Lyric Opera of Chicago (1973-2011)
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
The Civic Opera House in Chicago, shown from the North end, which
is the Stage Door (rather than the Patron Entrance, which is at the South
Notice the columns, which make up a special part of a story told in this
As can be seen from the image below, there was a special series on
WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, devoted to the backstage personnel of Lyric
Opera of Chicago. This ten-week series ran at the end of 1998, and
was repeated at the beginning of 1999. Each program had portions
of one of my interviews, and music that went along with the discussion.
The sixth program featured the Property Master Thomas Gilbert. We
met on the last day of July of 1998. At the time, he was in the midst
of a thirty-eight-year career with the company.
Being there for such a length of time, he saw things from the perspective
of the old, almost original stage-configuration, as well as the newly-renovated
The photos included on this webpage have been selected to show props
as much as possible.
Though not used to public speaking, my guest quickly became comfortable,
and talked knowingly about his specific area. He recounted problems
that arose, as well as hilarious details from his memory.
As we were setting up to record, Gilbert was thinking of unusual things
to tell me . . . . .
Thomas Gilbert: One time, we needed eighty chairs
in the pit for the chorus. I think it was the Poe opera [The
Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe by Dominick Argento.] So,
we covered them all in black. They were the only chairs we could
get from what we had, so we didn’t have to buy any.
Bruce Duffie: [Settling in for the conversation]
What is your title?
Gilbert: Prop Master of Lyric Opera of
BD: How long have you been in that position?
Gilbert: This is my fifth year as the
Prop Master. Before that, for about fifteen years I was the Small
BD: What’s the job of Small Prop Man?
Gilbert: The Small Prop Man does most
of the running around. I was doing rehearsals, and I did most
of the shopping for props, and all the little things everyone needed,
and some of the big things, too.
BD: The Prop Master then oversees that?
Gilbert: He oversees the whole crew,
the whole operation, the staging, all the props on the sets, and the
changeovers, and loading in and loading out, bringing shows in, taking
BD: What exactly is a prop man?
Gilbert: There are different kinds of
props. There are the small props, which are defined hand props.
This means everything they handle on the set. It varies
from baskets, to dish ware, to real food. If they want real food,
we cook it.
BD: Is a sword a prop, or is that a part
of the costume? [See image at left.]
Gilbert: A sword is a prop. It’s
considered an armor, and there is a different person for that. There
is an Armory Man here who takes care of all the armory, including the
guns and that kind of thing.
BD: Does that come under your jurisdiction,
or is it away from your department?
Gilbert: He’s separate. He is by
himself, although he is considered part of the crew, but he really
isn’t. We help him if he needs help. Sometimes he has huge
shows, with all the spear carriers, and he needs more help. But
he has the Federal Firearms License, so he can get the guns when we
need them. He’s responsible for the live ammunition, or live blanks
when there is assigned firing on stage. [See image of Tosca
firing-squad farther down on this webpage.]
BD: He’s responsible to make sure that
BD: Are you responsible to make sure
that props work, or are they just simply there to be handled?
Gilbert: I’m responsible to make sure
BD: What kinds of props have to work?
Gilbert: It could be anything. A
simple suitcase has to open and close. Sometimes they find old
things they like, and if they don’t work, we have to make them work.
A suitcase, or something as simple as an old writing desk. A
lot of times we have to find things, but most of the time we’ve had to
build it from the design from a designer. He tells us what he wants
in it, and that type of thing.
BD: You build it, and maybe age it?
Gilbert: Yes. Sometimes they want
things like quills to write. Then, you put some kind of a ballpoint
pen inside the quill and make that work for them. Sometimes they
have insisted it has to write, even when no one can really see if it
works or not.
BD: How much do you have to be aware
of the person in the very back row of the top gallery with the huge
binoculars that can count the hairs on the guy’s chest?
Gilbert: We don’t really worry about
that too much, because the people up in the back balcony can see a
lot of stuff that most of the people don’t see in the theater. They
sometimes can see over the sets, and they see us crawling around in there.
BD: [Somewhat surprised] It’s not
your responsibility to cover that?
Gilbert: Our real responsibility is to
take care of what the singer and the director and the designer want.
That’s what’s important. Our job becomes mostly pleasing
the singers, because they’re there the whole time.
BD: If you give them a basket to carry,
and they don’t like the basket, you’d go out and buy a new basket?
Gilbert: Yes, or if the singer doesn’t
like the knife... I remember one show and one particular singer.
We spent two and a half weeks trying to find the right bread knife
for her. We bought ten or twelve different bread knives before we
finally settled on one she would accept, because she had to cut the bread
on stage. She was just not happy with anything because she was afraid
she was going to cut herself. So it had to be preset just perfectly.
The head of the bread had to be already precut halfway and ready
to go, and the knife had to be set in a certain spot exactly the way she
needed it. There are some singers that are like that. They
are Method Singers, and they can’t sing unless the Bible is a real Bible
instead of a book just covered in black with a cross on it.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] And then
open to the right verse?
Gilbert: Exactly. [Both laugh]
BD: Before each performance starts, do
you have to make sure that every piece is in the right place?
Gilbert: Yes. Before we go to dinner
at 5:30 or 6:00 o’clock, we make sure everything is there, and it’s
already checked in. We then check it again a half hour before
the show starts. That is the time to catch anything we missed,
and it’s the time that anything that can’t be done beforehand is made
ready... for instance, real food, or something they may want to drink,
such as water or something that looks like wine. It is always prepared
at that time.
BD: Do you ever have a caterer bring in real food?
Gilbert: No, but we have, an occasion,
gone out to a restaurant to get the dinner instead of cooking it ourselves.
We’ve had shows which needed whole roast chickens, so we just
go and buy it at the store already made.
BD: Do you have to account for each plate
and each knife from the banquet?
Gilbert: Yes, and we wash them in the
dishwasher. Everything has to be washed in the dishwasher according
to the AGMA contracts for the singers and chorus members.
BD: Oh, it’s going to be real food and...?
Gilbert: Everything they use
— the silverware, dishes, and especially
the glasses — has to be done in a
dishwasher. [Notice all the glasses in the photo at right. That
image is for sale by a commercial company, hence their watermark.]
BD: Even if it’s just for looks?
Gilbert: No, not if it’s only for looks.
But if they really drink out of it, or eat with it, it does have
to be cleaned in a dishwasher.
BD: What are some of the oddest props you’ve
had to deal with or get?
Gilbert: Right now, in fact, I was out
shopping most of today trying to find forty-three chandeliers for
BD: Forty-three huge chandeliers???
Gilbert: Different sizes. Some
of them were maybe twelve inches by twelve inches.
BD: Do you go to Elizabeth’s
Fancy Lighting Emporium, or do you go to Joe’s Junk Shop?
Gilbert: We’re doing all antique shopping.
The designer is insisting it has to be antiques, it can’t be
reproductions. He’s got a certain style in mind. They’re
in the like late 1880’s in brass, in a little pear-shape design.
He comes in next week, so that will be a little easier. We’ve got
twenty-nine out of the forty-three so far, but it’s a tedious process.
We call it ‘shopping’,
but what we do is take pictures to send him in New York. He looks
at them, sends back his acceptance or rejection, and then I can go buy
the ones he likes. So, every round is a two-day trip to do that.
BD: What if one of the one accepts has
Gilbert: That’s happened, too. So
we just continue back and forth. For the Poe opera, I had to spend
a day looking for a CO2 bottle. It was a modern one,
but in the old style like a seltzer bottle. It was for the blood
effect. She was supposed to explode inside the glass case. He
wasn’t happy with everything they tried to do
with makeup and little blood bags and stuff, so we finally got a full
quart bottle. We put a mixture of real blood and water in there,
and charged it with carbon dioxide. We had to make up a whole
set of hoses for the girl that had to fit under her costume. Then
we had to connect them with hydraulic quick-connects, so that we could
connect it to her, and when she rolled out, she just had to step on a
little modified gas pedal that was mounted on the floor. She had
a full quart of blood sprayed instantly all over the inside of the plastic.
BD: I remember that it worked very well.
Gilbert: It worked incredibly well. It
was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I think I had only
twenty-two hours to do that. It was before the final dress rehearsal.
I had to build it and show it to him before the dress rehearsal.
It was after an orchestra rehearsal of that show. Then we had the
changeover for another show that night. Then we came in the next
day to change it over again to be ready for the dress rehearsal.
It was quite an exciting day, especially when we tried to test it in
the morning. I had everything ready to go, and I showed it to the
Technical Director so he could see how it would work. I tried to
overcharge it, and when we just touched it, it sprayed all over the inside
of the prop room and everybody that was in it. [Both laugh] There
we about six people watching. That was about ten years ago, and
there’s still blood on the wall which they haven’t been able to get rid
of yet. It was quite a sight. At that time I was Small Props,
and the Prop Manager refused to come in the room for four days after that.
He was so mad at me.
BD: It must have looked like a massacre.
Gilbert: It did. It looked just
* * *
BD: Does each opera require its own set
BD: Do the props then go with the sets
and costumes to the next place, or to a warehouse, or can you use
the bowl and silver chalice from one show in another show?
Gilbert: Generally, we do
re-use things. We try to keep them in stock, but it depends on
the show because some shows are ours, and some shows are rented. Even
a rented show is supposed to be complete, but invariably the director
comes in and changes everything, or there’s a few things he wants to do
special that we have to adapt to. Then we try, and if we have to
buy things, we keep them and put them in our stock. Or we take them
out of our stock to use. We do try and keep our shows together if
we can. We pack the shows, and we inventory everything. My big
thing that I’ve been working on since I became the Head Prop Man is to
get everything on computer. I’ve been able to do a lot, and we’re getting
pretty close. We’re probably 75% on our way there. Then, with
the shows that we take to go to our warehouse, they sit there, and then,
if I need something, I know what it is and where it is.
BD: Then you borrow it?
Gilbert: I borrow it from the show.
BD: Then, does it stay with the new show,
or go back the old show?
Gilbert: It usually goes back.
BD: Is there a note with that new show
saying that you borrowed an item from another show?
Gilbert: Yes, but it depends. Some
of these newer shows we’ve done as part of the Twentieth Century Project
during the last decade we haven’t kept. We’ve thrown them out,
so some of those props I have taken put back into the stock.
BD: You salvage what you can, and then
throw away the rest?
Gilbert: Yes. I try to keep everything
possible. Even when we’re shopping and we buy something that
doesn’t work out, I save all my mistakes. That’s different from
movie prop men. I’ve talked with people who do props for movies,
and they’ll buy twelve or fifteen items for something, and when the director
decides on the one he wants, they take the others back. But we always
keep everything, and we put it in stock so someday we’ll use it.
BD: Where is all this material stored?
Gilbert: Most of it is at the warehouse.
The large props are there, and all those small props that are part
of those shows are all stored out there. Here in the Opera House,
the sixth floor used to be full with all of that stuff, but it has been
cleaned out during the renovation. I try to keep more room open now
to use for storage space for current shows during the season. So
most of the small props are here in the building.
BD: Is there ever a time when you’re
shopping for one prop and you see something in the store that you
think would be a good prop sometime, eventually, maybe, perhaps?
Gilbert: [Laughs] Yes.
BD: Do you pick it up?
Gilbert: Oh yes, definitely. Just
last year, I was shopping for one show, buying a table for Amistad,
and it was taking so long for them to find the right person to do the
tax-exempt paperwork, that I bought four canes while I was waiting. Then,
just last week, the designer picked all those canes to put in the Mephistopheles
production because he wasn’t happy with the ones that San Francisco
sent with the show. So, we’re going to put those canes in our
BD: But the San Francisco canes will
go back when the show goes back?
Gilbert: Yes, and I’ll keep mine.
BD: Is there ever a little subterfuge,
where you keep the better one and send them the other one?
Gilbert: Occasionally. [Both laugh]
I’ve been known to keep a few things, and I think they have,
BD: Then this is why you’re making your
inventory on your computer, so that you won’t lose a ladle?
Gilbert: Yes, something like that, but more
stuff like paper props such as letters and documents and things like
that. Sometimes they send some really nice stuff, and I will keep
a few of them. Then I will make copies and send back the rest
because that’s a little harder to do. You need the right person
to do that kind of thing. There’s not many people who do the old
script, and some of the designers want it to look authentic, even though
no one in the audience can see it. You can get away with a lot
here because we’re so far from the audience.
BD: Do you want the public to know and
appreciate the props, or do you want to just be part of the action
that produces a great show?
Gilbert: It should be both, really.
The designers want everything usually to be perfect, but they are not
standing out in the front row looking at it. They come up on stage,
and stand there looking at things. I’ve had a designer tell me
that a piece of paper doesn’t feel right. [Laughs] I told
him that he wanted yellow paper, and that was yellow paper. Sometimes
it is a little bit aggravating because it’s over the top. It’s
more than it needs to be. Some singers insist on having the paper
with what they are singing written on the letter, or having what the letter
is supposed to say. They want it written on there. That’s when
someone has to go get it out of the book, and give it to me so we can write
BD: Are there any props that are destroyed
routinely — letters or papers
that are torn up as part of the action?
BD: If there are eight shows, then do
you have to have ten or twelve of them ready to go?
Gilbert: Yes, usually a couple dozen by
the time they get through the rehearsals. The rehearsal periods
are a worse time for props because the singers break them. As
soon as they get bored, and they sit there, they take their prop and
they’ll go into the corner and play with it. They’ll be hitting
something with their cane, and break the cane. Fans are notorious.
I handed one singer a fan one day, and as she walked out to the wing
to go on for her entrance, she broke it before she went on stage.
BD: What happened?
Gilbert: She just started flipping it.
I don’t remember exactly, but she just started flipping it and
flipping it, and it cracked and was broken. She handed it to
me and said, “I need it in one minute. Can you fix it?” [Both
BD: What did you say to her at that moment?
Gilbert: You try. Sometimes you
take a little piece of tape, and you tape it together. That time
it was one fold smaller. You fold it over, put a piece of tape on
it, and then later you try to glue it that way and make it right. Fans
are the worst. Glasses, of course, get dropped all the time and
broken, as do dishes. However, the most spectacular breakages
Gilbert: Oh, sure. I’ve dropped
a tray of glasses. The first time I had the dishwasher, I had
dozens of champagne glasses to wash. I was trying to figure out
how to get all those glasses in there, so the first time I did it I put
about eighteen of them in. Then I ran the cycle, and when they
came out, I only had six whole ones left. [Laughs] That’s how
I learned my lesson. You can only do a few at a time. It may
take ten loads, but it’s only during tech week that you might have to do
it overnight and do it again. Once the show starts, you usually have
three or four days between shows, so it’s not a problem. It is just
during the tech weeks that it gets to be a little bit of a problem.
* * *
BD: Are you at all concerned with the music?
Does the music influence you in your selection of props, or is
that completely dictated to you by the director or the designer?
Gilbert: Those decisions are mostly from
the designer, the director, and the singers. The music doesn’t
come into that. The singers probably decide the most, because
the designers and directors go away after opening night, and I have to
live with the singers for seven or eight more shows.
BD: Is that good or bad?
Gilbert: I have just learned that’s the
way it goes. On numerous occasions, after the director goes
the thing changes because sometimes the director and the singer argue,
and I’m in the middle. You’re trying to please the singer, but the
director doesn’t want you to do that, or the designer doesn’t like that,
so they insist it has to be this way. But then, when they’re gone,
the singer says, “Now, I want it that way.” It happens every time
we do a show with incense in it. They want incense. They want
to see it and they want to smell it. They want to see the smoke, and,
of course, the singers start objecting right away. Inevitably, for
the second show it’s gone as soon as director is gone. [With a grin]
I guess, we shouldn’t tell them that, though. [Both laugh]
BD: You’re giving
away trade secrets!
BD: [Following up, like a seasoned reporter...]
What else shouldn’t we know? [Laughs]
Gilbert: There’s not too much. There’s
a few little things, but you don’t like to tell everybody all your
BD: Is running properties a fun and satisfying
thing to do?
Gilbert: It’s challenging. It’s always
different, and that’s what I like about it. You may like or not
like the director or the designer, but it’s always challenging. The
hardest part is to please them. It can be really, really hard.
It can sometimes be a painful experience, especially that last
week, tech week, when we are all working and getting everything right.
There’s not many shows like that, but you get through them. You
really feel satisfied when you get it done, and the guy is happy and
he thanks you. He shakes your hand after the opening night, and
goes away happy.
BD: Is it harder to get it up and running
the first time, or to keep it running for ten or twelve shows?
Gilbert: It’s harder the first time.
Once you get through that, things ease up a bit. Changes
inevitably occur during that last week, through the last to dress and
orchestra rehearsals. They are the hardest.
BD: You’re the Property Manager now for
the company, so you do all eight productions?
BD: Have you worked in the same capacity
for theater as well as opera?
Gilbert: Yes. In Chicago, I’ve done
everything in theater. It’s been about thirty years since I started
working when I was sixteen. My first day in the theater, I worked
Sweet Charity at Shubert Theatre.
BD: Doing what?
Gilbert: I was on the rail pulling the
rope. So, I’ve done everything. During my time I’ve
been a carpenter, I’ve been the soundman, the electrician. I’ve
done repertory shows. I spent twelve summers in between opera
seasons out at Poplar Creek Music Theatre. I’ve done everything,
including industrials, operas, ballets, the whole thing.
BD: Then you’re the right man to ask
this question. From your point of view, how is opera different
or the same from a rock show, or from an industrial show, or from a
musical or a straight play?
Gilbert: It’s harder... at least here at
Lyric, it’s harder because everything is in repertory.
BD: That means more than one show is
running at the same time?
Gilbert: Right, and it’s constantly changing.
Designers and directors get upset that you can spend twenty-four
hours a day working on their show, but at the same time I’m working
on their show, I’m working on two other upcoming shows, and I’ve got
maybe two more shows running. So, there’s probably three shows
switching around on stage, and one or two more in rehearsal in the rooms
upstairs. You’ve got everything going, and everything is in the
air. They get upset when they have to have this tomorrow, and
you tell them they can’t. We just don’t have time to do it by tomorrow.
BD: They’ll have it the following day?
Gilbert: Maybe the following day, maybe
tomorrow. It has to be right, and we do the best we can, but there’s
a point where we have to stop and change over to do a show that night.
There’s only so much time every day you can spend on each production.
That’s the hardest part. Everything else you do outside
of this one you’re working. Your whole focus is to do that show
BD: In the end, though, does it all get
Gilbert: Oh yes, eventually.
BD: You’ve never missed a deadline, or
failed to get a prop?
Gilbert: I think there’s only one time...
It was the first time we did the Ponnelle production of Don
Giovanni here. It was something about the food on the table
at the end. He wanted shrimp, and he came up with these ideas, but
the singers kept objecting. He wanted me to get real shrimp and
shellac it, because they were complaining about the smell. It was
a whole two-week period of going through every idea I came up with.
It just didn’t work out. The other big thing was that he wanted them
to throw a cup, but didn’t want it to break or shatter. I finally
came up with some pewter cups. He wanted it bigger and bigger, but
I just I couldn’t find anything bigger. We finally had to settle
with that smaller one, but overall he was very happy with everything else.
It eventually came down to what we probably should have done in the
first place. There was a long period of time I spent looking and
looking and looking, and ultimately I just wasn’t able to satisfy him. So,
we had to settle for what worked for the singers.
* * *
BD: Coming back to these new chandeliers,
are you given a certain budget, and you have to stay within that budget,
or do you just go and buy chandeliers?
Gilbert: No, they established a budget. I
don’t know what the top number is, but they set a target of $350 per
chandelier. Most of them have been coming under that, but I think
we’re getting to point where we’re going to have to look at how much
I have spent so far, and figure out how much we have left. Then,
maybe we will spend a little more on some of the chandeliers to get some
bigger ones to give them a more varied look, because we’ve gotten a lot
of small ones and we got a few big ones. But the three-foot spreads
he probably would like to see are just not cheap. You can’t find them
for under $500, and even then they’re pretty hard to find. Then, the
flyman isn’t too happy about that anyway, because all these have to go up
in air during the show. It’s got to work, because everything else
BD: Are you supposed to try to come in
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Do you
get a bonus if you beat the budget?
Gilbert: [Sadly] There are no bonuses.
[Both laugh] This budget is pretty strict. Most of
the time I usually don’t work with the budget. It usually comes
down to a matter of making them happy. I go out and look, or my
assistant goes out and looks, and then we come back and say these are
options, these are pictures, this is going to be this, this is this much.
Then, I sit down and talk about it, and it goes all the way up.
They say, okay, yes or no, and you eventually either go back and get that,
or you have to settle for something else... or we go down into the shop.
We have a couple of pretty good carpenters downstairs that can whip
out in a day or two what you need and make it look aged. For instance,
last year in Amistad, we were trying to find two tables for the
two sets of lawyers in the trial scene. They had to sit on little
pallets that could only be so big, and they had to be pushed out with push
sticks, and ride in the tracks. So, they had to be a certain size,
and the certain style that he wanted. We couldn’t find it, and we
didn’t have much time, so we made them. We went through a book with
the designer, and he picked out what he wanted to see. We took
that down with the dimensions we had to have, and the carpenters made it.
The next day we brought in the scenic artist to paint it the way he
wanted, and he was very happy. So were we, because it worked! In
the end, it didn’t cost nearly as much as a real antique table that size.
BD: Are there times when you are asked
for an antique, and you give them a reproduction that looks just as
Gilbert: Yes, because sometimes the whole
process of going back and forth of what we want to spend, and what
you want to do sometimes hits a stone wall a little bit. It becomes
a little war of wills of who’s going to win. Then it gets down to
the end, and there’s no time to complete it. When you get to the
last ten days, sometimes there’s just not time to go out and do the shopping,
to spend the time looking. For a chandelier, we’re in the middle
of the summer now, and I can steal a day every week, or two days every
week to go looking. But during the season, when you’re doing changeovers
and shows, that’s a lot harder to do.
BD: When you’re still down ten chandeliers,
can they go without ten chandeliers?
Gilbert: Yes, or they’ll say we’re going to
go get those over there, and that will be it. We’ll get that,
and we’ll live with that, because there comes a time when we’re going to
put these together, and the electricians and the carpenters have to make
all of these work. They have got to figure out how they’re going
to hang them. He wants three in each line hanging from a single
electric line, and he wants little black socks. So, until they
make all the decisions about where everything is going to hang, it is
a process. We can’t sew the socks until the cables are made, and
it is decided exactly how he likes it. The electricians have got
to get the cables, get the right lengths and then finish it all up.
BD: Being Ariadne, is all this for
the Prologue, or the Opera?
Gilbert: I’m not sure. I’ve seen
the drawings, and we look at them, but I never paid attention to what
scene they’re in. It doesn’t matter to me. I just have to
work and get it for them.
BD: It really doesn’t matter where they
are, just that they are there at the right time?
BD: Do you ever make a suggestion for the
use a prop here, or tell them you’ve got something in the warehouse
that can be used there?
Gilbert: Yes, we do that all the time.
We have a pretty good picture catalog of our props
— all the chairs, tables, and stuff that
we let them look through. If that fails, then we bring out all
our research books and look through them. They say what they’d really
like, but they’ll settle for this. Then you go out and try and
BD: What’s the biggest prop you’ve ever
Gilbert: The biggest prop we have is probably
the Buddha last year, the one for the Pearl Fishers. It’s
about 20 some feet long. [Shown at left are photos of the skeletal
structure (above), and the finished item (below).]
BD: That’s a prop, not part of the scenic
Gilbert: Yes. We consider that a prop,
and it’s still in a truck because we don’t know what we’re going to do
with it when we get to the warehouse. They made it one piece, instead
of smaller pieces to put together. I don’t think we can get it
in the elevator to get it upstairs where we’d like, because we try to
keep the first floor of the warehouse clear for the sets. Those
are the hardest things to handle, the heaviest things, and you don’t
want to be taking that stuff upstairs. You can’t take this piece
which is so big, so I don’t know what we’re going to do with it. So,
it’s still sitting in a truck. I think that’s the biggest prop, along
with big statues.
BD: Do you remember The Love for Three
BD: Do you still have the ladle for the
Gilbert: No, they threw that out during
the renovation, along with the rest of those sets. That was part
of the auction for the Opera Center. We cleaned up the third floor
of the warehouse because no one knew what was in there. There were
two rooms as you got off the elevator on the third floor, and you looked
down and some of it was cleared out. We had some stuff there, but
you look back down that room and then the next room, this is two hundred
feet long and twenty-six feet high, and all you can see is crates.
It looked like the ending shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and
no one knew what was in that stuff.
BD: There were no labels???
Gilbert: There were labels, but a lot
of them were empty. Some of them had stuff inside, and some didn’t.
BD: Maybe your predecessor liberated things
for other productions?
Gilbert: It might have been that, or
maybe there was never anything in there since the time they stored
them there. Those crates were leftover from the original Chicago
Opera Companies which used to do a lot traveling back in the early
1900s. [Most of the years and destinations are enumerated in
my articles on Massenet
and Wagner by the Chicago
Opera Companies before Lyric (1910-1946).] So, we went through
all of that stuff and found some antiques, and some really nice antique
furniture we didn’t know we had.
BD: Did you save all that?
Gilbert: Yes, we saved all that. We
found a complete set of the original production of Three Oranges.
The carpenter knew it when he saw it because he was here then.
It was all huge, huge furniture, way oversized, and it’s all orange.
There was lots of stuff like that. Of the stuff we didn’t throw
out, we donated a lot of it to the auction. I don’t know how well
that went, but there were some pretty unwieldy pieces in that Oranges
show, like all those big Plexiglas bubbles that go in little valleys and
roll all over the stage, and those three oranges that open with the peels.
There was a lot of big stuff, like the Cook’s
ladle you asked about. He was on a dolly. It was a big hoop-skirt
steel frame with wheels. He got in it, and then they put the
skirt around them and wheeled them all over the stage. It was pretty
BD: Oh, it was a great scene.
Gilbert: That was a fun opera. I
liked that a lot.
BD: What’s the smallest prop you have?
Gilbert: I’ve been dealing with earrings.
BD: [Surprised] That’s not considered
part of the costume?
Gilbert: Sometimes it is, but sometimes
they use them as props instead of wearing them. I get a lot of
costume props, too, and I wind up having to take care of that stuff.
I’ve had earrings, glitter, coins...
BD: Will the director tell you exactly
how much money the character’s supposed to have in his hand?
Gilbert: Yes, and a deck of cards has
to be exactly a certain way, with the ace of spades on top, and then the
deck has to deal out exactly this way. [The famous poker
scene in La Fanciulla del West was significant enough to be used
on a poster, as seen at right. Her ‘winning’
hand (after sneaking cards from her stocking) is three aces and a pair.]
BD: So, you have to fix it up and make
sure it all works?
BD: I assume you wouldn’t trade this
job for anything.
Gilbert: No. It’s a lot of fun. Sometimes
it’s very aggravating, but it’s a good job. It’s
always different, and that’s what I like. It’s not a 9:00 to
* * *
BD: How long have you been with the company
in some capacity?
Gilbert: This is my twenty-fifth year. I
started in 1973 right after I finished college. I came in to
work the first season as an electrician. I took a year off to try
to get a job in the real world, and then I decided that wasn’t too good
an idea. I came back to Lyric and worked three years as a carpenter.
I was switching to props when the job for Small Prop Man opened up.
That was in 1978, and I’ve been here ever since.
BD: I hope you’re here for many more
Gilbert: I hope so, too.
BD: Thank you for the conversation. It’s
fascinating getting to talk to the people back stage who are actually
making the show work.
Gilbert: It’s more interesting, sometimes.
I’ve often said it’s a better show backstage, watching
us change the sets, or do the scene changes. [Laughs] They
should sell tickets to that.
BD: Should the public really be aware
of how difficult it is to run a show?
Gilbert: I think they would appreciate seeing
how some changes are made, especially something like La Bohème.
The change from Act One to Act Two we do as a pause now [instead
of a full intermission]. In five minutes we change from the
interior Garrett to the outdoor of Café Momus. It is a
pretty amazing change.
BD: What about the snow in Act Three
[shown below]. Is that the props department?
Gilbert: We fill the bag, and we sweep
it up. The carpenters run the pipes to make it work, because
that’s in the fly system. So, it’s kind of a mixture. When
they screw up and dump it on the floor, we have to clean it up. We
have a lot of those prop-sets. We have a snow drop, a paper drop,
a confetti drop, and the streamer drop. There is all kinds of stuff
coming out of the sky in that show, and they’re all in different scenes.
The streamers are in the parade, and the paper drop is the end of
the act. The snow is in the next act.
BD: Speaking of snow — this
time real snow — you mentioned having
to store sets outside of the building.
Gilbert: Yes, on Washington Boulevard
and on Wacker Drive in between the pillars. We hid them. Sometimes
during the changeovers [between afternoon rehearsals and evening performances],
we would take all the pieces out and fill up the spaces between the
pillars before the rush hour. The people going to the train station
were coming by to go home. Then, the next day we would change them
back before the rush hour. We’d bring them all back in again.
BD: You said earlier that some of them
were starting to move???
Gilbert: During the blizzard we had that
problem. I think the production was Capuleti. The
scenery was all covered with tarps, and they caught the wind and broke
loose from the bridge. Everything started to shift on the sidewalk
towards Wacker Drive. The carpenters had to run out and bring
everything back and retie it. Then, we had a problem one year with
Onegin. The bottom of the tree was a hard piece, and the rest
of the tree flew [up into the space above the stage]. The top
part would come in, and to make it look like one complete tree the bottom
part gave it a depth, and a little seat. I forget if it was her or
him who sat on it, but there were also all the flowers. Over the course
of the year, we had to make little flowers by hand and wire them into
the set. One day, during a kid’s show, that piece was sitting out
by the stage door, and after all the kids went by, there were no more
flowers on the tree! [Both laugh] They were all gone.
BD: They had become souvenirs of their
afternoon at the opera!
BD: You also mentioned storing things in trucks?
Gilbert: After we had experienced the
stuff blowing away, we had the same problem again with the huge set
of Parsifal. It went up about twenty feet at the back, and
all those parallel pieces were big and unwieldy. So, we rented
trucks and brought them in. We took each section, which was probably
eight feet by eight feet by twenty feet high, and laid them over and put
them in the truck. We put two pieces in each truck and sent it
out, then brought another truck in, and keep going like that to get rid
of half the set that way. The rest of the set we were able to store
on the stage and live with it. That’s the way the carpenters achieved
those changeovers. That’s the advantage of having a big storage space
back there now, because what happens is we still get jammed up a little
bit. The big difference is that now when we do an opera, even
from opening night to closing night, the backstage arrangement during
the show is the same. No matter what other show is taken in and
put on, it looks pretty much the same if we’ve got the room. If
we have to put the entire hundred-and-some chorus in one offstage spot
to sing, there’s a spot to put them in, and that spot stays there all
the time. An offstage-band spot sometimes gets pretty unwieldy and
big, and that’s a problem getting in there. In the old days, you
could never count on it. We would do one show, and the maestro
would say, “This is a beautiful nice spot here for the
chorus, and a nice spot for the band, and everything is great.”
Three shows later, we bring in another opera and set all the pieces
up, and all of a sudden, he walks in at 7:30 and looks around, and wonders,
“What happened to the room we had here? We
can’t do this.” I had to say, “Sorry,
maestro, but we have to have this set here, too.”
That was a big problem. That was the biggest thing we were relieved
by having that big garage area which builds into storage, so that on stage
every night is pretty consistent. It’s a big advantage.
BD: That’s what you really want, then,
is consistency from performance to performance?
Gilbert: Yes. I remember... especially when
there wasn’t enough room between the cyclorama and the scenery offstage
for the people to walk without brushing the cyclorama and making the
sky move. That made the lighting designer very unhappy because
everything is moving, with ripples in the sky, and clouds moving, and
the sun going away. There were some pretty horrendous times back then,
especially in the ’70s and ’80s
with things like that. It’s a lot easier, much better now.
BD: Thank you for
Gilbert: You’re welcome.
The theater at rest, with its traditional single light, awaiting
the activity of the following day . . . . .
© 1998 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 31, 1998.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again
in 1999. This transcription was
made in 2020, and posted on this website at that
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie
was with WNIB,
Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until
its final moment as a classical station in February
of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in
various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues
his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as
well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information
about his work, including selected
transcripts of other interviews, plus a full
list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with comments,
questions and suggestions.