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Side view of theater at dusk with white baffles

You Hear What You See

By Craig Smith


You Hear What You See

There are big changes afoot at The Santa Fe Opera this season, and they’re being greeted with bravos backstage. In fact, behind-the-scenes life practically crackles with excitement.

High spirits are usually the order of the operatic day, of course. The enveloping nature of the art form guarantees unceasing energy from everyone involved, from onstage singers to unseen technicians.

But Santa Fe’s production personnel are especially committed. They work long and daunting hours with not only notable competence, but eager and happy pride. They are aware of their own important role, and how that role is part of the greater operatic glory.

There are even bigger smiles this summer because the backstage domain is in the process of being upgraded and expanded for the first time since the second theater was built in 1967-68. The work is part of a three-year, $45 million renovation campaign designed to bring the entire campus into the 21st century.

From September 2014 through June 2015, the first phase brought welcome expansions of the costume shop, wig department, performer dressing areas, and the orchestra’s off-stage quarters . Front-of-house areas also saw marked improvements, such as more patron dining space, additional restrooms, and an expanded gift shop.

From September 2015 through June 2016, the scenery shop will be enlarged, a dedicated paint shop for set pieces will be built, and a second story will be added to the Opera Club for donors and company guests.

Finally, after the 2016 season, the parking lot will get its first repaving since 1968, and permanent storage units for stage properties and sets will replace the semi trailers now dotted around the campus.

“This year we have increased the backstage areas by 10,325 square feet in the areas of the costume shop and the dressing room/wardrobe spaces,” said Paul Horpedahl, the company’s director of facilities and production. “That means 22,650 square feet total in those two areas, or an increase of 45 percent!”

As a result, he pointed out, “In all areas there have been significant health and safety improvements, including improved efficiency in fire protection, electrical system upgrades, lighting, ventilation, and industrial process exhaust.

“We have also taken great care in bringing like processes together and looking at how to improve work flow and paths. Giving the many crafts disciplines the space they need to do their work more efficiently has been another big priority.”

Carolyn Hoffmann-Schneider, assistant to costume director Erica Burds, confirmed Horpedahl’s words.

“The costume shop is one of the biggest departments at the Opera,” Hoffman-Schneider said. “We have about 65 staff members and apprentices.” What delights Hoffman-Schneider and her colleagues is that the square footage of the shop has doubled. There are now four full-size fitting rooms to replace two former full and one small-size rooms. The kitchen no longer does double duty as a storage area, and a table and benches make it more welcoming for lunch breaks. In addition, “We have a whole room for threads, lining, and other notions… One of the biggest additions is a special ventilated room for painting and using other chemicals.

“The expansion has made our work more efficient,” she said happily. “We now have the room to facilitate the large amount of costumes that come through the shop.”

David Zimmerman, head of the Wig and Makeup Department, is equally pleased with how things have turned out. He and the four staff members and four apprentices who work under him have much more elbow room for their painstaking labor.

“There is more square footage, a more efficient flow to the spaces,” he said. “The workstations are much more user-friendly and much better lit. Our Wig Department room has more dedicated stations with a specific counter height to aid in work, with much bigger mirrors and a lot more lighting — which is very important for our very detailed work.” And for principal singers, a special wig and makeup room is now available

Although much has been done successfully in the last year, Horpedahl doesn’t lose sight of the fact that there’s much more to come.

“Although I feel a huge sense of accomplishment for what all of us have achieved this past year, I feel a bit like I do in the middle of the opera season after getting the first show open:  ‘Well, that was great, but there is no time to waste.’ There is so much more to do!

“I still pinch myself that we are able to make such sweeping improvements to how we produce operas here at the Santa Fe Opera and how our audience experiences them.”