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Behind And In Front Of The Proscenium At SF Opera

September 30, 2008

Enjoyed a fabulous private backstage tour at San Francisco Opera House on Saturday evening courtesy of my vocal instructor and SF Opera chorus member, Kathy McKee. Prior to our attending a performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Kathy took my friend Alice and I into the bowels of the venue, where we wandered around a maze of corridors, and popped in and out of rooms where a motley assortment of singers, musicians, janitors, administrative staff and others were going about their business.

It was particularly fascinating going into the chorus members' lounge. Singers in various states of costume gobbled take-out food, read books, or sat in huddles chatting. The room even had a blackjack table in the corner, though no one was engaging in a game at that point.

The room in which the singers lined up to get their faces done and wigs put on by the opera's face and hair staff also provided a wonderful snapshot of the performers' pre-show lives. The place was packed. Having already applied their own makeup bases to their faces, singers waited patiently in a row of chairs for a space in front of a mirror to open up. Once seated, the makeup artists went to work on the singers.

I enjoyed being in front of the proscenium almost as much as the experience of being behind it. Verdi isn't my favorite composer. The stuffy mise-en-scene with its Medieval Italian costumes also left me rather cold. But Dmitri Hvorostovsky (pictured) made for such a believable, empathetic title character, that I was completely taken in by the production. And I really enjoyed the crowd scenes, packed as they were with thundering hordes of chorus members and supernumaries.

For me, the most powerful aspect of the opera lies in its probing of the word "democracy." The opera begins by epitomizing the idea of "people power" with the Genovese masses deciding to elect a "commoner", Boccanegra, to be their doge. The chorus in SF Opera's raises the roof onstage. And Verdi never lets us forget the presence of the people: Even when we're not looking at them, we hear their voices ringing out from off-stage.

But the opera does nothing if not satirize and question the democratic process. Political conniving and backstabbing constantly threaten to undermine Genoa's fragile structure and by the end of the work, a huge shift has taken place. Boccanegra dies on stage and the next doge is declared not by the people but by the dying man himself as he breathes his dying breath.

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