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Nina Valtonen has worked as a stage manager at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet for 21 years: “Stage work is addictive.”

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Nina and I work as a stage manager. That means I give the cues for everything that happens on the stage of the Opera House, both at performances and rehearsals. These include the raising and lowering of the curtain, changes to the lighting and the sets, and sometimes also the entrances of performers. I sit in the stage manager’s booth to the right of the stage, keeping an eye on the score and giving the cues according to the markings in it. I also ensure that the rehearsals and their breaks start and end on time.

What is your most important work tool?

The score, which comprises all the music in a performance, both the singing and the different instruments. The stage manager’s score also contains the important events of the performance and when exactly they take place in relation to the music. Marking these in the score is a crucial part of my job. I work on the score throughout the rehearsal period to make it as easy as possible to read during performances.

How would you describe your typical work day?

This is a profession of extremes, so in effect I have two kinds of work days. There is the manic rehearsal period that starts when the artist team arrives at the Opera House six weeks before the premiere. That’s when I watch the direction rehearsals to understand the scale of what will take place on the stage. The stage rehearsals, in which all the details of the production come together, start three weeks before the premiere. Those are my most challenging and hectic work days, when I’m surrounded by people, objects, sound, light and movement. Sometimes these rehearsals feel like there’s a metal bucket on my head and someone’s banging it.

The other half of my work is downright meditative. For performances after the premiere, all I do is get to my booth, open the score, focus on my routine and then walk home. During these calm periods I study for the next premiere and prepare its score. I can work independently and at my own pace. I don’t even need my mobile phone, so I truly have the luxury of focusing on one thing.

This is a profession of extremes. Sometimes rehearsals feel like there’s a metal bucket on my head and someone’s banging it. The other half of my work is downright meditative.

How do you prepare the score?

First of all, I put on a recording of the work, open the score and mark timings in 30-second sections. If the director’s version has already been performed at another opera company, such as The Tales of Hoffmann, I watch it on DVD and mark the scenes, major changes, and the most important events like love scenes or deaths. I build a timeline, which I will use to inform stage technicians about set changes. Before stage rehearsals start, I go through the production with the stage director, i.e., our technical boss. If necessary, I also have a chat with the director about how different mechanisms work. The timings of events vary thanks to live music and the conductor’s interpretation, so the markings change too.

The markings have to be so clear that even after several years, it’s obvious what happens in the performance and when. We always have two stage managers, called number one and two, assigned for each new production. Number one marks the score and takes main responsibility for the performance, number two is on call and studies the production. If the same production comes back to the repertoire later, number two takes charge. We have a total of five stage managers working on our Main Stage performances.

How did you end up in this role?

I happened to speak up on a terrace one summer’s night in Savonlinna. I grew up in Savonlinna, played the piano and got a Master’s degree in music in Jyväskylä. During my studies, I used to work as a dresser at Savonlinna Opera Festival. One night on a terrace I got chatting with the stage managers of the festival and I marveled at their interesting profession. The following summer, one of them got sick and they were looking for someone to take over on a short notice. Someone remembered our discussion from the summer before, so I jumped in.

A couple of years later, in spring 1997, I was working as a music teacher when I got a call from the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. They asked me to join them as a temporary stage manager. 21 years later I’m still here.

Stage work is addictive. When the music begins to play and the curtain rises, it’s like we’re all getting on a roller coaster together.

What do you like best about your work?

The work community. It’s wonderfully clear how everyone has their allocated role, and by adhering to those roles we create the performance together. Practically all of our productions are amazing, and taking part in them makes you wonderfully proud. Stage work is also addictive. When the music begins to play and the curtain rises, it’s like we’re all getting on a roller coaster together. That feels great.

What do you find most challenging?

The long working hours. Sometimes you work three days in a row, almost around the clock, when you first finish the lighting for the stage and then the final rehearsals begin. The rehearsals take place in the morning and evening, and in the few hours in between you try to fix and organise things. The lack of sleep and long days become more challenging as you get older.

 

What kind of characteristics do you need in your job?

You absolutely have to be organised. It’s crucial to be able to plan and divide your work so that everything happens at the right time. You must anticipate when you’ll be the busiest and explain the events of the production clearly. It also helps if you can stay calm. In stage rehearsals you work under pressure, and sometimes you’re very tired too. You’ll face unclear and unexpected issues, and dealing with those is easier if you’re thick skinned. Whatever happens at the rehearsals, the premiere can’t be moved forward.

In Finland we have no formal training for stage managers. You must, however, have a background in music, as otherwise you couldn’t read the score. You also need language skills, as teams are often international and the working language is English. The rehearsals are very fast-paced and you can’t delay things because you don’t understand what people are saying. The more languages you know, the better. When you work with a new team for 6 weeks, it makes a real difference if you can speak someone’s language.

What happens in the stage manager’s booth?

When I enter my booth, I first make the 30-minute announcement that a rehearsal or a performance is about to begin. Then we have a stage meeting with the individuals responsible for the performance. We check that everything is ok and that everyone who needs to be there is there. After the meeting I turn on the TV monitors, the walkie-talkie and the headphones, as well as start the countdown on the TV monitor that shows how many minutes are left to the start of the performance. I check that the speakers have the right settings in place for the stage and that the light signals are working. I make announcements again at 15, 10 and 5 minutes before the performance. Then the roller coaster takes off.

What happens after a performance?

On a normal performance night, I can leave quite soon after the curtain falls. I walk home in about 15 minutes and empty my head in front of reality TV or social media. There’s no way for me to do anything constructive!

After a premiere, though, no one would think of heading home. When you’ve worked so hard to put the performance together, it’s important to go over the evening and anything surprising that happened. It’s like putting a full stop on the story.

How do the productions look from the booth?

You can’t see them. When you’re in the booth your head and hands are so full of work that you can’t enjoy the art. For that, you need to get a ticket and head to the auditorium. Of course, you can’t take off your professional hat there either. If something is amiss on the stage, you notice it immediately and you wish all the best to your colleagues.

How do you take your mind off work in your free time?

Spending time with my friends and loved ones is important to me. I also enjoy running in Helsinki’s Central Park. I can’t commit to any scheduled gym classes, for example, as my working hours vary so much. The more hectic my work is, the more I need calm and quiet in my free time. I like to knit socks and visit art exhibitions. They are open on Sundays, which is my day off, and they are quiet. The wonderful pictures are a way to completely escape everyday routines and reality.

 

Text TUIKE LEHKO
Photos HEIKKI TUULI