From cars to animals, props are part of a production’s core. Whether they have been sourced for a new production or arrive as part of a production that’s rented from another opera company, props all have stories behind them. Working with props involves researching about new worlds and eras to help tell the story. This can often lead a props coordinator or production assistant on a scavenger hunt through several antique shops, online auctions, or even to the nearest seaport.
The discovery of new props can often be the most thrilling part of the whole experience. For LA Opera Prop Coordinator Lisa Coto, this was certainly the case with the 2010 world premiere of the new opera, Il Postino. “It wasn’t a set that had a ton of props in it, but what was there had to really tell a story. A lot of heart went into that show,” says Coto.
Coto has worked as the company’s props coordinator for the past five years; Il Postino was her first show. She recalls visiting Talley Ho Marine Salvage & Décor in San Pedro, CA, and purchasing a used boat directly from owner Allen Johnson who is also an experienced fisherman. He was so knowledgeable and enthused by the production that the company invited him in to teach the cast and crew about different netting techniques. A video recording of his hands mending nets is featured in the show projections for the final production. For Coto, Allen Johnson is now not only a valuable resource but a personal friend.
Walking around the stage is a reminder that not all props are newly purchased. Props for the upcoming double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci are being unpacked and inspected. Shows such as these that have been built and propped several years ago are finally seeing the light of day from being in storage. In some cases, shows are rented and travel around the world to different opera companies where sometimes the props must be updated or repaired. It is always exciting to see what we find when a show is unpacked for the first time. In addition, props yet to be assigned to a particular show are held in storage rooms, where various brick-a-brac line walls of shelves. It’s just as easy to find a 19th century sword as it is to find a large plastic ravioli (one of Coto’s favorite stock props).
LA Opera has a plethora of “stock props” and it is a part of Coto’s job to maintain the valuable antiques that are increasingly hard to come by. One of Coto’s other favorite stock props – it sits in her office – is an as-yet-unassigned 1928 portable Brunswick phonograph record player that has been refurbished to play music once again with a simple hand crank. She encourages people to stop by and play a fox trot from an original 1908 10-inch record if you have the time.
From a single peak behind the curtain, it is clear how vast and intricate the world of props is. Props for various shows serve a multitude of different design aesthetics, even though they may technically be the same type of item.
Today – the stage was lined with bikes from both Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci. The untrained eye cannot always tell the show bicycles apart, but there are some that fit that darker, less modern aesthetic version of Schicchi, while others are straight out of the 1990’s inspired Pagliacci. This is very much the challenge of those who work in the field of props. How can a world be created through props that is seamless, where singers transform into operatic characters and stories unfold over hours on stage? It’s a challenge that those at LA Opera live up to year after year, whether through sourcing new props or searching through an assortment of existing props waiting to see their day on stage.