The production department at an opera company is a crucial force behind each and every performance on stage, taking on the mammoth task of mounting the production and running it smoothly. A long-standing axiom holds that while the artistic team is in charge of providing everything with a heartbeat onstage (singers and actors, orchestra members, even animals!), the production department is in charge of everything without one—the set, costumes, property elements, lighting instruments, and more, plus the designers and technicians who create and make them all function correctly and efficiently.
BLO’s Production Department, headed by Technical and Production Director Anna Labykina, is a high-achieving group of professionals who move mountains (or sometimes build them, if the opera demands) to create magical operatic experiences—and who are all women. Whether an accident of timing or fate, it’s a fact that was not lost on them over the course of two group interviews this fall. “It’s becoming a lot less unusual to have a female technical director, or a female assistant technical director…but everyone at the same time? That’s the unusual thing,” says Ms. Labykina.
The backstage and production side of opera (and theater) have historically been a male-dominated sphere of technicians, carpenters, painters, engineers, designers and more. One study of 22 New York theaters’ seasons over the course of five years (2010–2015), Women Count, found that female set designers for productions ranged from a low of 22% to a high of 36%; lighting designers were overwhelming male, with women reaching a peak of only 16%. Locally, gender disparities in performing arts production are not quite as pronounced, though they persist. “Especially in the Boston community, there are a ton of really strong women freelancing in theater production, in all departments, so of course there’s an all-female production department in this city,” notes Katy Clanton, Production Coordinator.
From the demands of intense days at the theater to overseeing a crew of more than 40 members (on average) during peak times, the BLO Production Department has developed a culture of hard work and pride, as well as a keen awareness of the needs of the team and adapting to each member’s strengths. “I’ve rewritten my job description every year I’ve been here,” says Jessica Johnson Brock, Production Operations Manager. “…It goes back to the structure of our department and the fact that we have prioritized remaining flexible.” And with the myriad changes that BLO’s move from the Shubert Theatre has brought, this adaptability has been key. The Company now operates in a model that is closer to a hybrid of a touring opera company—moving from venue to venue with each show, with all the attendant complications and logistics—and a presenting opera company, bringing new productions from conception to performance.
The Production Department has grown accustomed to being geographically spread from BLO’s administrative office downtown, to its warehouse in Avon, MA, to the multiple rehearsal venues and the four performance theaters of the 2016/17 Season. “We essentially shift our entire functionality to mobile when we’re in production,” says Ms. Johnson Brock. Communication is key, as is a strong team rapport. The department goes on staff team-building retreats once or twice each Season, tackling sumo wrestling on the beach or ice skating as a way to learn things about themselves and each other, build trust, and create community.
Much of the team currently in place was assembled by Bradley Vernatter, Production Director, who recently moved on to Opera Omaha and continues to consult for BLO in a part-time capacity. With his departure, Ms. Labykina assumed the position of Production and Technical Director, a job that she says, “doesn’t exist,” laughing. “I know of only one other company (Houston Grand Opera) that has this [combined] position currently,” she says. But Ms. Labykina, who has been at BLO since 2014 in the capacity of Technical Director, knows firsthand the advantages of having one person in the role, balancing artistic concerns with technical demands. For instance, the task of making decisions on creative team members (such as set, costume, and lighting designers) traditionally fell to the Production Director. Those designers then work most closely with the Technical Director throughout the process of realizing their visions onstage. In her new position, Ms. Labykina is ideally suited to see the process, and many others, from both sides.
This hunger for constant challenges—and triumphing over them—drives most, if not all, of the group. Lighting Designer Bailey Costa describes her own satisfaction with her work: “[I’m] trying to maintain the vision of the design, maintain the integrity of the design, and solve practical problems at the same time. I find balancing that interesting, and endlessly so.” Others echo her sense that her position is an ideal fit. “What makes me tick is puzzles,” says Ms. Johnson Brock. “I love when I find a problem before it becomes a problem, and fix it ahead of time. That is one of the most gratifying things for me.”
And working on the all-female team? It has some advantages, they say. “There’s a benefit to having women in leadership roles and other women around them,” says Ms. Costa. “…A lot of times we interact with crews who are all men, and a lot of times, just because they haven’t seen it, they don’t trust that we are coming from a place of experience that is equal to theirs.” With the department’s focus on creating a robust team, developing clear processes, and building trust, each of the women has learned to respect the others’ skills and judgment. “We’re all strong women with strong personalities, but that’s good in that we are able to be up front and honest with each other,” adds Production Administration Assistant, Lindsay Conrad.
The team’s longest-standing member, with five years at BLO, Julia Noulin-Mérat is also a scenic designer and works with companies across the country, so she has a uniquely wide view of the field. “Our industry has become more self-aware in terms of the lack of gender parity,” says Ms. Noulin-Mérat. “I am really proud that when it comes to our department [at BLO], it happened naturally. We didn’t set out to be an all-female team, but having one is worth celebrating.”
At the end of the day, they all know this moment, too, will pass. Opera productions close; staff members move on to the next leg in their careers. Then it will be time to welcome new team members (male or female), adapt again, and begin dreaming up—and engineering—the next show.
THE CORE BLO PRODUCTION DEPARTMENT:
- Anna Labykina Technical and Production Director
- Jessica Johnson Brock Production Operations Manager
- Katy Clanton Production Coordinator
- Lindsay Conrad Production Administration Assistant
- Alix Strasnick Assistant Technical Director
- Julia Noulin-Mérat Associate Producer
- Bailey Costa Lighting Director
- Lisa Charlotte Berg Props Master
Images (top to bottom): Lisa Charlotte Berg, Anna Labykina, Alix Strasnick, and Bailey Costa take a look at set renderings at the BLO warehouse in Avon, MA (L-R); Lindsay Conrad, Katy Clanton, and Jessica Johnson Brock at the BLO administrative office (L-R); BLO Associate Producer Julia Noulin-Mérat at OBERON in Cambridge.