But for 300 years there were singers of which we have only stories, and no matter how exactly their singing can be described, it isn’t a shadow of the music itself. Then in the late 1870s Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and within 20 years singers began to be recorded. Enrico Caruso, the most famous and perhaps the best tenor of the century, made his first recording in 1902 and his last in 1920 shortly before his death. Between those dates he made more than 250 others for which he earned $2.5 million. What’s that worth these days? Listening to him on a digitally remastered CD with all the crinkling paper noises removed, you can hear what all the fuss was about. He sang the way Babe Ruth played ball, maybe better.
One afternoon in June I talk to John David Peters, head production carpenter of the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio. “We’d never be able to do opera on the scale that we do it in San Diego if we had to build all our own shows. Something would have to give. Scenery budgets alone are between $150,000 and $250,000. Sometimes we rent because a visiting director wants a production he’s used to. Or sometimes we’re a coproducer with several other companies. Or there might be five or six sets of a particular opera available and we look at the pictures. Or there are aesthetic and practical concerns to consider like the size of the stage, but it’s not uncommon to have a set and director that have never seen each other, because they start planning years in advance. Right now they’re budgeting the years 2005 to 2006.”
Although a set may be built or coproduced or modified in San Diego, the designer might come from anyplace. The designer for Falstaff came from Germany. Peters met him once in Chicago and once the designer came out to San Diego.
“Sometimes you never see the designer at all. You get the plans and models and have detailed conversations with the technical staff. I’ll study up on the opera in order to know what I’m dealing with — how wide a stage I need, the size of the chorus, even if there are going to be elephants. If you didn’t know about the swan in Lohengrin, that could be an issue, or that the stage is going to be in flames in Götterdämmerung — you’ve got to know that beforehand. But you have the designer and the technical staff and they say here’s a pack of drawings and here’s the model and we’ll see you in eight weeks and you slowly see it come together until it’s all one piece and the curtains open and it makes an impact.”
When Peters joined the Scenic Studio as a shop carpenter in 1969, he didn’t like opera. He only liked rock and roll.
“I had almost no understanding of opera when I started,” he tells me. “No one in my family listened to opera or went to the opera, so I had no experience with it. But I became involved in it in that it used scenery and I loved making the scenery and I loved the effect of the scenery. But it took five to ten years to appreciate the total effect of the opera as music. I’m not sure there was one opera that took my attention but a gradual sense that the whole thing was pretty neat. But maybe it was hearing Puccini’s La Bohème again and again, because La Bohème is still my favorite opera.”
Talking to men and women about opera, I’m struck by how many point to Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème as the first opera they grew to love. And, too, they speak about that sudden realization of the total effect — that La Bohème is more than its music, which was composed in the 1890s. It is more than its story about four bohemian artists in Paris in love with Mimì dying of consumption in the next garret. It is more than the singers, acting, sets, production, theater, audience, even the cabs waiting outside the door. It’s the whole kit and caboodle.
Enrico Caruso was a great practical joker, especially when singing the poet Rodolfo in La Bohème and especially when Mimì was being sung by Dame Nellie Melba, the autocratic, no-nonsense soprano whose enduring fame is the result of having a dessert named in her honor, as well as a type of toast. One night as Caruso/Rodolfo began to sing Melba/Mimì a sweet love song, he pressed into her hand a sausage that he had had a cohort heat up on a spirit lamp offstage. Melba gave a shout and flung the sausage into the air, while making unprintable sounds. Without missing a beat, Caruso continued to sing, only adding the words, “English lady, you like sausage?” They had fun in those days.
In 1977 John David Peters took his present position as head production carpenter, and as his set-building skills increased, so did his knowledge and love of opera. For 30 years he has been building the sets of other designers. Now for the first time Peters has designed and built his own — the set for Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera Il trovatore or The Troubadour, which opens the San Diego Opera’s 2000 season on January 22. The action takes place during a civil war in 15th-century Spain and concerns brothers separated as children who, unaware of their relationship, love the same woman yet are at war with one another. Also featured are Gypsies, battles, convents, poisoned rings, the tales of a baby thrown into a fire and a witch burned at the stake.
“It was decided for me to do the set for Il trovatore about a year and a half ago,” says Peters. “We started building it at the beginning of September and finished in November. The actual work time would usually take six to eight weeks, but we also had other work to do.”