Skip to Content

School of Music

  • Behind-the-Scenes with Opera

Behind-the-Scenes with Opera at USC

It takes more than great vibrato, colorful costumes and powerful scores to make operatic magic. Veronica Rice, stage manager for Opera at USC’s upcoming production of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), explains what goes into making an opera really sing!

What makes working and performing with Opera at USC a unique experience?

USC has an amazing music program in general and I think every area is fabulous. We have wonderful professors and classes that offer great opportunities for students in and out of the School of Music, but Opera at USC provides an experience that no other program can. Our performers are not just in an opera — they have their hands in every part of it. Opera requires so much behind-the-scenes work from the entire cast and crew. And it is such a memorable experience. 

Director Ellen Schlaefer stresses to opera is about connections; it’s about who you work with and being reliable. Ellen tries to make the program and our shows as professional as possible and stresses the importance of memorizing our lines. 

As stage manager for The Magic Flute, what are your responsibilities? I know, I know I should say Die Zauberflöte, but that’s hard to say!

(Laughs) Yes! Well, one of my primary roles is to help with the blocking. That’s the term for performers moving on the stage. When they enter, exit, whether left, right or stage center — all those things are determined by Ellen. She may decide to change these directions as things go on and as we put the picture together. I’m at every rehearsal to notate all blocking decisions for future reference.

Although Ellen will have some notes beforehand of what she might want to do, she really loves to watch what the cast members do with their character and what feels natural for them. It is a very creative process for her. When we start running scenes, we often “puzzle piece” things. Because Ellen tries to be respectful of others’ schedule, their responsibilities and outside commitments, she schedules rehearsals as best as possible to go directly through the opera. But sometimes we have to skip a number or a piece of dialogue. It is like creating a quilt. You’ve got a bunch of different pieces you eventually sew together. So, sometimes things will change. I document these changes, too.

During each performance, I’ll be the person backstage with a headset calling, “Standby Rail cue A, Light Q 34 GO…” I’ve been part of both the cast and crew in several operas. I think it’s very beneficial for a performer to know what’s going on behind stage and what people are doing out “in the house” to help a show come together. Opera is such a collaborative art form, and many people are required to bring it together.

So how large is The Magic Flute’s cast? There are several leading roles and a chorus, right?

Yes. We have 28 cast members plus an off-set crew. The Magic Flute is a huge show, not only because it needs a pretty hefty chorus or a decent sized chorus, but there are a lot of lead roles. I mean, you've got Tamino and the Three Ladies. You have Papageno and Papagena – they are two different people. Also, Monostatos, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. There are so many roles — and that doesn’t include the orchestra. Altogether there are over 60 students working onstage, backstage, as ushers and in the orchestra pit. 

Of course! What’s an opera without live music? Ensemble members with the USC Symphony Orchestra perform  for Opera at USC, right?

That’s right. We use an orchestra during the actual show. They rehearse two to three times a week with conductor Neil Casey on their own outside of rehearsal. Pianist and opera GA Jiamo Zhang is the only instrumentalist at all the rehearsals. Her entire graduate assistantship is dedicated to the opera program, learning all the music and playing for all the rehearsals. She’s fabulous to work with! 

It’s rare for a college to have an accompanist who can play the entire score for every rehearsal. And usually only the pros have the orchestra conductor present, too. Maestro Neil Casey is at every rehearsal. That is more common in professional houses, and even with summer programs. 

We’re very lucky to have Neil. He’s very singer friendly. He breathes with you and gives you enough time to come in. It’s very helpful to have somebody like Neil there who knows the music so well and can give direction like when to breathe or add more legato. 

Opera at USC rehearsingDo the singers and orchestra get an opportunity to rehearse together before opening night?

Yes, during sitzprobe, which is a fancy German word for sitting and singing. This rehearsal is a chance for the singers and the orchestra to go through the opera together without the distractions of staging and is right before tech week. We have ours the Sunday before the show opens.

Since it’s the first time to run through the whole show with the orchestra, we might do some things twice or three times to get it set. Sitzprobe is for the singers to finally hear the orchestra before we’re shoved on stage and have to get used to costumes, props, staging and Drayton Theatre. Our rehearsal room at the School of Music is not as big as Drayton so everything must be changed a great deal once you get onto the stage. Singers must remember that things are farther apart and to give themselves more time to enter and exit.

And what about role changes? Does opera have understudies like theatre?

Ellen tries not to double cast roles, which I appreciate. We put a lot of work into our roles, learning to dive into a character no matter how big or small. If you have two different Taminos they might have two different views of how to play the role. One Tamino could seem very sad and remorseful and the second Tamino may be angry. I just think it’s better for the audience to experience the same cast.

Of course, it can be scary if a cast member gets sick!

When do you begin rehearsing for a production like The Magic Flute?

The cast list went up in September and we begin musical preparation with vocal coach Dr. Lynn Kompass. We began staging rehearsals when the semester started in January. Typically, an Opera at USC production takes about 26 weeks of preparation; eight weeks of this is committed to the full out staging/dress rehearsals.

When do you start interacting with props and the set? I know Opera at USC often has elaborate sets!

Opera at USC employs local carpenters to build the sets. Mike LaRoche heads up the team of these stage management specialists. The set is built in Opera at USC’s warehouse by the crew with help by opera students and takes about two weeks of hard effort. 

My assistant stage manager Ellis Carroll made replicas of the three big platforms we’re going to have on stage for The Magic Flute. The platforms are going to be these giant 360 rotating platforms that cast members will move at certain points throughout the show to different areas. Ellis made cardboard replicas that are a little bit smaller than what will actually be on stage but allows the singers to know there’s a platform here — not to run into it but step up onto it.

We have a rehearsal that literally just allows the cast to run around and see and feel the stage so they know what to expect. We’re going to have a lot of lighting changes, too.

As for props, we start thinking about props from the beginning. During our first rehearsal, Neil and Lynn ran through the music with us. I sat in a corner with Ellen. She had her big yellow notebook with notes for which props she planned to use. As we watched the rehearsal, she had me make notes of additions like we need a goblet here or Tamino needs a bow and arrow. Things like that. 

Ellis Carroll is sort of our honorary prop master since we don’t actually have a prop master because we’re a school. Ellis will go into the Moon Room — this giant room that is connected to our rehearsal room — that houses some of our costumes and a majority of our props. She has spent hours digging in the Moon Room finding the props that we need. We were able to find some from the original Magic Flute production the last time it was performed here. Most of the time, we must find new things. 

For Papagena, assistant stage manager Grace Harding is making a paper maché egg because we didn’t have an existing prop. We have plates, the pan flute — we even have a giant bird cage — but didn’t have a giant egg lying around. So, it had to be created.

Who’s responsible for keeping up with these props?

One of Ellis’ jobs is to set up the props table and bring out any prop needed for rehearsal that day. This is a prop heavy show.

One character has five to six props on him always. He has a birdcage that he wears like a backpack, he enters with a giant net, because he's a bird catcher. He carries a pan flute and a satchel with a multitude of items used throughout the show. So, Ellis make sures he has what he needs!

Tell me about the costumes for The Magic Flute.

We keep our costumes a little under wrap! What I can say is we’re going for a very fantastical, magical realm for The Magic Flute. It’s a whimsical opera and has been described as a fantasy, an allegory and a love story. Even though it was written in the 1700s, Mozart wanted this to be a fairy tale storybook setting. Other companies have done crazy things with Magic Flute: it’s been set in space, in the 50s and even during the gold rush era. Ours is more like Mozart intended with very magical, fantastical imagery. 

Heather Gonzalez is our costume designer. She personally constructs each costume and often every costume is made virtually from scratch. She does fittings throughout the entire rehearsal making sure characters can bend and move. When you have people tumbling around on stage, costumes need to move with them. Heather makes sure a costume works for every individual person. And she makes sure that they have all the accessories that they need. All the tail feathers… hint, hint… Magic Flute has birds!

Tell me about the singing. Aren’t operas sung in the language they were composed? How can I follow along if I don’t know German, French, Italian?

Most operas have supertitles which is a giant screen above the stage at the very top of the proscenium — that’s the space in front of the curtain. We’ll have someone in the booth clicking through, making sure the English subtitles follow the score. I’ve had to do supertitles in the past and know the anxiety of making sure I’m following the score precisely. Even English operas need subtitles sometimes!

You hope the characters are compelling enough, though, to bring you into the plot without words up on the screen. If you just follow the expression on a face, their movements or how they interact with each other, even if you didn't speak a word of German, I think you would still have a general idea of what’s going on. When the Queen of Night comes on, you know she’s bad. When Pamina and Tamino first meet, you just know they’re in love. But subtitles definitely help!

Constructing opera sets.Earlier you mentioned the cast has their hands in all parts of the production. Would you tell me more about that?

Sure. For instance, all the cast and crew need to go to the warehouse for at least two hours and help with painting. Personally, I painted the floors of our giant platforms using a big roller and the stairs that are going to lead up to the side of the ramps that people enter on. Everyone has helped with something like that. They all are there for load in and load out, bringing sets in and out of the theatre. The cast have their hands on every part of our productions. It’s what makes our shows so memorable. There’s a saying, “There are no small roles, only small actors.”

Our cast has help, too. We have five graduate assistants dedicated to the opera program. One oversees social media; one helps with the props. Another helps with ticket sales and fundraising. We also enlist of professionals. The set is designed by Dr. Joseph T. Gardner, a retired theatre professor from Davidson College and lighting designer is Julie Duro, who works out of New York. This is Julie’s 15th show with Opera at USC.

I want people to see this effort and to recognize Opera at USC is an outstanding program and experience how amazing opera is!

Veronica RiceVeronica Rice received her Bachelor of Arts in Music with an emphasis in Vocal Performance from Wingate University in 2019 and a Master of Music with a double concentration in Vocal Performance and Vocal Pedagogy from East Carolina University in 2021. She currently attends The University of South Carolina as a Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance candidate. She has performed in 13 full-length operas, 11 of which she held a supporting or leading role, and two which were world premieres. Veronica has also worked multiple crew positions for various operatic works: assistant director, stage manager, assistant stage manager, assistant house manager, supertitles creator, and camera operator. Her most prominent roles include Lauretta in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Mother in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Ann Putnam in Ward’s The Crucible. She has been a soloist in large works such as Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, Vivaldi’s Gloria and J.S. Bach’s Magnificat. 

About Opera at USC

Opera at USC offers a truly comprehensive program for both graduate and undergraduate students, covering every facet of opera production, both on stage and behind the scenes. Singers, directors, pianists, conductors, marketing and public relations students and theatrical technicians get expert teaching and intensive hands-on experience in their respective crafts. Each year, it presents two fully staged operas featuring undergraduate and graduate singers, instrumentalists, and pianists. The program relies on annual support from donors to help supplement our budget to cover all of the production costs. Click to support Opera at USC!

Click here to purchase tickets to Opera at USC performances.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.