November 2, 2007


(L) View of the stage from the boxes. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
(R) Light cast against the I-beam structure projects shadows extending to infinity. 

Stark sets and old-school lighting link the past to the present

    Although new chamber pieces and small-scale operas are frequently performed, new large-scale opera premieres are rare. First, there is the expense. In addition to the words and music, grand opera demands enormous resources, both onstage and in the wings. The company needs principal and secondary singers, a chorus, stagehands, dancers, choreographers, an orchestra, conductors, the stage directors, and the technicians and artists responsible for lighting, scenery, props and costumes. Repertory companies also have large administrative staff requirements. For the year 2005–2006, salaries for all San Francisco Opera totaled in excess of $40 million. Picture a big Broadway musical on steroids.
    Therefore, premieres of major new works are scheduled far in advance so that the artistic vision and the financial structure can coalesce at the required moment. For the 2007–2008 season, while other major U.S. opera companies are contenting themselves with new productions of familiar works, San Francisco Opera drew the long straw — a brand new work by one of the 20th century’s top composers.
    Appomattox, the new opera by American composer Philip Glass, had its premiere at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on Oct. 5. The work is a look back at the end of the Civil War, a key moment in our nation’s history, and the social and political issues at its core and how they reverberate today. After four years of war, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart Ulysses S. Grant in the town of Appomattox Court House, Va., bringing the Civil War to a close. The opera is a look at the end of the conflict.
    To tackle this enormous subject, director Robert Woodruff went to the Broadway stage for two key members of his creative team. He chose Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind and Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez as collaborators; Appomattox was both their San Francisco Opera debuts, carrying on the tradition of opera companies poaching talent from Broadway and film.

The aftermath of the Battle of Richmond, end of Act I

    Akerlind has designed lighting for more than 500 theatre and opera productions nationally and internationally, including work for the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Opera. His lighting design for The Light in the Piazza won him both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award. 

   Hernandez has designed for opera companies such as the New York City Opera, Los Angeles Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His sets for the musical Parade earned him a nomination for the 1999 Tony and Drama Desk awards. Additionally, he has designed over 20 productions at the Public Theater’s New York Shakespeare Festival, including Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage

The Set
    According to Hernandez, the process itself was very intense. “Robert and I went to Richmond to take in the sense of the locale,” he says. “We walked in the trenches for hours on end. Physically walking there and embodying the space made all the difference. In building the model, I sought to convey the notion that life hasn’t changed much — these issues are still with us.” During the design process, these impressions were reinforced by deliveries of pieces of the music from Glass as Hernandez completed his design.
    Although the opera is based upon a historic event, it is not a literal retelling of the matter. It is based on the American Civil War, yet it seeks to transcend the historical time to incorporate war in general. Hernandez says, “It is very hard to put something this massive in scope on stage. Our attempt was to use the historic event as a point of departure, then make the resulting theme modern and relevant.”
    The sets are enormous and fill the large opera house stage. Onstage are 15,000 pounds of structural aluminum painted to look like steel, 5,500 pounds of expanded steel metal flooring, 1,500 pounds of sheet metal and 11,000 square feet of wall surface. It takes 20 CM one-ton chain motors, two Bytecraft motor-assisted line sets and four Stage Technologies point hoists to move it all around.
    The project was too large for one shop, so it was built in three locations. The SFO scene shop created the steel structures, the Rick Reed shop in Oregon built the walls and the gray and orange surrounds were constructed in the San Diego Opera shop. Five artists at the SFO shop created the horses.
    The horse carcasses hanging from the top of the stage are an important historical and plot element, representing the brutality and carnage of war and are, according to Hernandez, “apocalyptic,” as there was a devastating loss of life in the Civil War, both human and livestock. It is estimated that over 600,000 people were killed in the war, and the loss of livestock was three times as great. Because of the loss of livestock, survivors of the war had to endure a drastic change in their way of life in terms of income and a food source.
    The set build itself took a total of three months. “I created the design, made some fast drawings, and sent them to Robert. When he approved them, I sent them to the shops.” His appreciation for the SFO scene shop is considerable, “It is amazing, and the crew is terrific.”
     The opera’s emphasis is on the immensity of the subject material and the harshness of war, so the set, including the big metal drop known as the steel wall, is primarily constructed of steel and glass. Technical Director Marc Scott explains, “This is actually wood framing skinned with ¼-inch Luan to which we glued sheet metal. It weighs about 2,400 pounds. The skeleton of the house is made of aluminum I-beam and weighs about 1,500 pounds.” To the construction and backstage crews’ credit, the set and scenery changes are extraordinarily quiet, especially given the mass of the material being shifted.

The Lighting
    Christopher Akerlind already had a background in Civil War history. He says that he has always been attracted to the period and the photos taken by Matthew Brady, who captured the grit and the horror of the Civil War. “In fact,” Akerlind says, “the Brady work underscored my aesthetic approach for lighting the opera.”
    His vision for the lighting corresponded to that of his collaborators. “We had a shared impulse toward the gritty and the harsh,” he says. “There is a punishing quality to the light; there are messy bits that resolve into something that is beautiful to look at. Neat doesn’t feel as real to me as messy.”
    His preparation process seemed more abbreviated than Hernandez’. “Like most big opera houses, 90% of the lighting is ‘repped,’ says Akerlind. “The rest is done onsite with the house LD, who designs the basic plot for the season in-house. I gave him a verbal description, and he entered it into the plot.” He also said that because of the tight schedules, traditional lighting sessions are rare in repertory opera houses these days.
    “This makes it easy for the show LD during preproduction,” Akerlind says. “And I know what is available for me in advance. That way, just the final tweaking and positioning can be done in rehearsal. For example, if a source needs to move a foot left or right, we can do that onsite.” This also means, though, that there is only a small window for variations in positioning.
    The sparseness of the set lent itself to the harsher lighting, which Akerlind used to further the momentum and concept of the show. For example, in scenes where the libretto focused on the endless and ever-enduring nature of war, light was cast against the I-beam structure to project shadows extending to infinity. Additionally, for the depiction of the Battle of Richmond at the end of Act I, explosions that occurred off-stage were punctuated by long flashes of bright light, exposing the fear on the faces in the crowd.
Opera vs. Broadway
    “Time is the biggest challenge,” says Hernandez. “Musical theatre today is mostly focused on the trivial, as it is primarily focused on the bottom-line — eight shows a week, with long runs. Opera has more adventurous producers than those on Broadway. Shows on Broadway must be a hit,’ he says. “As such, they are mostly designed to be light-hearted entertainment. There is nothing wrong with escapist entertainment, but it is more interesting to work on meaningful subject material. In opera, composing the music takes a long time, everything else is compressed.”
    Hernandez also believes that new operas these days focus on more important topics than Broadway shows, especially the musicals. In contrast to the long rehearsal schedule and previews for a Broadway musical, the prep time for opera, especially in a rep company is severely condensed. To Hernandez, “It is ironic that more time is given to prepare for the trivial than for the profound.”
    Akerlind agrees, “A lot of theatre doesn’t affect me on a gut level. I like to connect with humans and their problems on a more visceral plane than is found in most Broadway theatre.” Also for him, the actual amount of time spent on the project also seemed all too brief. Although the period from the assignment to his arrival in San Francisco for the dry tech this summer spanned a long period of time, there wasn’t much actual prep work done on the project prior to his arrival in San Francisco. “In late April/early May, I met with Philip Glass, Robert Woodruff, and Riccardo for about a half hour,” he says. “Then, in early July, I made a quick stopover in San Francisco to meet with the tech team on my way to an assignment in Ashland, Ore. This was only a one-hour quick meeting.” The actual front of house work didn’t occur until the dry tech.
    Hernandez expresses the same sentiment and says that more preparation time would have improved the product: “If we had more time, we could have automated some of the scene and lighting changes so we could better follow the grace of the musical transitions.”
    What did help the process, though, is that at San Francisco Opera, the rehearsal room has all the same accoutrements as the opera house. Similar to houses in Germany, there is a complete fly system and an orchestra pit. Even with this remarkable facility, both still felt that it didn’t compensate for the short technical rehearsal time. “Although we had access for two weeks before the opening,” Akerlind says, “we shared with other productions in the repertory. So we would rehearse a part of one day, then there would be a hiatus of two or three days, then back to rehearsal.”
    This made it hard to keep the momentum going. “There was no time to make many adjustments in the theatre as we only had five onstage rehearsals,” Akerlind says. Hernandez is in agreement, “The biggest problem is that SFO is a rep company, so other productions are in performance while others are in rehearsal. For example, when a large-scale production is in performance, in this case it was Tannhäuser, it takes a great deal of time to strike that set and prepare the new one for rehearsal. We lost a day of tech setup due to this.”
    “It would be nice for a new opera,” Hernandez says, “especially one that is nonlinear, nonliteral like Appomattox, that there be a bit more rehearsal time — this would allow for more of a sense of discovery during the in-house creative process. The smaller houses, like Glimmerglass and Santa Fe, have the luxury of more time.”
    Both, however, said that even with the time limitations, this is what they want to be doing. For Akerlind, “This opera fit naturally into the kind of work I like to do.” Hernandez concurs, “I want to do more pieces like this — pieces that allow you to explore portions of your soul. In my experience, this type of project only comes along once in ten to twenty years.”

Photos by Terrence McCarthy, Courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Originally published November 2007, PLSN magazine
For a PDF of the article as published, including the Gear List, go to

No comments:

Post a Comment