There’s this piece of paper pinned to a bulletin board in the dressing room area of Civic Theatre called the Bow List. “Mephistopheles leads by the hand Marguerite and Faust for a trio bow then exit,” the first line reads, followed by the rest of the characters in their designated order. Ian Campbell, the opera’s general director, signed off on the list on April 18.
These instructions are something I never imagined existed until I saw them, and they confirmed what I have learned after spending more than week with the cast and crew of the San Diego Opera: Plan every last detail. Just be ready for surprises.
In reporting the final installment of Countdown to Curtain, a series exploring what happens beneath the seams of opera before it debuts, I had two aims. The first was to gage the flavor and intensity of the nerves in the hallway of dressing rooms, minutes before the curtain rose on “Faust.” Wardrobe staff were making small talk as they waited to spring to action. Singers were warming up in their dressing rooms. There were water bottles everywhere. People seemed focused but relaxed.
I had spoken with Greer Grimsley, singing Méphistophélès, as he got his makeup done during the dress rehearsal. When you’re starting as a singer, he said, “the energy translates into nerves, and the further you get into your career, you mange that energy much like athletes do.” I liked his take on “Faust,” which went beyond the standard lesson of watching what you wish for. “Aging is not for the cowardly,” Grimlsey said. The solution is to be “satisfied with where you are and completely embrace the journey, to the point that you have no regret.”
Standing in the doorway of his dressing room Saturday, Stephen Costello, singing Faust, was saving his voice for the stage. He managed one joke. The plan, he deadpanned, is to “try not to suck.” Then he went back to warming up. Soon, it was time to put on Faust’s mask — a stringy contraption that took Steven Bryant, the wig and makeup pro, several minutes to wrap around Costello’s head. As Costello walked to the stage, his wife Ailyn Perez, singing Marguerite, called to him — “Amor!” — and blew him a kiss.
Applause and instruments. The show started. There was one thing left for me to do: find whoever raises and lowers the curtain.