A seasoned and dedicated team brings Opera Carolina’s mainstage productions to life.
photographs by Richard Israel | by Cathy Martin
About 10 times a year, including matinees and evening performances, Belk Theater sizzles with soaring arias, palpable drama, and often, elaborate hand-tied wigs and exquisite costumes. But planning for each of Opera Carolina’s three annual mainstage productions begins many months — sometimes a full year — in advance, before the season is announced to the public.
Started as the volunteer-run Charlotte Opera in 1948 with a budget of $150, the company performed at East Mecklenburg High School, then at Ovens Auditorium for 35 years. It was rebranded as Opera Carolina in 1989 and settled into its current home at Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in 1992.
SouthPark contributing photographer Richard Israel embedded backstage among cast and crew during Opera Carolina’s fall production of Puccini’s masterpiece, Tosca. The tragedy set in 1800 Rome is centered around Floria Tosca, played in Opera Carolina’s production by soprano Alyson Cambridge, and her lover, painter Mario Cavaradossi, played by tenor John Viscardi. The cast of characters includes an escaped prisoner, a cathedral caretaker and a corrupt police chief, and the action takes place in a whirlwind 24 hours.
“It’s one of the best combinations of drama and music ever created,” says James Meena, artistic director of Opera Carolina. “You can get so wrapped up into it musically and dramatically, even if you don’t know the language.”
Clockwise from top left: Alyson Cambridge as Floria Tosca; Martha Ruskai applies Cambridge’s makeup backstage; John Viscardi as Mario Cavaradossi; tools of the trade; makeup artist Mark Boley; Mark Boley applies Viscardi’s makeup; a selection of wigs.
Martha Ruskai, a wig designer and makeup artist, started in the business in 1983 and has worked with Opera Carolina since the early ’90s. She previously taught in the wig and makeup program at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where she lives and owns a wig-rental business.
“Jim Meena and I have known each other for most of our careers,” Ruskai says. They met at the Toledo Opera when both were living in Ohio. Ruskai became more involved with Opera Carolina in 2001, shortly after Meena’s arrival in Charlotte.
As a contract worker, her roles might include designer, stylist, wig-maker or makeup artist, depending on the company. “At Opera Carolina, I generally do all of them,” she says.
“The planning process for designing wigs, hair and makeup for an opera begins as soon as the season is announced, sometimes earlier,” Ruskai says. She begins by listening to the opera and reading the libretto. “Many of them I know already, but I still review everything because it is important to look at each one with fresh eyes,” she says. “If I don’t know the piece, I dig in deep early to make sure that we have budgeted appropriately, because there are shows that appear to be simple that actually end up involving a lot of wig and makeup changes.”
Next, she discusses the approach and concept with the director of production, the artistic director and the stage director. She’s worked with Tosca director James Marvel off and on for about 20 years. “We have a sort of shorthand,” she says, which makes communicating ideas easier. When working with new directors, it’s essential early in the process to make sure their visions align. “I never assume anything, even if I’ve done a show 20 times, until I talk to the director.”
Her staff can vary from four to eight, depending on the size of the production and complexity of the styling.
“It might take us 10 minutes to style a wig and do somebody’s makeup. It might take me an entire day to style an elaborate wig.” Sometimes wigs are purchased ready-made; others are made specifically for a production. Some of the wigs can take 200 hours to build, Ruskai says. Both wigs for Floria Tosca were created for Opera Carolina’s production.
Clockwise from top left: Martha Ruskai applies makeup to tenor Johnathan White; White as Spoletta, one of Scarpia’s henchmen; a scene from Tosca; baritone Steven Condy as the villainous police chief Scarpia; a costume backstage.
Backstage crews are overseen by Opera Carolina’s director of production, Michael Baumgarten, who is also the company’s resident lighting designer. A production like Tosca has a running crew, including stagehands and costumers, of about 18 people, and a load-in crew, which brings in set pieces, of about 35. As director of production, Baumgarten’s responsibilities include hiring staff, budgeting, scheduling, working with the stage manager on a rehearsal schedule, and organizing transportation for sets.
With a master’s from Yale University’s School of Drama, Baumgarten started out working on Broadway. He spent four summers at Santa Fe Opera, where he first crossed paths with Ruskai in the ’80s. There, he made connections and started getting hired for more opera jobs. He estimates he’s designed lighting for about 450 opera productions in his 38-year career, including about 90 Opera Carolina shows.
Typically, the cast and crew is in the theater for only one to two weeks, depending on the schedule, which requires quick work. “For Tosca, we did it all in one week,” Baumgarten says. “We brought the scenery in on Sunday, and Tuesday was final dress [rehearsal]. So between Sunday and Tuesday, we had to get the set in, I had to focus all the lights and make all the light cues.”
It helps when you’re familiar with the show. “At this point, I’ve lit Tosca about 15 times, so I know what Tosca is about,” says Baumgarten, who spends summers at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, where he’s been director of production and lighting designer for 28 years.
During a production, union workers run the lighting board. “I point a lot,” Baumgarten says.
Sometimes sets are built from scratch, and sometimes they are rented. For Tosca, the wing-and-drop set — painted to look 3-dimensional — was rented from New York City Opera.
Juggling both roles isn’t easy. “You have to be able to be focused,” Baumgarten says. “You’re either organized or you’re not. It comes down to being fast and efficient and knowing what you want to do.”
Clockwise from top left: the orchestra pit; Artistic Director James Meena; a couple of Tosca’s youngest performers; Emily Jarrell Urbanek, director of music preparation; William Congdon, percussion and music software programmer; singers rehearse
Artistic Director James Meena has been at Opera Carolina for almost 23 years. He stepped back from his role as general director in 2018, but when Covid hit he sprang into action, working with his team to develop new ways to reach audiences. The opera had been through challenging times before during the recession of 2009-11, but the pandemic was a different kind of test. With large-scale in-person performances on hold, the company created new programming through virtual content on the website, outdoor neighborhood pop-ups and opera dinners. The new programs were so successful, the company has continued them.
“We started to build our resident company during Covid,” Meena adds. “And that is just a huge paradigm shift. We now have roughly 20 singers who are part of the resident company,” including six principals. Opera Carolina pays for lessons, music coaching and performance fees. Four singers had principal roles in Tosca; in Opera Carolina’s upcoming spring production, La Traviata, almost the entire company is part of the resident company. “That’s unheard of in our business,” Meena says.
“We’re really lucky [in Charlotte] because we’ve got a good, good pool of talent. … Part of what we want to do is make this a place where artists want to stay, they want to live and hone their skills and perform. That’s all new. And it’s been fun.” The opera’s youth academy also expanded, offering programs for students in 3rd grade through high school. Some of the members performed in Tosca.
For performances, Opera Carolina subcontracts Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians, with Meena as the conductor. “Charlotte’s an interesting city,” Meena says. “We have really great relations with the ballet and the symphony and the Mint, particularly. We really are close and we work together and support each other. That doesn’t happen in a lot of cities — that doesn’t happen in most cities.”
While Covid spurred Opera Carolina to expand and strengthen its community programs, the pandemic took an unfortunate toll on the performing-arts industry overall, specifically in shrinking the pipeline of up-and-coming talent.
“What Covid ended up doing was pushing some of those folks [out] who were just building their careers,” Meena says, including wig and makeup artists, stage managers and directors. Many talented young professionals already opt for film and TV work because it offers longer contracts and, in turn, steadier pay, adds Ruskai.
“And there is a simultaneous movement to do more realistic productions, more contemporary productions … so those of us who can style period wigs and paint a character are fewer and fewer between,” she says.
But for Ruskai, who started out as a singer, there’s nothing quite like opera.
“If there isn’t an orchestra tuning when I do makeup, I feel funny. I’ve done Shakespeare festivals multiple times. I’ve been to New York to do plays … but it doesn’t feel right if I don’t hear an orchestra tuning. It’s just one of those things.” SP
This month, Opera Carolina will present Geroge and Ira Gershwin’s classic Porgy and Bess, set in Charleston, S.C., in the 1920s. Performances are Jan. 22 and 26 at 2 p.m., Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit operacarolina.org.