Behind the scenes: Santa Fe Opera backstage tour

From the front of the house it looks like it’s all done with smoke and mirrors. Take the Santa Fe Opera backstage tour and you’ll see a lot of the hard work and talent it takes to make that magic seem effortless. The Santa Fe Opera backstage tours are offered Monday through Friday from early June to late August (see complete information at the bottom of this post),

Behind the scenes

Two days before the opening of the 2015 season, Paul Horpedahl, the Opera’s Production and Facilities Director. Horpedahl, who’s been with the opera on and off since 1978, gave us a behind the scenes look at the infra-structure at this world-class opera house. We had taken the tour a few years ago, but the backstage area underwent an expansion last winter, much of it is different (and bigger) than it was. Our timing for the tour was perfect, two days before the first opera Daughter of the Regiment, premiered. All five operas were in production and the backstage area was at full throttle.

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

Wigs stored in the Santa Fe Opera wig shop photo/Steve Collins

Our tour began in the wig shop where human hair is fabricated into period hairdos. Professional wig-makers were hard at work creating hairpieces for the season’s productions.

Costumed for success

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

The busy costume shop at the Santa Fe Opera. Blue skirt on form is for Salome, photo/Steve Collins

As we entered the costume shop (which we’re told has doubled in size), we passed a blue skirt draped on a dress form that costumers are working on. Horpedahl tells us that this is for the Richard Strauss’ Salome, opening Saturday, July 18th. The opera, based on the Oscar Wilde play, was originally set in Herod’s Court in ancient Rome. For this production, the time period advances a few millennia to 1905, Europe’s Belle Époque era, when the Wilde penned his play.. If you want to see how those famous seven veils are integrated into the production, you’ll have to come see it.

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

Sewing costumes at the Santa Fe Opera costume shop photo/teve Collins

At the height of the pre-production season from 65 to 70 people can be seen at work in the vast costume shop. The room is filled with all the accoutrements of the trade including pattern cutting tables, sewing machines, huge tables for ironing and steam irons that get water through a system of overhead tubing reminiscent of an IV system. People are quietly working at their tasks. I asked a woman working at the front of the shop if she ran the place. She chuckled and then replied, “It takes a village,” and indeed it does.

It takes a village

Pre-season hundreds of backstage professionals are employed behind the scenes getting the productions ready. Before the recent renovation this busy studio had no heat (a few people do work here year-round) or air-conditioning; they do now. Most of the workers throughout the opera come from other opera companies, ballets, regional theaters and universities around the country. They also have about 70 apprentices working throughout the opera culled from schools around the country who are working on related undergraduate degrees. From April 1st to June 1st the backstage crew grows from about 35 year-round people to over 200.

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

Spray dying a garment to get an aged and dirty look photo/Steve Collins

We pass a laundry room used to prep fabric before continuing to a dye room where much of the fabric used is dyed. Next to it is a “spray room” where garments are put on forms and sprayed and painted with dye. Why is this necessary? “If you want to age the garment, Horpedahl explaines, “you don’t want to dye the whole thing.” He points out a military jacket that has sweat stains created under the armpit as well as garments that have been given signs of wear. From the stage, these will look authentic. “You don’t want everything to look new off the shelf,” he adds.

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

A mask in the opera’s hat shop, photo/Steve Collins

Our next stop is the hat shop which also has a collection of masks from this one of this year’s productions as well as past ones being used as prototypes that haven’t gone back to storage yet.


Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

Last minute work to the set of Dauhter of the Regiment photo Steve Collins

Then it’s on to the backstage area. The set for Daughter of the Regiment, which was having its dress rehearsal that evening, is already in place. Signs of work are evident: a few ladders and other equipment that will be removed in time for the rehearsal. It’s interesting to see the set from this prospective. At the end of our tour, we’ll see if from the front of the house. The stage has a turntable which helps with set changes. There are extension pieces that can be added to make the stage larger, an elevator platform and stairs leading up to the stage from the ground level. The backstage may look familiar to anyone who’s seen the film, Crazy Heart which was mostly shot in Santa Fe).

Next we head to the principals’ dressing rooms. Unlike many opera and theater companies, there aren’t individual dressing rooms for the stars; they share. Some costumes are already on racks ready for the rehearsal.

We pass the chorus make-up room with wigs adorning the shelves and then a quick peek into the chorus room. I notice rehearsal notes for the chorus tacked onto the door.

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

Chorus dressing room, photo Steve Collins

When asked what the biggest costume disaster was, Horpedahl says he can’t remember disasters. Whenever there’s a disaster, he relates, he’s immediately working towards the solution. He recounts a story he heard from his wife who was a draper when it happened. The story wasn’t funny at the time, but it is in retrospect. Three women in the chorus had costumes with billowy skirts. Curtain weights were placed in the hems to keep them down. During the run-through, a strong wind blew one of the women’s skirt up and the weight hit her in the head knocking her out cold. As opera season coincides with monsoon season a time of afternoon and evening thunder storms, there are many stories about performing through thunder and rain. The back of the open stage can be closed if the weather gets too fierce.

Setting the scene

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

They were busy in the shop that makes the scenery photo/Steve Collins

We then head to the scenery shop where they’re working fast and furiously. It’s pretty loud with saws and hammers going full-bore. Workers here all wear earplugs and goggles.

Next up we tour the prop shop. It’s full of a range of items that will be used in this season’s operas. We see a few chairs that Horpedahl tells us were made from old frames that were reupholstered on site. The workshop has craft area, a soft goods area, and a painting area. On a table there’s a lacquered whole pig, laid open on a platter for a dinner scene in Rigoletto.

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

The painting that gets stabbed and the roasted pig in the prop shop, photo/Steve Collins

For a scene where an oil painting is stabbed, they made multiples to have enough for rehearsals and for each night the opera is in production. These are the kinds of things we civilian don’t necessarily think of. The original says, “Do Not Stab Me,” so it won’t be destroyed in error. All of the props are made to be as realistic as possible which helps “inform the artists’ singing.” Horpedahl adds. We see a rack of pack backs for Daughter made with fabric and cowhide. On the wall there’s digital clock with a rendition of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream counting down the days and hours to opening night.

The grande finale

Santa Fe Opera backstage tour photo Steve Collins

The view of the set and stage from the front of the house, photo/Steve Colins

Our tour ends in the front of the house. The set takes on a different aspect when seen from this side. Look at the stage which is open to a panoramic mountain view. Look familiar? That too was in Crazy Heart. It’s the stage that Colin Farrell performs from at the movie’s end. We thank Horpedahl for taking the time from his busy schedule (he literally works from morning into late at night during this time of year) to show us around and head off into the heat of the day knowing that beyond the smoke and mirrors there’s a lot of hard work, talent, and dedication.

Santa Fe Opera Backstage Tour photo Steve Collins

Counting down to opening night photo/Steve Collins

If you go on the Santa Fe Opera backstage tour

Where: Meet at the box office.
When: Tours are offered at 9am Monday to Friday from early June to late August. Check the opera’s website as days vary slightly from year to year.
How long: An hour.
Cost: In 2015 the tour is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and free anyone under 22 years of age.
Accessibility: The tour has a lot of steps to climb but there is an accessible version available. To ensure there’s a guide if you need an accessible tour, a bit of advance notice is recommended. This tour will cover a more limited area than the regular one.
Tours my vary: This is a working opera company. Tours may differ based on what is going on and the needs of the company at any given time.

The last Friday of June, July, and August brings the “Opera Ranch Tour.” This guided tour through the opera’s beautifully landscaped gardens meets at the box office at 10am. The cost for the tour is $20 per person. Reservations are not needed

Author’s notes: Private tours can be arranged with advance arrangements.
We were given a free tour of the Santa Fe Opera so we could share it with our readers. All opinions are our own.

Have you taken the Santa Fe Opera backstage tour?







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10 Responses to “Behind the scenes: Santa Fe Opera backstage tour”

  1. Paula McInerney
    July 20, 2019 at 9:32 pm #

    It sure does take a village to make such magnificent productions

  2. Marilyn Jones
    July 22, 2019 at 10:25 am #

    It is amazing the work that goes into a production! So many talented people making sure everything is as perfect as it can be! You did a great job taking your readers on this backstage tour of the Santa Fe Opera!

    • Billie Frank
      July 23, 2019 at 7:50 am #

      Thanks, Marilyn. We loved seeing the inner workings at the Santa Fe Opera!

  3. Lois Alter Mark
    July 22, 2019 at 10:59 pm #

    I love getting a behind the scenes look at institutions like this. I can’t believe I still haven’t been to Santa Fe. I hope to change that soon!

    • Billie Frank
      July 23, 2019 at 7:51 am #

      You should! It’s an amazing place to visit. There’s no other US city like it. It feels like the Spanish Colonial city it was.

  4. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    July 23, 2019 at 6:34 am #

    Amazing! I had no idea of all the people working behind the scenes to make a production move smoothly and “effortlessly.” I’ll remember this the next time I see a play and now, you’ve piqued my interest in watching an opera too!

    • Billie Frank
      July 23, 2019 at 7:53 am #

      It depends on the place. The Santa Fe Opera had a large infrastructure in-house. If you want to a Broadway theater it would be vastly different as most things are done off-site. There are probably other companies with an active behind the scenes world, but I don’t think they’re the norm. Great research project!

  5. Suzanne Fluhr
    July 26, 2019 at 12:00 am #

    This was a fascinating view behind the scenes of the Santa Fe Opera House. I never stopped to think how everything ends up like it does when the curtain goes up. I mean I knew there had to be some activity back stage, but the number of truly skilled workers they need to pull off these productions is quite amazing. Since this is such seasonal work, do some of the backstagers have other jobs during the rest of the year or do they follow itinerant opera companies around the country.

    • Billie Frank
      July 29, 2019 at 7:09 am #

      .It is amazing and they do have other jobs- other opera companies, regional theater, ballet and some go back to school. Not sure there are itinerant opera companies. This one sure isn’t.

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