Tour of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

Inside the War Memorial Opera House
Inside the War Memorial Opera House

The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House gives monthly guided tours for a small fee of 25 clams per person. On these tours, visitors get a sneak peek at the current production as a work-in-progress, and, we’ve heard from several sources, that, depending on the docent, you get to see different parts of the house, meaning each tour is uniquely different. Here’s a quick rundown from our visit on October 2, 2010 when the house was preparing for Verdi’s Aida:

The Lobby

  • The light fixtures were made in Oakland.
  • The marble, on the walls, columns, and stairwell is from Tennessee.

The House

  • The stage extends 84 feet back.
  • Center stage, there was a small desk with a table light plugged into an extension cord where one of the staff. oversaw the crew. The desk was covered with binders full of paperwork.
  • 72 pipes hold the drapes (curtain).
  • A lot of the sets and scenery from past productions are housed in a separate warehouse.
  • The original design of the house was supposed to incorporate pipe organs though not a lot of operas require pipe organs.
  • Crew can run a bridge from orchestra to stage to move instruments and equipment.
  • There’s a catwalk to the chandelier to change lighting.
  • All the gold on the fixtures is gold leaf.
  • The orchestra pit has a moveable floor to transport pianos and harps.
  • The house also has a wind machine, which is turned by hand.
  • The curtains are made of silk and have a historical significance. So any remodeling or renovation needs to go through strict policies.
  • The curtains weigh 3,000 lbs.

Production Crew

  • Another crew member stands in the middle of the stage calling scene numbers.
  • All crew members have walkie talkies, two-way radios.
  • The prompter has to speak seven different languages only twenty people in the country who can do this. They have a nook behind the stage.
  • There are three video monitors on everybody acting.
  • Can’t really see the maestro.
  • Monitors are available for performers as well so they can see their maestro.
  • Supertitles are controlled by computer.
  • Lighting is all cued in advance.
  • The crew needs to synchronize everything, lighting and supertitles, with a principal to match whether she sings slow or fast.

Behind the Stage

  • The green room is at the back entrance, where guests can leave notes for talent.
  • Credentials only sign in front of green room.
  • Console monitor has three screens
  • Women’s principal dressing room has a full bathroom, a piano, a fan, a hair dryer, and is fully stocked with honey, curlers, makeup brushes, and bottles of rubbing alcohol everywhere.
  • Women are on one side of the stage and men on the other.
  • Clothes and wardrobe is equipped from across the stage.
  • In the women’s dressing room, the dresser is piled high with hair product, cotton, tea cups, bobby pins and safety pins.
  • Music stands are tucked everywhere behind the stage.
  • Lockers in the hallway.
  • Under stage is the rest of the cast’s dressing rooms and one level below is for supernumeries.
  • Gated audio equipment that is locked with warning signs all over it, including this sign: “LAPDANCE”, which stands for “Line Access Panel Digital Audio Network Control Enclosure. Death to those who arrange equipment.”
  • Black cables running everywhere.
  • Need to climb up to the prompter’s roost, where there’s a chair, monitor, libretto, a fan up there.
  • Prompters are there for hours, which can get claustrophobic.
  • Notices are posted to the walls every place that has main traffic so the cast and crew get updated notices.
  • They also receive text messages for updates.
  • Sub-basement where supernumeries change, the extras all have one shared room.
  • Call sheets are posted everywhere along with a schedule of productions.
  • Ladders also clutter the backstage.
  • There’s a lounge for wardrobe and makeup with posters of past productions.
  • The chorus has their own quiet room where there’s no food allowed.
  • Practice rooms are sound proof. No private lessons are allowed.
  • One of the rehearsal rooms is equipped with a computer that can simulate the performance environment, so the singer knows what she may sound like in huge halls, resound back, know how to project voice. Need to keep the architectural integrity of the house.
  • The music library holds all the music for all instruments.
  • Everyone has to have proper music on their stand.
  • There’s also a musical dictionary.
  • Musicians better not have the wrong score sheet, so for every rehearsal and performance, the staff need to have the correct number of copies. Someone has to keep all of this straight.


  • All wardrobe for the next show is fitted well in advance, so the costumers need all measurements up front.
  • The rest of the costumes are stored at 9th and Howard.
  • Everything is labeled with names to it.
  • Clothes basket, laundry room.
  • Again, monitors are everywhere.
  • Everything gets laundered for the next day.
  • Plastic sheets with the costume changes listed inside of them along with times/cues as well as instructions on how to wear and fix makeup.
  • All costumes are in alphabetical order and order of changes.
  • The laundry room is packed with dryers, steamers and magnets are on all the appliances.
  • Six days a week the laundry room is busy.
  • The San Francisco chorus live here, so they’re always working.
  • International guests can sometimes stink up the clothes because they don’t use perfume.
  • 25 piles of laundry on average are cleaned a day.
  • With Aida, there’s 500 lbs of laundry.
  • Whatever is worn next to skin has to get washed.
  • Each cast member gets three towels as well: a hand, face, and wash cloth which also has to get washed.
  • Each cast has different colors for chorus, principals, but the towels are not monogrammed.
  • Most other opera houses don’t provide towels.
  • We also supply water for our maestros, which is a bonus.
  • Rolling carts above.
  • 6 months out of the year the ballet shares the facility.
  • Spend $3,000 on soap.
  • Run the machines three to four times a day.
  • Costs $75 for dry cleaning per costume.
  • Costumes that come from other productions smell differently because different companies use different detergents.
  • Cotton can get ripe pretty quickly.
  • The launderers also need to clean during dress rehearsals.
  • Vodka spritz can take away smells, just vodka, cheap vodka and water in a spray bottle saves the day.
  • One of the singers always comes and smells bad. The staff feels like they have to wear a gas mask.
  • 28 dressers are employed because it takes about 500 people to put on a show.
  • The laundry room is equipped with a dinosaur of a PC.


  • Nametag with each assigned costume.
  • Each cast member has their own drawers for each person
  • The makeup room has a bulletin board and map.
  • Make up and wigs, provide drawings on how the eyes should be made up.
  • Everyone is assigned a makeup box for economic reasons.
  • Everyone does their own makeup, but then someone comes around to touch them up.
  • Principals are the only ones who get makeup artists. Big bottles of makeup remover in the makeup room.
  • Charts for each hair scene.
  • All the wigs are made of human hair though sometimes have to use yak hair for gray hair.
  • Wigs are hand-tied and hand-knitted.
  • There are 2,000 wigs housed at the SF Opera house to fit different time periods.
  • There’s a monitor in almost every room to keep check on the cues.
  • A cabinet at each chair.

More visits and more tidbits on the SF opera are forthcoming. Stop by and see what new discoveries have been made.

Finally, just for kicks, here’s the beautiful aria, “O Mia Patria” sung by Leontyne Price from Aida:

"Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you"

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