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Backstage for La Bohème at the San Francisco Opera

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Backstage is humming with activity at the San Francisco Opera House. There are three separate operas to prepare for and mere days to get ready. That’s three separate casts, stage designs, musical scores, and hundreds of different costumes, props, lighting sequences, and stage movements all preparing for the spotlight in June. There is no bigger scale in theater production than that of a grand opera house. And the best part is, we have tickets to giveaway to them at the end of the article! 


SF Opera House

In the middle of it all, is man named Darin. Darin stands at the heart of the whole operation, behind the curtain and in front of a giant switch board giving him the appearance of The Great Oz himself. Pulling levers and pressing flashy buttons, no doubt causing a thousand tiny operations to go on all at once. His crew all have ear pieces to keep in communication, and they were kind enough to let me have one for my visit, in order to hear the traffic, the cues, the problems, and solutions backstage.


Darin Burnett (Production Stage Manager) now commonly known as the Great Oz of The SF Opera House

Directions that are given to everyone at once come from the the theatre’s booming and omnipresent PA system, which can be heard anywhere in the house.

“They call that the God Mic”, a busy looking stage manager tells me, “Everyone hears the God Mic.”

Dramatic recreation of Opera Production Stage Manager

Just then, God’s voice rains down from above, “Please hold for lights, thank you,” It says.

“Wow, God says please and thank you, he’s very poli…” I say, but the stage manager has already rushed off to answer God’s calling, her index finger pressed against her earpiece to better hear yet another set of directions. Moving hurriedly away she disappears into the maze of stage props, painted facades, ropes and levers backstage.

Tonight is the first dress rehearsal for La Bohème, three bearded men are on stage singing, while a conductor speaks to them in Italian. Stage right, Darin (now commonly known as the Great Oz) is calmly giving directions to dozens of crew over the radio while I stand there bewildered like Dorothy. My guide Jeffery McMillan does his best to keep me from stumbling in the dark or standing in the way of a bustling cast and crew, as we wait for the second act to begin.


Then, all of a sudden a small army of sooty faced french people appear behind us armed with lanterns baguettes, and Oz knows what else. My ear piece begins to buzz with activity and a whirl of coordinated movements begin, a ballet of shifting wood and steel, cables inside the floors cause massive pieces of the set to surge forward or recede. In just seconds both an exodus and an invasion occurs. Where once was a bedroom, there’s now a street full of 19th century shops and singers.


“He’s like an air-traffic controller,” Managing Director of Production Jen Good tells me, “he has to coordinate hundreds of men and women with hundreds of jobs to do. Lighting crew, carpenters, sound engineers, 48 chorus members, over a hundred performers…outside of that there’s the orchestra, costumers, wig specialists, and on and on. Jen used to have Darin’s job but has since been elevated to Director, “Darin is calm under pressure,” she says, “one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Backstage timing is key. Thankfully in opera, there is always a song to keep the pace. Darin explains that the musical score is not only the soundtrack to the show, it is the road map to backstage production as well. He tells me, “in opera, the musical score keeps time for everyone, the music acts as the glue that keeps everyone synchronized, once the music starts there’s no deviating.”

I ask stage manager Jodi Gage what she thinks of the singers in La Bohème. She says, “this is one of the nicest, most generous casts we’ve had.” She explains that having a chemistry between the four male principal roles in La Bohème is very important. As she put it, “you will love the opera if these four friends really get along.” I walked up to Schaunard, one of the four dark haired and bearded Parisian crooners, and I fully expecting to find a guy named Giacomo from Florence, but I got something quite different:

“Where are you from?” I asked the opera singer.
“Michigan,” he says, “Hi I’m Brad”.

You can’t judge a book by its cover Brad, the costume design team must be very good here I thought.


Ellie Dehn as Musetta and Dale Travis as Alcindoro in Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

“Why are you putting on 3 operas at once Darin? Are you trying to kill yourself,” I asked Darin half jokingly.

“It creates a festival like atmosphere, it’s the stagione style, the NY MET and Chicago do the same, we are part of the top 3 companies in the country.”

The SF opera is performing 3 incredible shows in the coming weeks. Italian operas by Verdi and Puccini which are both famous for having amazing scores that highlight their singers above all.  AND there is Mozart’s Don Giovonni, a timeless piece of music about a womanizer that weaves in both comedy and drama.  
If you would like to catch all three, you can buy tickets here. Otherwise we are giving away orchestra seats to all three productions!  Compliments of the San Francisco Opera and See below:

Click here to view this promotion.

Darin Burnett Production Stage Manager

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Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.