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Behind The Scenes: 'Samson And Delilah'

The final set for the San Diego Opera's "Samson and Delilah."
Beth Accomando
The final set for the San Diego Opera's "Samson and Delilah."

New San Diego Opera Production Brings The House Down

Behind the Scenes: "Samson and Delilah"
Behind the Scenes at 'Samson and Delilah'
KPBS art reporter Beth Accomando talks with director Lesley Koenig about her production of "Samson and Delilah."

ANCHOR INTRO: Opera can be a transformative experience. That’s what the San Diego Opera’s new production of Samson and Delilah aspires to do. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes us backstage .   Lesley Koenig had her life changed when she was 8-years-old and was taken backstage at the San Francisco Opera. LESLEY KOENIG: I saw a rehearsal with work light, a piano in the pit, the singers were wearing their street clothes, the scenery was marked which means not all of it was there, and it was without any of its production values and I was completely and utterly enchanted. And it took me less than 10 minutes and I asked who was in charge and the person said the director and I said that’s what I’m going to be. She had her first interview with the San Francisco Opera’s General director at age 10, was hired at 17, and staged her first opera at the Met when she was 23. Whew! Koenig made her San Diego Opera directorial debut in 1995. She returns this month to take on “Samson and Delilah,” and to bring her enthusiasm for opera to San Diego audiences. LESLEY KOENIG: I think opera should be wildly entertaining in the sense that you get a chance to sit in a live theater with lots of people and experience something together. At “Samson and Delilah,” you will experience something epic says Ian Campbell, General and Artistic Director of the San Diego Opera. IAN CAMPBELL: The moment the curtain goes up you know where it’s set, you know that it’s grand, you know that Cecil B DeMille was involved. RON ALLEN: It is indeed a Cecil B. DeMille production in every way shape and form. This set takes up the whole stage what you don’t see on stage is back stage being in storage and it’s huge there is no space to move at all. Ron Allen is director of production. He says the challenge is moving enormous set pieces around in a very limited space. RON ALLEN: We have 3 different scenes and they are moving all the time. There’s a 25 minute intermission to do the scene change even with 41 guys. And it takes well planned choreography on the part of crew. TAG: The San Diego Opera’s “Samson and Delilah” plays tonight and on the weekend at the San Diego Civic Theater. You can watch Beth’s behind the scenes video at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G. RON ALLEN: It takes the rehearsal of the backstage people just as much as the people on stage to get a production correct. For director Koenig getting the production correct also means making sure the small details get as much attention as the big ones. LESLEY KOENIG: I really like telling the story, having the intimate moments on stage even in a scene with 120 people. The story comes first. I really like a clean visual aesthetic so we’ve cut lots of stuff out of it and pared the set down to the essentials. For Koenig those essentials include a focus on the characters. So at the beginning of Act 3, the audience may look up in wonder at the huge grist mill on the stage but their emotions are drawn to the recently blinded Samson and his suffering. Koenig adds, “That scene when he’s alone and he hears the voices of his people in his mind is just so stunning. Then the next thing you see in a scene change is 120 people onstage and a huge philistine bacchanal. And it’s really spectacular. So it’s a really great story and it’s exciting and it ends with the demise of a temple.” The familiarity of the story of Samson and Delilah makes it a good first opera says Ian Campbell. IAN CAMPBELL: It’s in the Bible, we all have some image of Samson and having his hair trimmed which makes him less potent so that he can be captured, blinded. Then there is the famous ending in which Samson brings the temple down. That makes Ron Allen smile with unexpected delight. RON ALLEN: The collapse is the best. There’s a lot of noise, there’s screaming, everything looks like it’s coming in on top people so it’s really pretty spectacular and quite fun. But what’s great about this is everybody dies at the end, that’s really unusual for opera, you usually get one or two but in this one you get everyone gets dead by the end of the thing because of the temple. It’s great. The San Diego Opera’s “Samson and Delilah” brings the house down by mixing the epic and the intimate and delivering a memorable theater experience. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

The San Diego Opera’s "Samson and Delilah" opens this weekend. Go behind the scenes to see what it takes to bring this Bible story to the stage.

The San Diego Opera’s "Samson and Delilah" is all about scale.

"It’s a big sucker," exclaims Ian Campbell as he looks at the set being moved in for "Samson and Delilah" on Wednesday. "Behind us we have the load in of the set for 'Samson and Delilah,' and the load in is when everything comes off the truck and then is assembled on stage. It’s one of the biggest sets actually put up in this theater and it takes an awful lot of people to put it together as you can see…. The moment the curtain goes up you know where it’s set you know that it’s grand, you know that Cecil B DeMille was involved."

"It is indeed a Cecil B. DeMille production in every way shape and form," says director of production Ron Allen, "This set takes up the whole stage what you don’t see on stage is back stage being in storage and it’s huge there is no space to move at all."

General and artistic director Campbell adds, "Works of this scale always scare us. So with orchestras, choruses, wig and make up crew, electricians, stage hands just go through it it’s an astonishing number of people."

"This one we have 3 different scenes and they are moving all the time there’s a 25 minute intermission to do the scene change even with 41 guys. Well it’s choreographed," Allen says, "Our stage hands have to rehearse because this wall has to go here, and before that you have to move the other wall out and you have to move that wall in and this can go out and another piece has to go in from above but of course before you can move that you have to move another set… our technical director really choreographs it."

Backstage at the opera a lot of jokes are made about how being skilled at Tetris helps to fit all the massive set elements into the limited space of the Civic Theater. Allen adds, "It takes the rehearsal of the backstage people just as much as the people on stage to get a production correct."

For director Lesley Koenig getting the production correct means making sure the small details get as much attention as the big ones: "I really like telling the story, having the intimate moments on stage even in a scene with 120 people. The story comes first. I really like a clean visual asthethic so we’ve cut lots of stuff out of it and pared the set down to the essentials."

To make sure the right things are pared down and the essentials are let in, Koenig likes to walk around the theater during rehearsals. " I like to come down and really see people up close, it’s one thing to sit back where we tech the show which is always row M, that’s where you sort of get the perspective on what the stage looks like you can see the stage floor so you can see if the light’s spilling and what not but I like to come up close to see what they look like up close and then I know they are going to look good faraway."

"Samson and Delilah" is a good first opera since the story is such a familiar one.

"It’s in the Bible," states Campbell, "We all have some image of Samson and having his hair trimmed which makes him less potent so that he can be captured."

"This is kind of a fun one because they actually decided to do the haircutting onstage, a lot of times they go off stage and the wig person will be back there to cut it off," explains Steven Bryant, wig and make-up designer for "Samson and Delilah."

"But we have a really great mezzo who is really good with the scissors," Bryant continues, "and she knows exactly where to cut every single night she’s been spot on. And so what we’ve done is this wig has to be used over and over again so the back of it is rows of wafted hair that every day we take these out after they have been cut and put them back in and then there are some little secret ones up here that are long that blend in, if I show it to you you can see the cut line where she cuts every night. And so we’ve blended it in with other long ones so you can’t really tell where the cut line is and so we cut it actually on stage in full view of the audience which makes it a little bit more spectacular and right after they’ve cut his hair, the guards come out because he no longer has his strength, the guards come out and gouge his eyes out with a red hot poker, and so we’ve come up with this, this is just a Halloween effect that we’ve modified a little bit, it’s the gouged out eyes there’s a little piece of scrim that when the light that you won’t be able to see his eyes in there but he still has to see the conductor and then when this gets on his face there’s other blood effects that come dripping down his face and it’s a real gory effect, it looks really good."

And that brings us back to the notion of scale. The opening of Act 3 contrasts a monumental set with the suffering of the blinded Samson.

"He’s pushing a great grist mill and that scene when he’s alone and he hears the voices of his people in his mind is just so stunning," says Koenig, "Then the next thing you see in a scene change is 120 people onstage in a huge philistine bacchanale. And it’s really spectacular. So it’s a really great story it’s easy to understand, it’s exciting and you know it ends with the demise of a temple."

"The collapse is the best it just is the best it’s grand in every way shape and form," enthuses Allen, "Basically what happens with it is there are statues on both sides that will tilt as he is pulling down the temple; the pillars are structured if you were a kid had one of these horses that was taunt and then if you pressed the bottom and it loosened the strings it kind of collapsed, that’s actually the principle of the pillars. We release the tension on the pillars and they kind of collapse like that little horse did as a toy so it looks like the whole thing is coming down. There’s screams, there’s thunder, there’s fire, it’s really terrific just great."

Spoiler alert: Everyone dies.

The San Diego Opera’s “Samson and Delilah” opens Saturday night at the San Diego Civic Theater. It will also be broadcast live on KPBS Radio.

Also, the San Diego Opera may be the only -- or at least one of the few -- that have cartoonists come to the opera to do sketches. I saw Batton Lash and Eric Shanower there doing fabulous work. Here are some of Lash's drawings and here are Shanower's sketches. It's great to see how each brings his own style to the sketches. Another reason to love the San Diego Opera.

For comparison, check out the trailer for Cecil B. DeMille's 1949 film adaptation of "Samson and Delilah."

Samson and Delilah - Trailer