on the other hand, completely understand the days that need to start at 8 a.m. and go until midnight.
But it helps that she feels her husband’s work is superlative. “It wouldn’t work if we didn’t feel the other was the absolute best at what they do,” she says.
Mary and John David have some travel plans for the summer, some that involve work. There’s plenty to do in the meantime, she says with a laugh — laundry, and housework, and “all of the tasks that wait for the end of the season.” The end of this season comes in about 10 days.
This job is stressful. For 20 years, if it’s not one thing, it’s been another. But the crew has grown quite like a family. And Peters loves it.
“You know that somehow, you’re going to get to opening night,” she says. “I know that somehow, everything’s going to work out.”
And, at least this time in the case of the flag panels, it did. Peters reported the panels were repaired Friday in the company’s shop, and the crew finished hanging and testing them by mid-morning Saturday, with a few hours to spare before the curtain rose.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly characterized the backstage countdown in milliseconds, not seconds. We regret the error.