Their names will never be in lights. No flower-filled dressing rooms. No adoring fans. But the show could not go on without them.
Backstage at the Harrison Opera House – home of the Virginia Opera Company – artisans are at the heart of the magic.
A peek behind the curtain reveals a single-minded beehive, focused entirely on a world of make-believe. Sets and sounds. Costumes and props. Lighting and make-up.
At the center of the bustle, a handful of veterans are the lifeblood – rolling stones wed to the theater, professionals applying serious skills to the ultimate game of dress-up.
Pat Seyller, manager of the opera’s costume shop, is a regular on the overnight bus to New York City. Manhattan’s garment district is the best place to feed the fabric needs of an entire opera cast.
Elaborate costumes for the lead singers, sewn from velvets and satins and lace. Or the 44 pairs of matching
Chinese pajamas (7 yards of material apiece) required for the chorus of a recent production of Turandot, based on an ancient fable set in China.
The shop’s staff of five does whatever it takes to pull a production together. Seyller laughs, pointing to a row of washers and dryers. “People say, ‘Oh, your job is so glamorous.’ Really? You should see us doing the laundry.”
There’s plenty of that – especially when it comes to undergarments. “Opera singers tend to be bigger,” she says. “Put a hot light on them and you’re going to get sweat.”
On the job since 1981, Seyller is one of the core crew. She’s a rarity among her colleagues: She’s originally from Norfolk. But like most of them, she’s in town only for the August-to-April show season, heading out for the rest of the year to work at other opera companies, theaters and music festivals.
Also like the others: Seyller is a theater major who’s happiest behind the scenes.
“The stage is definitely not for me,” she says. “I think you have to be born for that. Me? I just always loved clothes and fashion and dressing up my dolls.”
Sewing? Not so much anymore. It’s her job to keep things flowing and organized. Shelves are heavy with labeled boxes:
LADIES FANCY STRAW HATS – CHUNKY HEELED PUMPS – SPANISH FANS – WHITE GLOVES – BLOODY BANDAGES.
Two rooms hold the opera’s huge costume inventory – 42 years’ worth of dreamy gowns, flowing capes, ornate headdresses and
otherworldly get-ups, all hanging neatly in row after row. They get reused, remodeled or rented out to other opera companies.
New productions start with a binder of sketches the shop turns into reality. The crew make their own patterns or copy historical ones – tweaked for modern bodies.
The workload “depends on the size of the cast and number of times they change their outfits,” Seyller explains.
And of course, how complicated the producer’s vision may be.
Chinese pajamas? No problem.
A dove-headed wedding dress? Huh?
That one was for The Magic Marksman, which played over the winter.
“We had to make the head out of thermo plastic, and then make sure she could not only breathe in that thing, but could see and hear, too.”
And then there was the beheading scene, which called for a character to lose his noggin while walking across the stage. To make it work, the shop made a doppelganger, a duplicate costume and a fake head that resembled the performer. They filled out the shoulders with football pads and slipped a petite woman inside. She kept a grip on a stick attached to the head.
The audience never had a clue. The head was plucked off convincingly.
“We look at those as challenges,” Seyller says. “A can-do attitude really helps.”
But a can-do attitude can’t help much in one area: Theater life is tough on long-term relationships. “I never got married,” she says. “I’m on the road too much and not many guys are going to put up with that.”
She shares an apartment with her sister in Bayview.
“I’ll never get rich doing what I do, but it’s pretty great to go to work and love it every day.”
It’s easy to get lost backstage, a labyrinth of lookalike hallways and odd passages. Inside one doorway: Wigs & Makeup, where Jim McGough is brushing a spray of human hair.
Effusive by nature, he pokes fun at his career choice: “Have I lost my mind? I tie hair for a living!”
“Tie” is the term for crafting handmade hairpieces. McGough has made countless wigs and beards in his 19 seasons with the Virginia Opera.
In one way, he has it easier than the costume folks. Heads don’t fluctuate in size as much as bodies.
McGough takes detailed measurements – extras and chorus members tend to be local regulars – and keeps the numbers squirreled away. Shape, nape, hairline, broad forehead, low eyebrows – all noted. For the freelancing, traveling lead singers, he can get the info before they arrive from other theaters where they’ve performed.
Why so many wigs? “It’s easier all around,” he says. “I can have a performer in my chair for hours doing her hair, or I can pop a wig on her in five minutes.
Plus: “People have to sleep. They’d mess it up every night.”
A wig chat with McGough travels through ancient history: “Did you know they found wigs in the pyramids? The caps rot away but the hair lasts forever.”
The conversation meanders around the world. Synthetic hair is cheaper, but nothing beats the real thing, which sells for $45 to $100 an ounce.
Prime sources: Asia, India, Eastern Europe. “Places where women don’t color or process their hair, or sunbathe,” McGough says. “The European hair families – that’s the best if you’re looking for natural reds, light browns or blondes. But it’s too expensive for a small company like ours.”
He usually buys Asian. It’s coarser than European, but more durable. It stands up well to color-stripping.
For Santas – which McGough tends to as a side business – yak hair is preferred.
“It has this ethereal, otherworldly quality that makes a great Santa Claus beard.”
Originally from Detroit, McGough spends his off-seasons doing wigs and makeup at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, one of America’s major performing arts events.
Building a good wig is painstaking. Each takes about a week.
Twenty are lined up on head blocks in McGough’s shop, ready for the next production. Hundreds are in his inventory. They’re sealed in plastic bags, labeled by production, performer, the last time it was cut or dyed, and stored in plastic tubs.
McGough demonstrates his wig-making technique, using a small tool similar to a crochet hook to knot fine lengths of hair through tiny holes in a foundation cap, blending subtly different shades as he goes.
“Root end – point end,” he explains. “Very important to get that right or the hair won’t lay right.”
Come show night, the performer’s own hair is tightly pincurled and wrapped. Wig pins secure the hairpiece, then the real hairline is woven into the wig’s “lace” – a band of fine netting that stretches along the forehead and temples. Dabs of glue-like gum give extra grip.
McGough holds a fake beard over his own chin and smiles.
“Suspend disbelief. That’s what it’s all about.”
In the prop shop, Roberta Brennan is dulling the shine on a gold-colored trophy.
“It was too ‘hot,’ ” she says – blindingly bright under the spotlights.
Brennan follows “the 30-foot rule”: “That’s where director usually sits – behind the orchestra pit – so everything has to look good from there.”
Her workspace is cavernous – the arena part of what was the Norfolk Arena before it was turned into the back half of the opera house in the early 1990s. It’s roomy enough for constructing full-sized sets. Power saws, carpentry tools and supplies take up one section. Brennan works at a table, shelves of paint cans behind her.
Furniture and hand-props are her thing, but “everyone does a little bit of everything around here.”
For The Magic Marksman, she built a dead-looking eagle that had to dangle its wobbly head just so for a hunting scene. And spent weeks making plywood look like an old barn for the show’s huge set.
“I never want to see barn wood again!” she says.
Routinely, “there’s a lot of cross-pollination
between shops.” A parasol – costume or prop? A
period chair – prop or set? A crate?
Brennan shrugs. The only sure thing is she reinforces those.
“You get to know the directors, what kind of
productions they do. For some, you know they’ll have performers jumping on those crates and dancing.
Everything has to be safe.”
Brennan, from Northern Virginia, has been with the opera since 1998. She lives with her boyfriend in Chesapeake, one of the few in the crew who stay in Tidewater year round. Her two roles – prop master and facilities manager – make that possible.
Upstairs, her storage rooms are a fantasy land – stuffed with medieval-looking chairs and tables, oversized chandeliers and urns, Persian-style carpets and silk flowers, vintage beer steins, china and fake food, lanterns and gothic candlesticks, Colonial drums, steamer trunks, realistic pistols and swords.
“It’s gets to be a mess,” she apologizes. “I’m probably the only one who knows where everything is. I’ve touched just about everything in here over the years.”
Most operas fall into two broad eras: rustic or modern. “You can use furniture from an earlier
period, since everybody has antiques. You just can’t use styles that would’ve come along later. I judge by the costumes – what feels right.”
She prowls thrift and antique shops, looking for good deals. People donate items, too – like the full-sized, taxidermist-mounted antelope, lying for the moment on a Victorian fainting couch.
“I have no idea when or if it’ll ever get used, but if someone ever says, ‘Hey, we really need an antelope,’ I’d smack myself if I’d gotten rid of it.”
Show days are long backstage. Early morning ’til midnight. All hands scurrying.
In a rare moment of stillness, they might stand in the shadows, watching the final bows, hearing the applause.
Content to remain where the lights are low.