Software & Opera, Part 2: The Operatic Development Process

This is the second of a three-part series on opera and software. Part 1 explained why they’re related, this explains the process used to produce an opera, and the last part explores what can be applied to the software development process.

Before I go any further, some disclaimers are in order: I’ve never worked backstage anywhere else, so I don’t know how other opera houses operate — they could be exactly the same, or wildly different. Also, everything in this article comes from my experience, and nothing is from Sarasota Opera — they don’t know I’m writing this (and hopefully, they’ll be pleased if they do ever come across it). Finally, what I do know of the production process comes from years of observation from the sidelines, from the role of a super, so some stuff in here could be just plain wrong; I’ll try to make it a point to underline where I know my knowledge is shaky, but there might be things I’m more sure about than I should be.

The stuff that happens early on is what I’m least sure about, because I generally start working on an opera during off-stage rehearsals, which is essentially the acceptance testing phase. But from what I’ve gathered, this is what happens before then:

  1. The libretto is written. This is like a movie script and contains the dialogue and stage direction. For most operas performed today, this was written long before your grandparents were born.
  2. The libretto is set to music. The composer takes the dialogue (and the gaps therein) and creates music that sounds nice to people who like operas. Again, this has usually been done at some point in the 1800s, but even for new operas, it would be at least somewhat before the rest of it. And now you have an opera — at least, on paper.
  3. The opera is slotted into a pre-existing Friday opening, about 18 months in the future. By the time one season starts, the next season’s roster of operas and their exact release dates have already been made public.
  4. Set and costume design are started. This is one of the longest phases, because a set may have to be created from scratch, and sets are big and can get complex. They actually take up most of the backstage area. Renting them is an option, if the size and shape of the stage is pretty standard. Costumes also may have to be made — read, sewn in the opera’s costume shop — but sourcing ready-made ones is time consuming too, since an opera with a full chorus and a bunch of settings could easily require over 50 costumes. And sizing is a thing to deal with on top of it all.
  5. About a year before opening, the principal singers and stage management are hired and contracted for work, months in the future. There are usually about six principal singers and maybe a couple of more minor roles.
  6. The conductor starts learning the music and hires the orchestra.
  7. The director starts choreography design, figuring out what happens in each scene: where, when, and how people enter; what path they walk; how they act, what they physically do; and where, when, and how they exit the stage. Some of this is dictated by the libretto, but most is not.
  8. General auditions take place for the chorus, which is about two dozen people.
  9. A few months before opening, props start to be created or sourced: swords, treasure chests, torches, faux violins. The set and costumes are done, but not tailored.
  10. The rehearsal schedule is completed — for two full months of rehearsals. Since four operas are being produced at the same time, only parts of each opera are rehearsed in each session (usually one particular act or scene), and rooms and the stage have to be scheduled so that rehearsals can happen in parallel. Also, the chorus usually appears in all four operas, so the scheduling has to take into account that they can’t be in two places at once.
  11. A couple of months before, the cast is all set and the various design work is mostly done. The cast starts rehearsing the music on their own.
  12. About one month before, the cast arrives on site (they come from all over the country, and internationally) and rehearsals actually begin.

This is the point where I enter. By the time of my first rehearsal, the principal actors have been rehearsing for weeks, and the larger chorus for some days. Principals have something like 10x the stage time as the chorus, so they have a lot more to work on.

The rehearsals early on are held in a large rehearsal room instead of the stage, to minimize labor costs associated with setting the stage. Instead, the floor of the room is marked with tape outlines of the sets, with different colors indicating different scenes. So Act 1 might be in red tape and outline some stairs and a couch, while Act 2 might be in blue tape and outline the same stairs, plus two doors and a table with chairs. When you rehearse Act 2, you walk around the blue tape and ignore the red tape.

There are generally a lot of new people, so everyone gets a name tag in the beginning. In each rehearsal, in addition to the performers, the conductor is present, along with a pianist, the director, a stage manager, and two assistant stage managers: one for stage left, one for stage right. Principals all get cover singers, to put the bus factor at 2, and their covers are also there.

Since the choreography is already designed by now, the director tells everyone what’s going to happen in the scene. No one is in costume, except principals might wear something a drunk person might think is their costume, to get used to walking around and singing with, say with a sword or a heavy coat. The singers have already memorized their music, and performed it in front of a maestro and gotten notes on what to change.

An important thing to understand is that everything in an opera is cued by music, and the music is cued by the maestro. She moves her baton at a certain tempo, and all of the singers and orchestra musicians keep that tempo. When she stops, they stop and when she starts, they start. If they start to lead or lag her, she stops and yells at them. “Can everyone see me? Can you, Jeremy? Because if you can, why are you half a measure behind?” The conductor is essentially the system clock, for a multi-processor system.

Because of this, the cast’s actions are also cued by the music and it follows that the director’s directions are usually given relative to some piece of music: “when Isabella gasps, you three move upstage, and you go put your hand on her shoulder. Then, on the beat after ‘da dada da dun’ everyone but the Don exits the stage. Ok, let’s take it from two bars past 62”. It’s amazing to me that the singers can start from any part of the entire opera, with a second’s notice.

Stage management keeps a giant binder with the sheet music for every role and marks where in it things are supposed to happen — like stage entrances and exits. After everyone verbally understands what’s supposed to happen, we run that part of the scene, with piano music. Here usually, someone omits doing something — walking somewhere, facing someone, fake laughing — something got forgotten or misunderstood in the space from the director’s mouth to the cast, so we reset and run again. Sometimes, the director, having seen it run with actual people, decides to change where people stand or face or who they fake banter with, so we reset and run again. Later, when we rehearse on stage with the actual set, sometimes things are tweaked even more. And if the singing is off, the maestro stops the music, yells admonishments, we reset and run again.

Once the director and maestro are happy with the way things are running, they layer in any additional people in another rehearsal. For example, sometimes we have rehearsals just with the supers, or the supers and chorus but not principals, for various scheduling reasons. And when everyone knows their parts well enough, they’re all brought in to the same rehearsals.

The off-stage rehearsals are generally splayed over three weeks, with each scene being rehearsed about three times, depending on the complexity. Once in a rare while, things might be going so poorly that they might add rehearsals; as an unpaid volunteer doing this for 20 hours a week on top of your day job, that’s what you really don’t want.

Finally, we now get on-stage! There’s one or two rehearsals there with only the piano accompaniment still, followed by a piano dress rehearsal ( meaning full costume, but only principals get makeup), then a rehearsal with the orchestra but no costumes, and finally two full dress rehearsals with the orchestra. These last two are run exactly as if they were live performances, with beta testing users being brought into the audience, in the form of friends, family, and big shot donors.

During these on-stage rehearsals, the lighting people are also testing the colors and intensities to make sure they create the proper environment and mood, the costume and makeup designers check to make sure everything looks good from the audience, and the director walks around the whole opera house to make sure various vantage points can all clearly see the important action.

For the last rehearsal, they generally bring in a couple of classes of middle or high school students, and again: they’re run exactly as they will be on opening night, with PA announcements, supertitles, intermissions, curtains, etc. — even the bows at the end are rehearsed. The only differences with respect to a real performance is that the conductor might still stop the music if things are going too wrongly, she gives notes to the orchestra at the beginning of each act, and the director hovers around the whole house looking for final tweaks to make.

After opening night, things are mostly on rails. The director might issue notes with small things the cast is doing wrong or she’d like to change, someone might need musical coaching if they’re too loud or soft or whatever, but by and large everything is set at that point, and it all just manifests like a clockwork for a dozen performances. That is actually the inflection point for when it gets really boring. After the jitters of opening night, it all becomes so routine that there’s not much excitement in it anymore — but that’s good, because then you can finally focus on the performance.

In the next and final part, we’re going to talk about how all of this applies to software development.

Next: Software & Opera, 33 1/3