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Production director battens down hatches in any opera storm

SANTA FE — Paul Horpedahl is one of those people at the Santa Fe Opera who is generally unseen by the audience.

And there have been times in his job as the opera company’s full-time production director when he’s on or near the stage though there is no one in the seats.

Horpedahl recalled three recent preseason sessions to set the lighting cues for “The Pearl Fishers.” The sessions were completed weeks before the opera’s first SFO performance Saturday.

“We were there at night in the theater from 8:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.,” he said. The “we” were the lighting, props and stage crews. Horpedahl was there to solve any problems that might arise.

During performances he will usually hover backstage just in case something goes awry. That could be a prop or part of the scenery breaking on stage, though more likely it’s a weather-related issue, he said. The opera house is an outdoor venue.

Horpedahl recalled the severe weather at the opening night of “Madame Butterfly” in 2010. A serious rainstorm slammed the opera house five minutes before the end of the performance.

“We were very worried about the safety of the artists, the orchestra, the scenery,” he said. “It was blowing very, very hard. There was a lot of rain. So while the stage manager kept the show running, I was frantically checking backstage with people and observed what was happening on stage.”

If conditions had become unsafe, the staff would have been forced to stop the performance.

This is the 15th SFO season that Horpedahl has been the company’s production director and the 26th season overall he has been there. He also has worked for the company as a stage supervisor and an assistant technical director.

But his very first season with the SFO was in 1978 when he worked as a technical apprentice. That same year he even stepped out of his job as apprentice and into an onstage role — as a priest in a scene of “Tosca.”

“It’s not unusual to have a tech crew be on stage,” Horpedahl said.

In fact, a four-member crew will be in costume for a scene in all performances of “The Pearl Fishers.”

“(The princess) is brought in on a canoe with outriggers on four guys’ shoulders. They’re strong and they’re used to lifting things together,” he said.

After the summer festival season concludes, Horpedahl begins a process of planning. The result is that he often flies to New York City to meet with the next season’s — and even subsequent seasons’ — stage directors and designers.

Horpedahl’s off-season work also involves organizing costume sketches, set design models, prop lists and presenting paint finishes for scenery for designers’ approval. All are issues associated with future productions.

Part of the long-range planning may even mean commencing set construction in the midst of a previous season’s performances. That occurred last summer with the set of “Tosca,” which kicked off the SFO’s current season, he said.

“That was a good foot up on (this) season with five new productions, so we have been working on the season since the end of July a year ago,” Horpedahl said.

The early start also was required, he said, because the five productions are all big — big as in many sets and costume changes. That issue of bigness has translated to his production staff growing to more than 200 people. The production staff’s duties cover not only lighting, props, sets and costumes, but also wigs and makeup, orchestra services and audio-visual services. Performances are shown on TV monitors to all dressing rooms.

Because Horpedahl is responsible for many departments, he has to be available to troubleshoot issues that might cross departments. An example of that is the chapel dome in the current production of “Tosca.”

“The shell was constructed by the scene shop. They vacuumed the outside of the domed panels. The paint shop painted the panels and the scene shop installed the panels. The painters had to do a touch-up after they were installed,” Horpedahl said.

There’s more.

“Then the lighting department had to carefully wire around the dome,” he added.

In Act I of “Tosca,” the audience is looking up the side wall of the chapel and into the dome. In the third act the dome is turned and the audience sees its exterior.

For those long days’ journeys into nights that Horpedahl sometimes spends at the opera house, he keeps a cot in his office. He may nap on it before the night-into-early-morning sessions or sleep on it after the sessions end.