The Entrepreneurial Career : Opera Personnel

Want to put on an opera? Go find yourself some peeps. A production team consists of a range of jobs that are interdependent yet autonomous, just like the roles in the opera being presented. Surround yourself with people who are energized to star in their role and you will have a stellar show on your hands.

Artistic or General Director: The artistic or general director has the final say in repertoire and casting, making these choices with respect to the company’s mission, trends in the local opera scene, and the resources of the company. He or she has a deciding say in the production’s budget, and may also serve as the chief fundraiser, rallying support for the production and acting as an ambassador for the company in the public eye.

Music Director: Even for the smallest production, it is best to have one person that makes final musical decisions. If you have given a solo recital, your pianist or coach was the de facto music director. Likewise, a chamber program with several performers will come together more quickly—and happily—if there is one person in the room whose decision is final.

A true equality among performers comes after working together for a good amount of time. Until then, people generally expect some type of musical leadership. In a staged production with many different variables other than music at play, the music director—also known as the conductor—plays the most important role of anyone, ensuring the best work from all musicians and working with the stage director to coordinate musical decisions with the action on stage.

Assistant Music Director: This person can serve as the principal or additional rehearsal pianist and the orchestra recruiter and, for larger ensembles, can double as the orchestra personnel manager. The role can share some conducting duties with the music director and take charge of scheduling, part preparation (all those violin bowings), and help make decisions about any cuts or changes to the score.
Stage Director: With direction from the artistic and music directors, the stage director is tasked with creating a visual identity for the show. This means having distinct ideas for everything from set design to the way a character should drink a cup of tea, yet still being open to ideas from the cast and the creative team. The stage director serves as the head of the design team, giving direction to people responsible for costumes, lights, set, and props.

Assistant Director: If you have ever been in a production, you know how valuable this position is. While a director is blocking a scene, exploring players’ movement possibilities, coordinating complicated ensemble pieces, or watching what the performers are doing, it is extremely helpful for someone else to take notes. This ensures that rehearsal time is well used and that the spontaneous discoveries that happen during the process are not lost. A stage manager or an off-duty performer can also serve in this role.

Dramaturg: Usually found in larger opera houses or in straight theatre, the dramaturg helps to put an opera in historical, social, and cultural context; offers research-based artistic ideas to the directors; keeps the production in line with the composer’s vision; and, in general, serves as an informed eye during the rehearsal process.

Stage Manager: In short, the stage manager is in charge of everything and everyone that goes on onstage. In addition to calling lighting and sound cues and keeping track of artists during performances, the stage manager performs a critical role during rehearsals. Think of the role as the backstage conductor. He or she works with the directors to set the rehearsal schedule and then communicates all rehearsal details with the performers, making sure they know where and when they need to go. The stage manager also serves as the primary interface for the directors, the cast, and the design team.
Assistant Stage Manager: Not strictly necessary in a small production but helpful to have for complicated technical shows, for operas with many cast members, or just when it seems like your stage manager really does need to be in two places at once.

Producer or Production Manager: This role oversees design budgets but, most crucially, coordinates all technical aspects of the show. If the music and stage directors oversee everything onstage and the stage manager is in charge of the backstage, the producer ensures everything else gets to the stage to begin with. This is the person who will rent and drive the U-Haul van for load-in, coordinate details with the venue, source various equipment as needed, and set a strict schedule to accomplish all the logistics needed before the curtain goes up. It takes a cool head, the ability to anticipate and trouble shoot, and a diplomat’s ability to negotiate among the artistic team, the venue, and various vendors.

Production Assistant: See the job description for Production Manager. For big shows, it takes two.

Choreographer: This role can be useful even if you do not have standalone dance numbers in the production. If a stage director creates a movement-heavy piece, a choreographer’s eye can fix problems and finesse.

Lighting Designer: This is truly the role that can work magic. If you are lucky enough to work with a venue that has a full light board, the designer can make each scene distinct from the others, creating moods and effects that can even stand in for a set. The lighting designer takes his or her direction from the stage director, and the two roles work together to light the show.

Lighting Assistant: A lighting assistant is very helpful to have, especially if there is a short tech time to set the lights. The lighting designer can program the light board while the assistant manually adjusts lights or helps the designer calibrate them.

Set Designer or Technical Director: Many small-scale opera companies do not design and build elaborate sets. To do so requires a good sized budget for hiring a (frequently union-scale) designer, purchasing materials, and renting a space to build and store the set. That said, you can also find someone who can creatively work on a small budget, sourcing interesting furniture or used set pieces to add a few key focal points to your stage. A technical director will work with the stage director to determine what set pieces will be used and how to best use them in the performance space. If you do have some type of set but do not assign someone to one of these roles, the burden can fall to the stage director and production manager, both of whom have other things to do.

Set Builder: A set designer will have the skills to build what he or she designs, but will likely need at least one person to help.

Costume Designer: In professional shows, the costume responsibilities are parceled out to various roles. That is, there is one person to design the costumes, another to sew them, someone else in charge of cleaning them, and so on. A person with professional costume experience might have had only one of these roles and would be delighted to oversee all the aspects of costuming a show. Costumes can be less expensive than building a set, yet equally effective in evoking a time and place.

Props: To avoid chaos backstage and make sure that your material assets don’t disappear, it is helpful to assign one person to keep track of all props. This can be one of the performers, a volunteer, or a willing costume designer. Have one central location for all props during rehearsals—or simply a checklist to keep track of who is responsible for each prop, perhaps along with the name of the place where each item was purchased.

Hair and Makeup Design: While most productions count on performers to do their own hair and makeup, having someone on board with an expert eye makes a real difference to the look of the show. Creative makeup and hair can even stand in for a modest costume or set budget. It is not unusual to find someone from the cast to take on this role—or perhaps a stylist from the fashion world eager to earn a theatrical credit.

Volunteers: Whether your production is large or small, having some floater volunteers on hand is invaluable. In the heat of production day, you will invariably need someone to go photocopy more programs, stand in for a lighting assistant, or simply open the stage door so that performers can make their entrance.

In practice, production roles tend to be a good deal messier than what this plan implies. In a small company, the artistic director should be willing to drive the U-Haul if need be, the music director runs off photocopies, and the stage manager hangs lights. Ideally, the entire team is involved in publicizing the production through their own networks and helping as they can with fundraising efforts. When it all works, all involved understand how their roles relate to the overall artistic vision and they are empowered to contribute their own unique talents.

Amanda Keil

Amanda Keil writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, and BachTrack.com, and she also runs her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. Find more entrepreneurial ideas on her blog: thousandfoldecho.com.