In the basement of Civic Theatre, junk food for the body and mind hinted at cravings past: A bag of M&Ms, a bowl of Milky Ways, and an In Touch magazine were spread out on various tables. No one was touching anything.
The final dress rehearsal for the San Diego Opera’s production of “Faust” was starting in 15 minutes, and everyone was focused on that. A string player rushed through a few last scales. A woman’s voice piped through speakers throughout the building announced the countdown — 15 minutes to show time. People paced with headphones and binders. And in a dressing room, a corpse from the opening scene — actually a man named Frederik Ter Veer — waited patiently to get dragged around on stage.
“I’m not rigor mortis, I’m very fresh,” Ter Veer told me and another corpse sitting next to him. These silent opera actors, known as supernumeraries, have had three weeks to practice their poses. They are volunteers, and one more mysterious ingredient in the world of opera. But I had no time to ask how they ended up in “Faust,” and how they spend their time outside opera?
The opera was about to begin.
Photographer Sam Hodgson and I have been following this production since the first rehearsals started earlier this month. I’ve watched crews assemble sets, I’ve brushed my hands against the costumes, I’ve peered into the rows of empty seats and wondered what the feeling is when they’re full. I have asked every person I could: How do you stand out in this world, and how do you work with everyone else?
Thursday, all these forces came together like the winds of a tornado revolving around a one objective: Release. After days, months and, for some people, years of preparation, it was show time.
Five minutes before the curtain rose, the opera’s conductor, Karen Keltner, descended into the orchestra pit. She reappeared on black and white TV screens visible on stage and throughout the back wings. Part of the chorus assembled backstage, and Walter Huff, standing on a small platform, made eye contact with his singers. Other singers and actors took their positions behind the curtain and in the wings, watching and waiting.
Out in the auditorium, Michael Whitfield stood posted at the lighting console, studying the effect of the light bulbs he’d oriented toward the singers earlier in the week. All around him, hundreds of children were using their inside voices, or forgetting to. (The dress rehearsal is open to school children around San Diego.) And everywhere backstage and underground, so many people with headphones were rushing around, guided by the commands of a female voice announcing cues.
For the next hour I sat next to that voice, which belongs to Mary Yankee Peters, the stage manager. From her command center behind stage right, Peters issued a stream of instructions into a microphone with calm resolve.
“Orchestra to the pit, please,” she said. “Have a good show, everybody.”
All around Peters during the first act: tumult. People bounded on stage and off, changed costumes, handed props to helpers, rehearsed dance choreography, laughed and whispered. She continued to calmly issue cues into her microphone.
Onstage, the devil appeared, first tempting Faust the old man and then dazzling the crowds at a festival. Peters continued to calmly issue cues into her microphone.
The voice of Stephen Costello, as Faust, thundered through the house. Keltner, the conductor, bounced joyfully with the music and mouthed the words. All the while, Peters murmured cues softly into her microphone.
It finally sank in that there is no such thing as a solo in opera.
Next post: On Saturday, I’ll be backstage on opening as the curtain rises — an experience I am told is rare for a reporter to witness that close.
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.