There’s this piece of paper pinned to a bulletin board in the dressing room area of Civic Theatre called the Bow List. “Mephistopheles leads by the hand Marguerite and Faust for a trio bow then exit,” the first line reads, followed by the rest of the characters in their designated order. Ian Campbell, the opera’s general director, signed off on the list on April 18.
These instructions are something I never imagined existed until I saw them, and they confirmed what I have learned after spending more than week with the cast and crew of the San Diego Opera: Plan every last detail. Just be ready for surprises.
In reporting the final installment of Countdown to Curtain, a series exploring what happens beneath the seams of opera before it debuts, I had two aims. The first was to gage the flavor and intensity of the nerves in the hallway of dressing rooms, minutes before the curtain rose on “Faust.” Wardrobe staff were making small talk as they waited to spring to action. Singers were warming up in their dressing rooms. There were water bottles everywhere. People seemed focused but relaxed.
I had spoken with Greer Grimsley, singing Méphistophélès, as he got his makeup done during the dress rehearsal. When you’re starting as a singer, he said, “the energy translates into nerves, and the further you get into your career, you mange that energy much like athletes do.” I liked his take on “Faust,” which went beyond the standard lesson of watching what you wish for. “Aging is not for the cowardly,” Grimlsey said. The solution is to be “satisfied with where you are and completely embrace the journey, to the point that you have no regret.”
Standing in the doorway of his dressing room Saturday, Stephen Costello, singing Faust, was saving his voice for the stage. He managed one joke. The plan, he deadpanned, is to “try not to suck.” Then he went back to warming up. Soon, it was time to put on Faust’s mask — a stringy contraption that took Steven Bryant, the wig and makeup pro, several minutes to wrap around Costello’s head. As Costello walked to the stage, his wife Ailyn Perez, singing Marguerite, called to him — “Amor!” — and blew him a kiss.
Applause and instruments. The show started. There was one thing left for me to do: find whoever raises and lowers the curtain.
All around the backstage areas, the action unfolded as it had in rehearsals, just with a notch or two of greater excitement, it seemed. Eventually I spotted a man sitting behind a lit console and I asked him if he’s in charge of the curtain. He pointed to another man, sitting farther back. That is how I discovered Bob Dougherty, master flyman. Flymen handle all the curtains, drapes, hanging walls and objects raised or lowered on the stage.
Dougherty was bent over big desk covered in papers and tech equipment, four words into a crossword puzzle.
“Are you the person who raises and lowers the curtain?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“At last we meet,” I said.
Dougherty was happy to talk about the task he does almost 10 times in “Faust” — and has been doing for 25 years in theater and opera.
This particular curtain, at Civic Theatre, weighs 1,000 pounds and requires two men to lift, Dougherty said. Like everyone else back stage, he makes his moves based on cues. For the curtain, he gets a few warnings in his headset, he waits for a light to go off, then the stage manager says “Rail cue go!”
I watched him and John Slater, his colleague, get in position as the music quickened at the end of Act One.
When they got the signal, they pulled the rope so fast their arms became a blur — as my time backstage would become, I realized, once I sat back with the audience for the rest of the show and became enraptured by the story and song unfolding before my eyes.
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at email@example.com.