Christopher Kesel considers himself a rocker, a man with a deeper connection to Pink Floyd than Giuseppe Verdi. But as he crafted his career over the years, Kesel learned there’s one important difference between classic rock and opera:
Puccini pays the bills.
There are many ways to be an artist. You can paint. You can sculpt. Or you can do what Kesel does. Opera San José’s scene shop supervisor and properties artisan paints, sculpts and helps craft the elaborate world — the palazzos of Tosca’s Rome and the garrets of Mimi’s bohemian Paris — that bring an opera to life. And he works alongside his wife, Lori Scheper-Kesel, who has been the company’s properties master and scenic charge artist for more than a decade.
Kesel came to California in 1999 from upstate New York, following his wife as she worked at Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s summer festivals as a props mistress. Their shared artistic talents and his knowledge of carpentry contributed to a variety of Bay Area productions over those summers and eventually landed them at the now-defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre. It was there that the duo’s work caught the eye of legendary Opera San José founder Irene Dalis, who wooed them to the world of Figaro and Falstaff in 2010 or so. They’ve been there ever since.
Q When it comes to scenic design and props construction, what are the biggest differences between theater and opera?
A They’re pushing different buttons. In theater, you might create the illusion of being in a living room or a bar or something like that. In a repertory theater, you would be down to the very last detail — sockets in the walls or a kitchen with functioning appliances, that sort of thing. Opera is much more open and requires more theater of the mind. For example, in opera, you might be in a cathedral — obviously we can’t re-create that, so we imply a cathedral. In opera, you’re giving people visual cues to imply where you are. You can create illusions with drops and flats and some three-dimensional pieces, as well as lighting. I really love that part of opera.
Q Which fits your skill set better?
A The things that I’m good at fit opera much better. My style as an artist is a bit more flamboyant — and I like doing things that are a little bigger.
Q Can you tell us about working with Irene Dalis?
A She was the main reason my wife and I began working at Opera San José — she came after us. It was a difficult transition for us to move into opera, and she made it very easy. She and (former general director) Larry Hancock were big supporters of our work.
Q You and your wife have a deep connection in the work you both do. What makes the working relationship between you so strong?
A We met back in the 1980s at art school, so our main attraction to each other was basically artistic. We’re very connected — we’ve grown up and matured together as artists, so we work pretty good as a team. It’s not always rainbows and waterfalls, you know what I mean? (But) when she moved over to opera, I pretty much followed her there, because working alone wasn’t much fun.
Q You’re a rocker, I know. Do you actually like opera?
A I appreciate opera, but I don’t listen to it in my spare time. I do love the live experience of opera. The singers and what they do, the musicians and everything — I can’t do that. I can’t play an instrument. I can’t sing. To me, it’s like a magic trick, and I appreciate it like that. It’s really sublime how older material is reprocessed and revealed through a modern eye, and something else a little different comes out every time.
Opera San Jose’s 39th season opens on Sept. 10 with Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Learn more at www.operasj.org.