By Charles Bethea
Each summer, the Santa Fe Opera puts on 38 different performances of five shows. In August, there’s a different performance almost every night, six nights a week. In June, when rehearsals begin, the stage is busy around the clock, hosting as many as three different productions in a 24-hour period. Paul Horpedahl, 53, is the SFO’s understated production director, responsible for the look of every show and backstage preparedness. The 2010 season opens July 2 with Madame Butterfly.
SFR: It’s February, and I hear hammering.
In October, we start building sets and props for the coming summer. In the winter, there’s a skeleton production staff of about 14. By the first of June, that blossoms to about 200. All of us are here to make sure that the cast and the orchestra are happy and comfortable.
How do you keep tabs on that many folks?
Right behind you, on that video screen, I have a stage view of what’s happening, to monitor rehearsals or watch shows. I’m here for about 80 percent of the performances in the summer. I’m usually out front, so if something goes wacko, I can respond faster.
We think a lot about the ‘what ifs.’ It’s just in our blood. The biggest regular issue is weather. Last summer, during the premiere piece, we had a huge storm hit us about 10 minutes before the end of the opera. It was a storm with such magnitude that if it had hit earlier in the performance, I probably would have stopped the show. The wind was enormous. There was a huge dinner table set-up, and the wind cleared the entire table onto the floor and blew over chairs. It was pretty dramatic, but the actors handled it beautifully.
How’d you end up here?
My father was a mechanical engineer at the lab in Los Alamos, in the weapons program, for years. I rebelled against being an engineer, but he told me, ‘You do more engineering in a day than I do in a whole year, putting your shows together.’ So I think he sort of got his way.
A Los Alamos childhood…
I loved it. Our backyard was national forest where we camped and skied. I lived outdoors growing up. Which, I suppose, is why I like this place so much. It’s not an indoor job. Growing up here, I didn’t think of the SFO as a place to work. You look past your own backyard. But when I was 20, I started apprenticing with the stage crew. I actually met my wife here. She worked in the costume department.
Tell me about the SFO’s apprentice program.
I like to think this is the most extensive technical apprentice program in the country. We have 75 technical apprentices every summer, and they’re all assigned to a specific department. It’s not an internship where you end up going and getting coffee. You’re in the thick of it all the time: long hours, very rigorous, hands on. You have contact with the designers and directors, which is unusual.
Are your kids into opera?
No [laughs], but they’ve both worked here in the summers as ushers, which is great, because that means I actually get to see them occasionally.
Any wildlife out here?
A bear walked through the patron parking lot one evening. Not many opera companies have bears to contend with! I love working in the outdoor venue. It makes the directors and designers literally think outside the box of a proscenium theater, and reinvent their notions of what the show might be about or how to present it. I love the view from here, too. It’s incredible. No matter how bad your day gets, you walk out on that back deck and look north against the desert and the mountains, and life is pretty great.