April 18, 2019
Backstage Life: Ben Bell Bern
Ben Bell Bern - Rehearsal Department Manager
What is your role here at Lyric, and how long have you held the position?
I am the rehearsal department manager and this is my tenth season. My job is to manage the department that schedules all rehearsals and coordinates most other backstage activity involving artists, including costume and wig fittings, interviews and public relations events, donor luncheons, repertoire coachings, and many other activities. My rehearsal department colleagues and I serve as the liaisons between performing artists and virtually every other department in the company.
What led you to work at Lyric?
I graduated from college with a degree in classical trumpet playing, and soon after moved to Chicago to be nearer to my now-wife and figure out my next steps. I started my career interning at Lyric, helping to facilitate the Ryan Opera Center auditions. The world of opera had always been intriguing to me; I’d been in the orchestra pit for opera productions during college, and the scope and scale of the artform fascinated me. About a year after my internship ended, I was working as a barista at a coffeehouse where Marina Vecci (longstanding member of Lyric’s rehearsal department) was a frequent patron. She let me know there was an opening with the rehearsal team and asked if I was interested in the position. I landed the job and began as a rehearsal assistant, before transitioning to a variety of roles and becoming the department’s manager.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Every day I put together a rehearsal schedule for the upcoming day, the process of which can be like solving a seven-dimensional puzzle. I speak with the director, assistant director, choreographer, stage manager, conductor and music staff, wardrobe and wig departments, colleagues in the young artist program, to ascertain their priorities, then work to make all of those things fit within the parameters outlined in various contracts and in such a way that doesn’t break the budget.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Obtaining concrete information in a timely manner from the various departments that Lyric Opera comprises, and figuring out creative and diplomatic ways of saying “no” to requests that cannot be accommodated. Each day, I have to sift through huge amounts of information and prioritize what is most important. Working here for several years has helped me refine that process, but it’s always a challenge. I have the season calendar in my hands no matter where I am in the building; inevitably someone I run into will need schedule information or want to share schedule information with me.
What keeps you committed to the work you do?
The work done by my colleagues to produce the quality of art seen and heard on Lyric’s stage and in the orchestra pit. Chicago’s cultural institutions are one of the elements that make this city unique, and to feel that I in some very small way contribute to the success of one of them is rewarding. I feel fortunate that my work not only creates meaningful relationships between myself and my coworkers, but also gives me a connection to anyone else who attends our performances.
What’s something about your job that people might not know?
My office is located backstage, just steps away from the actual stage. So during a matinee performance or dress rehearsal, it’s not uncommon for singers in full costume, wig and make-up not only to walk by my office, but to sit down in my office to say hello. There are moments where I consider how unusual it is to have a casual conversation with someone wearing horns on their head, or see someone in a long robe and crown making photocopies.
Favorite Lyric moment?
In 2016, during a staging rehearsal for Das Rheingold, the three Rhinemaidens were up in their cranes and the creative team and stage managers were trying to figure out the positioning and timing of those contraptions in the overture. I remember sitting in the room watching them sort out a fairly mundane and technical aspect of the show, while Bill Billingham (a longtime member of Lyric’s music staff) was sitting at the piano playing the overture so exquisitely and beautifully. I don’t think anybody in that room realized the quality of music coming from the piano, but I was struck by Bill’s commitment to his craft, even during a long and tedious rehearsal of which music was absolutely not the focus.
Beyond opera, what are your other passions?
It’s a privilege of mine to work at The Santa Fe Opera during their summer season overseeing their rehearsal department. It’s nice to work with artists at different companies in different parts of the country— it creates a sense of community within the business of grand opera. I am also a performing trumpet player and gig regularly around the city. A lot of my social life involves seeing performances by some extremely talented musician and dancer friends. I get so much pleasure seeing what they are doing, especially as a contrast to the artform we do here at the opera house. I can be just as moved hearing a jazz trio at a bar as listening to a performance of Les Troyens with 94 choristers on stage and 78 musicians in the pit.
What are you feeling at the moment, with the cancellation of the RING cycle, and what are your warmest memories of the project as a whole?
I feel saddened and disappointed that the company won't be able to see through to the end this epic, years-long project. So many people put so much time, energy, and focus, into these productions, from the singers, actors, music staff, and orchestra to the creative team and the production staff. While I'm grateful I got to see three of the four operas, I wish we'd been able to finish the cycle. One of my warmest memories of the project happens to be one of my all-time favorite moments at Lyric Opera (see questions regarding “favorite Lyric moment”). Another beautiful memory was sitting in the theater with Noah Lindquist (music staff member) and Mario Marra (former young artist pianist) during an early orchestra reading of Das Rheingold back in 2016, and hearing the brass section play the Valhalla motif for the first time. The three of us turned to look at each other with huge smiles. In that moment there was a palpable sense of setting out on the journey of the Ring cycle together.