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Part of a continuing look this week at the frenzy backstage in the days before San Diego Opera’s production of “Faust.” Follow updates on our arts blog, Behind the Scene.
Think back to the most infernally complicated piece of IKEA furniture you’ve ever assembled. Multiply the difficulty by 1,000, and you might begin to comprehend the headaches and satisfactions of putting together an opera set.
Nine hours after the applause concluded for the last “Der Rosenkavalier” performance, construction crews were on the stage at Civic Theatre to tear down that set and start building “Faust.” That was last Wednesday at 8 a.m., when a few dozen stagehands in loose camouflage pants or jeans, tool belts and t-shirts reported for duty.
By Friday, the progress was astounding. All traces of 18th-century frippery were gone and in their place, tall, dark walls hinted at the psychological turmoil to come in the soul-searching tale of Faust, the man who makes a deal with the devil.
As a newcomer to this backstage world, I was amazed at how efficiently the crews built the new set. I sat down for a chat Friday afternoon with John David Peters, who has built sets for the San Diego Opera since 1969. We literally crouched on some low wooden steps in the middle of the stage — his office, you might say.
The sets for “Faust” arrived from San Francisco, where they were last used, as planks, boards, meter upon meter of canvas, and everything else you’d need to construct a prison, a town square, an old man’s study, and more. For Peters, the more pieces, the better — he loves a challenge.
“All my life I’ve been good at puzzles. One of the reasons I keep this job is that it constantly challenges me,” he said.
What people who watch opera performances don’t often realize, he added, is just how many pieces there are.
“We have a small war chest of hardware down here, so that at 10 o’clock at night, when all of a sudden we need 3/8-by-4-inch bolts and someone says we’re out of hardware, we’d be toast — so we bring a lot of backup.”
At the start of our conversation, Peters was frustrated because a truck with equipment was at risk for running late. “I’m grumpy,” he announced. A few minutes later, he got a call saying the truck was close. He revised his stance. “I’m less grumpy.”
Those seem to be his primary modes, on stage at least. But a dash of bristle may be what it takes to manage an active team, keep an eye on potentially lethal equipment, and get it done in a matter of days.
Friday at noon, his office — er, the stage — was empty. Lunch time. But two days earlier, when his crew were at work taking apart the outgoing set, his voice issued efficient commands across the space.
“Ready? Pull!” They pulled. “Walk all the way around it. That’s it.” Guided by the maestro, half a dozen workers folded up immense canvas backdrops and scenery panels, gliding their arms over the material to smooth it with the swift and graceful movements of cello players.
Later, seven men pulled apart the 30-foot-tall walls of a stately room and sent them timbering onto the dusty floor. Across the stage, a worker’s baritone voice exhorted, “I need another person! Please!” His call was answered by the beat of running footsteps.
Elsewhere, Peters’s workers tugged on metal rods and dropped them to the wooden floor with treble clangs.
It was the construction crew’s own solemn music, the hidden prelude to every opera.
Here are more photos, taken by Sam Hodgson, of Peters and his crew, as they orchestrate the set construction and installation “Faust”:
Next post: How do you go from a hoop skirt to a nightgown in 28 seconds? And other conundrums from the world of costumes.
Curious about any of the ways a production like this comes together? Leave a comment or drop me a line with your question.
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at email@example.com.