Reality Opera

We go behind the scenes of Tosca to see how a life-and-death drama comes together for the stage

At the end of Puccini's Tosca, the heroine, Floria Tosca, plunges off a building in despair over the death of her lover.

Perhaps it's bad form to give away the ending, though anyone planning to attend the Knoxville Opera's production of it probably knows how it ends. But this tragic finish is something that poses a particular challenge, not just to the actress playing Tosca, but also to the production crew helping to make sure the show goes as planned.

"The only challenge is the last part of the opera because she has to leap off a parapet. You don't see her commit suicide, but you see her disappear," says Brian Salesky, the Knoxville Opera general director and conductor. "No matter how high the set, it's always a challenge for the soprano not to hurt herself, because she's in shoes."

"The last time we did Tosca, she wouldn't jump," says Rebecca Parr, Knoxville Opera stage manager. "It was a much higher height than [the current set]. She wouldn't jump. So she stabbed herself instead."

Catching despairing sopranos is just one of many tasks required of the stage hands at Knoxville Opera. Setting up elaborate sets, primping wigs, getting the actors to walk on stage at the right time, making sure muskets shoot properly (but don't kill anyone), managing sound effects, lighting, and making sure the curtains open and close properly are just a few of the many other job tasks.

For this production of Tosca, the crew will have several mats in place behind the parapet for Tosca to land on. The actress will walk off the four-foot-high structure, out of sight of the audience. Several crew members will be there to catch her if necessary. The crew will practice the fall with her several times until she feels comfortable doing it.

"She can't land standing up because [the audience] would see her," Salesky says. "Or worse, some Toscas bounce back up."

Work for this Tosca production started on March 31, when the crew began piecing together how it will look on stage. For any opera, Parr's work begins when she's given the score and set layout. At the Knoxville Opera office and practice space on Depot Avenue, her first task for the show was to tape out lines on the floor where the set will be, so the actors will have a sense of the spacing as they rehearse.

She's an old pro at this now, but Parr remembers the first time she stage-managed an opera. Her background in college was theater, so she was intimidated when first confronted with a musical score back in 1990. Don Townsend, the Knoxville Opera's current production manager, was then its stage manager.

"He handed it to me and I said, ‘I don't read music, sir.' He said, ‘Don't worry, you'll catch on.' Opera is very timed and very precise and is based on music. It was terrifying. But I've learned to fake it," Parr says.

The Knoxville Opera practice space seems a long way from the stuffy aristocracy the art form evokes. The large warehouse where the company rehearses looks like a garage, with a cold concrete floor and old furniture and props stacked high against the walls. Computer monitors and Office Depot boxes collect dust.

But during a recent practice for Tosca, the beauty of the actors' voices stands out all the more in this industrial setting. They go through a scene in a church, stopping for a brief debate on whether the characters should genuflect, bow or make the sign of the cross as the cross passes before them. Another cast member says the men should remove their hats in the church.

During the rehearsal, Parr sits at a table, scribbling notes and conferring occasionally with the director and conductor. At one point, she walks across the room, points at some actors who are gabbing along a wall and motions sternly for them to be quiet. Occasionally, she'll bark out sound effects—yelling "boom" in place of a canon explosion. (A sound recording will be used during the actual show.)

"What I have to pay attention to is everything," Parr says after the rehearsal. "I have to be in the moment and be two or three steps ahead."

Townsend's job is to make sure the opera has everything it needs: He orders the set and the costumes and arranges for the actors. "His job is specific to getting the artists here. He's like a gatherer," Parr says.

But Parr's job is to make sure that everything operates the way it should on the stage: that people are in place and walk out onto the stage at the right moment, that everyone is safe, and that the equipment operates the way it should. She is also something of a troubleshooter, should any problems arise. That could mean repairing the set or replacing a costume. "Get that bulb and put it in," she says.

When she graduated from the University of Tennessee with a theater degree in the early '90s, Parr was hired by Townsend to be his assistant stage manager. "I was offered a job that paid while I was in college and I thought, ‘Wow, that's awesome.'"

She stage managed a show in the mid-'90s, but was overwhelmed by the experience. "I knew I was in over my head," she says. But a few years ago, she felt ready to tackle the job.

Parr says her biggest responsibility is safety. "Safety is the number-one job. Together with the quality of performance, but they have to go hand in hand," she says. "A theater can be, and is, a dangerous place if these things are not handled properly."

Production crews vary in size, depending on the set. For Tosca, Parr wasn't yet sure the precise number of people who would be needed. But aside from her and her assistant, there will be six to eight people to move sets around, three to four to move props. There will be a technical director, flown in from Oklahoma. There will be one or two flymen, workers who are up on the rails, in charge of the curtain and other props. There will also be carpenters, an electrician, a lightboard operator, make-up artists, wig designers, and a wardrobe mistress.

During the show, Parr will be stage right, directing the behind-the-scenes action. "Some stage managers are sequestered in a booth. But I want to be able to see what's going on," she says.

In America, stage management isn't as creative as it is in Europe, where more public funding is available for opera. In the United States, sets are rented out, which means different productions are relatively similar, she says.

Parr doesn't foresee any difficulties with the set, but she won't know for sure until it's assembled at the Tennessee Theatre. "This is a high set. We'll have to watch to make sure there are no entanglements with wires," she says.

This can sometimes lead to some frantic moments. One of these happened during a recent production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino. Shortly before a gun was supposed to go off, Parr had a problem with her headset and couldn't hear or communicate with her crew. "I got lost," she says, right before she was to signal for the gunshot. "I'm trying to figure out how to get back on track while my crew is trying to fix the problem."

Guns are also fired in a scene of Tosca. Several muskets are used in the execution of Cavaradossi near the end of the play. Knoxville Opera uses real muskets, filled with gun powder, but not bullets. A professional in using gun props will load them before each show. "You always have to use professionals," Salesky says. "You never hire anybody who says, ‘Hey, I've got a gun.' Invariably, one of the guns won't go off. That's why we use six or seven."

For his part of the production, as conductor of the orchestra, Salesky says his main task is to keep the musicians from playing too loudly, overwhelming the singers.

"I spend all my time going, ‘Shhh, shhhh,' to the symphony. It's easier to play loud than soft, because you don't have to think about it," Salesky says. "It's very easy to be swept up by the passion and urgency of the music. This is reality TV. Real people are speaking. It's in your face. If you can't soften those instincts, you get very loud and mediocre opera."

Additional reporting by Jack Neely