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Rebuilding Babylon 

S.F. Opera's production of Nabucco seems straightforward, but the production crew knows better

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
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Backstage at the War Memorial Opera House, manager of fabric props Dawn Roth shows off her handiwork: a richly textured, red velvet altar cloth for Verdi's Nabucco that is resplendent with gold trim, metal rivets, and multicolored glass jewels. "You won't notice any of these details when it's far away," she admits, "but they just give it a good richness and lushness that make it look, you know, like something somebody would have built for God."

San Francisco Opera's new production of Nabucco, which opened last week and is directed by the opera's general director, Lotfi Mansouri, is easily the most lavish production of the season -- and of many seasons past. A story of power and prophecy in ancient Jerusalem and Babylon, Nabucco is firmly rooted in the 19th-century tradition of grand opera -- high drama set in high style. By contrast, the opera's scenery shop in Potrero Hill is a more mundane backdrop. "This is called Siberia, because it's dark and cold," says a laughing Jack Kostelnik, carpentry shop foreman. "From here back," he continues, waving his hand, "is all scenery that's stored -- about 35 operas." The scenery shop is one of only four such shops in the entire country. "Most opera companies find it more convenient to bid their scenery out and get prices," he explains. "One of the reasons why S.F. Opera likes to have their own shop is that we can provide immediate results."

In addition to the 80,000-square-foot warehouse on Indiana Street -- 10,000 square feet of which is shop space for building sets -- the opera has a second warehouse on Cesar Chavez Street that houses props and electrical equipment, and also runs a warehouse on Toland Street where the remainder of the 75-plus operas in the San Francisco repertory are stored. According to Kostelnik, the warehouses produce about 10 operas a year, including touring productions for the Western Opera Company. "We also do a lot of refurbishing and repainting of old sets, to make them look fresh. We use some of them for more than 20 years. [Un Ballo en Maschera] has been here since 1975, and we still have the 1932 Tosca. And we keep them until they get replaced by something else."

The sets must be trucked from the Potrero scenery shop to the downtown opera house, and they are built with that in mind. But although considered a new San Francisco Opera production, Nabucco was created in collaboration with the Teatro Bellini di Catania in Italy, which designed and built the set to suit their needs -- not those of the S.F. Opera. The set, which arrived here in 14 40-foot-long shipping containers, was not what one could call "truckable."

"Europeans do things differently," explains Kostelnik. "Most European theaters don't keep scenery like we do. They do an entire run of an opera, and then they tear it down and throw it away. In Catania," he continues, "this set was so big that it took up the whole theater -- so they just nailed it to the walls. Then they did their production, and they took it down. And we just can't do that, because we have a different show to put on tomorrow night."

But you'd never guess Teatro Bellini hadn't planned to save the set from looking at its design, which features enormous columns with etched brickwork and meticulously carved bases, as well as an elaborately rendered trompe l'oeil mosaic floor. "We can't afford to do productions like that here," says Jay Kotcher, S.F. Opera's scenic artist in charge. "They have a very high level of funding from the state and national government. So they don't have to count on fund-raising like we do."

Not only did the massive production need to be reconfigured to work on the War Memorial Opera House stage, as well as to fit into the repertory, but by the time the set reached San Francisco, parts of it were in need of some serious refurbishing. "It was quite a big job," says Kotcher. "We worked on Nabucco for about three months, with a carpenter crew of seven or eight people and three or four painters. And at that time we were working on about seven productions -- so we had people working in every corner and outside."

When working on new productions, Kostelnik and Kotcher do their best to anticipate staging problems well before summer technical rehearsals begin -- though they admit they're often left out of the decision-making loop. "When we look at a future production," says Kostelnik, "we'll ask the director something like, 'How do they get onstage during the first act?' And they'll say, 'Oh, stop it, Jack, you're being stupid again. They open the door.' But how do 80 people go through a door at once? You have to pay attention to what they say, because they tend to gloss over the things they don't want you to know. But all that little information means something to us."

Lighting director Thomas Munn coordinates a lot of that "little information." In addition to focusing and refocusing hundreds of lights per show with his crew, he is also in charge of special effects, which in this production includes a spectacular final scene in which lightning strikes a 30-foot-tall idol that then splits apart and falls to the ground. "In the last Nabucco we did, back in 1987," he says, "the walls of the set crumbled to the ground. This version is far more elegant."

While the stage crew can usually set up new productions on the same day as the technical rehearsal, the sheer size and structural complications of the Nabucco set forced the stagehands to start setting up for the production's first technical rehearsal a full 24 hours in advance. "It's one of the heaviest shows we've had here in a long time," says Munn. "This was a shared production, but it wasn't supervised under the auspices of our technical department. And when we have a production from the outside, and the tech department can't oversee it all so they know how to make it work in this theater, it's very difficult." But even with all the difficulties, Munn says that working on a production of this scale is a lot of fun. "It's great to get to do a grand old opera," he says. "And this is a grand old opera."

Master of properties Lori Harrison explains, "When you look at this set, you realize that anything you make has to be as good or better in order to pop out and really work. So we really had to build some spectacular things, because the set is so spectacular." Although some of the larger props -- such as the golden throne and the temple altar -- came with the sets from Catania, the prop shop still had to build numerous pieces for Nabucco. "Props are the kinds of thing that get added during the rehearsal process," says Harrison. "For example, recently they added a large scene in which people are looting the temple, and they wanted the altar to break. So we made a new top that breaks, and we made some stone tablets that break." But rather than build all the "loot" from scratch, which would have been both time-consuming and cost-prohibitive, Harrison did a little looting herself, raiding the coffers of another famous Verdi opera. "We went to our warehouse and went into Aida and got out the most biblical-looking stuff we could find," she says.

But Harrison is quick to point out that she and her crew do extensive research when building and using props, to make sure that they're as historically accurate as possible. "This is our timeline," she says, showing off a long, two-panel poster detailing the history of the world. "We were able to find exactly when Nabucco happened," she continues, pointing on the timeline. "There's Nebuchadnezzar, and here are the Tribes of Israel. I have a lot of research about Jewish temple things from that period." Harrison also spends a lot of time researching the materials from which to make props. "There's a lot of trial and error," she explains, pulling out a box of spearheads. "Once we realized that these could break," she says, holding a spearhead in the air, "we didn't want to risk it.

"Then we went to these," she says, picking up another, "but they were so wiggly they were funny. I mean, you can pull them and stretch them and bounce them. And so every material that we tried, we labeled as we went along. We're trying to keep as careful a record as possible, so we don't have to repeat the [research and development] -- which will make a big difference in future budgets." Downstairs near the stage, Harrison points out a heap of brown leather cuffs. "They wanted to have leather manacles, so we made 40 pairs of leather manacles," she explains. "You'd think that you could just buy those around here."

As the first woman to run the San Francisco Opera prop shop, Harrison, who's now in her second season in that position, says that it took awhile for some people to get used to the idea of having her in charge. "And some are still getting used to it," she admits. But while she was prepared for a certain amount of prejudice, there was one particular issue when she first started that caught her off guard. "The question asked was would I rather be called a 'prop master' or a 'prop mistress,'" she says.

"I think 'master' works a little better. It expresses mastery over something."

Many members of the tech and production crew are still trying to master opera as a musical experience. "I was not an opera fan at all when I started," says Munn. "I had been to the Met a couple of times, but I never liked going -- I always fell asleep. But over the years I've become pretty fond of it. The more I learned, the more interested I became."

"I didn't know anything about opera," admits Harrison. "I hated opera, in fact. It was noise on Saturday afternoons that my father listened to. I just thought people were screaming, that it was a contest between the orchestra and the singers. But when I was applying for theater jobs in college, I got a job at the Santa Fe Opera. And being in Santa Fe, with the mountains around and music playing all the time, I just fell in love with it."

"I've grown into opera over the years," says Kotcher, "though Wagner took me awhile. It was just totally opaque -- I couldn't make sense of it. But what was a revelation to me was when they started using supertitles here. Then all of a sudden there was a story, there were characters."

"After seeing 59 operas," says Kostelnik, who worked in the movie industry before joining the company five years ago, "I think I'm beginning to be a real fan."

The San Francisco Opera stages Nabucco on Dec. 3, 6, 10, and 12 at the War Memorial Opera House, 199 Grove (at Van Ness), S.F. Call 864-3330 for ticket prices and performance times.

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Stacey Kors

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