By Tom Lady
Wrap your brain around this amazing little factoid: While many opera companies have Production Stage Managers, only very few, as in less than 20 in the whole of the U.S., have it as a full-time position instead of seasonal or contractual.
LA Opera is one of them.
But LAO’s current Production Stage Manager almost wasn’t.
For most of her childhood and adolescence, Lyla Forlani was convinced she’d be a concert bassoonist. The Westchester County, New York native chose Indiana University specifically for their conservatory approach to learning in a world-renowned music school. Better yet, at IU she could still benefit from a liberal arts education on a campus right out of a postcard, complete with red brick buildings and the well-manicured quads.
So what happened?
“What I wasn’t passionate about, and what I’m still not passionate about, is the grueling hours of practice. It’s a lot of solitary hours beating yourself up. I just found….not even the beating myself up, I just found the hours and hours and hours, being by myself, really depressing….During one winter at IU, we got slammed with this massive blizzard. I distinctly remember taking some of the more precarious pathways through the snow between classes. I figured, ‘If I slip and fall and break my wrist, I won’t have to go to bassoon practice that week. Yay!’ That’s a really good sign that maybe your path, precarious or not, is the wrong path. That’s your gut trying to tell you something.”
While pursuing her BS in bassoon, Lyla made the fateful decision of tacking on an associate degree in technical theater, putting her on the five-year plan at IU so she could take Theatrical Rigging. This class had flexible hours that freed her up to get some real-world work experience as a freelancer during that fifth year. That’s when she discovered how tiny the opera world is. It only took a few jobs before people were calling her with tempting job offers. “This is what’s amazing about the opera world. It’s a very small world. It’s all inter-connected….It’s a shockingly small world…If you’re good at your job, people find out about it. After four or five jobs, my phone was ringing off the hook, but I opted to stay at IU to finish my coursework.”
Another example of “it’s a small world after all” happened during a summer internship at Cincinnati Opera. The woman running the rehearsal department also happened to be Production Stage Manager at San Diego Opera. That led to three seasons at, you guessed it, San Diego Opera, which eventually led Lyla to LA Opera. She’d contracted with LAO previously before landing here permanently in the fall of 2001. She started as an assistant to then Production Stage Manager Chari Shanker.
If solitude is anathema to Lyla, being Production Stage Manager is the perfect antithesis. During any given performance, she communicates with and coordinates literally hundreds of people in the cast and crew. And she does it all from behind a console just off stage. “I will only go someplace if I desperately have to. Otherwise, I live in that six-foot space.” She has assistant stage managers on each side of the stage who are responsible for tracking people down, making sure props are in the right place and executing Lyla’s cues and commands.
You take Billy Budd as a for-instance. This piece involved no less than six different entrances for the singers. At the end, before they hang Billy, the entire company entered in single file. Lyla had two assistants there to make sure the singers had the right props and knew their order. Early on in rehearsals, there are always times when people forget things or have to do something incredibly important but forget their prop.
Last season’s Bluebeard’s Castle, half of the Dido & Aeneas / Bluebeard double bill, saw perhaps more drama behind the stage than on it, thanks mainly to the turntable that spun continuously and moved from one location to another throughout the opera. It took Lyla endless phone calls and emails to figure out how that bit of information was documented, whose score had that info, how you were supposed to see the numbers on the turntable, and how that was transferred. “Our turntable had a counter system that started at zero. We had to take the numbers they used and translate it to our counter system. It was particularly brutal. That whole process required endless amounts of communication between my team and [LAO Technical Director] Jeff Kleeman’s team and Frankfurt Opera to figure out how it all worked.”
In the end, of course, it’s all worth it.
“I may not be an expert at every single detail, but I’m involved in every single thing that goes on, and that’s incredibly rewarding.”
To unwind, Lyla finds that nothing quite compares to the Camp Pendleton mud run. “I find running is a great way to de-stress….I’m also an avid reader and love going to the movies. You’d think the last place I’d want to be is a darkened theater, but it’s great because I have no responsibility!”