Museum on Main celebrates 25 years of Livermore Valley Opera

Exhibit showcases 25 years of music and magic

Looking for a blood-stained dagger? Check out the current exhibit at Museum on Main.

The dagger, as well as the equally tainted wedding dress of "Lucia di Lammermoor," are part of "25 Years of Music and Magic," celebrating Livermore Valley Opera and its decades of lavish performances.

"A lot of people think of opera as something kind of formal and stuffy, but many of the stories are pretty sensational -- sex, jealousy, murder, suicide," museum curator Ken MacLennan said. "It's a lot like the National Enquirer, only with really pretty music."

The exhibit showcases the work that goes into presenting the stories of heroes and villains with powerful music sung in impossible ranges as love dramatically twists and turns.

An attempt to start an opera company in Fremont in 1991 fell through when a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" did not draw much attendance. But when the show subsequently went onstage in Livermore, it sold enough tickets to suggest that a permanent company might succeed.

Five members of "The Mikado" chorus, all residents of the Valley, proceeded to found Livermore Valley Opera, with the mission of producing the world's best operas as well as fostering careers of talented opera singers.

"We have programs for 25 years, from every opera," said production manager Bonnie Schmidt.

The first Livermore Valley Opera was Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," which opened in February 1993 in the theater of Livermore High School. The opera company continued its productions there until they could move to the Bankhead Theater, which opened in 2007.

More than a year ago, the opera's board of directors began planning to celebrate its 25th season with an anniversary gala in January 2017, according to Schmidt. She recalled that board secretary Stephanie Petermeier, a Pleasanton resident, mentioned that it would be wonderful to share the decades of props, programs and costumes. She approached Museum on Main curator MacLennan, who immediately saw the potential.

The opera volunteers had a big job sorting through years and years of objects from each production that had been thrown into boxes and placed into storage.

"Little did I realize I'd be sorting through 25 years of opera," Schmidt said with a laugh. "Each piece holds significance."

Schmidt started volunteering after she retired as a project manager with Gillette. Now she is production manager for the opera, which means working with the entire team to secure the theater and rehearsal space, and to coordinate with set designers and the director on what the sets will look like.

"Part of that conversation is also for lighting, projection, design, all of our rehearsal schedules," she explained. "When the curtain goes up, everything you see, what they're wearing, the set, that all comes under the production manager. We have about eight different teams that make this happen."

Hers is a full-time job, Schmidt said, with two operas a year and three this season. And she was instrumental in putting together the museum exhibit, which was itself a production.

"You were trying to not only put your fingers on it, but to get your mind wrapped around 25 years of history," she said. "What have we done? Where are we going?"

Curator MacLennan found his partnership with the opera volunteers enjoyable.

"It was really neat to work with them," he said. "Since they have so much experience with staging and setting up scenes on a stage, there were a lot of things I often have to explain to collaborators that they already knew."

"Several months out we started talking about ideas and compiling lists of things we might use," he added. "The installation actually is a three or four day process, making sure things fit. So much of the work before that is making sure we have the concepts nailed down."

They ended up displaying eight costumes from the operas, with informational panels about the music and how to build an opera.

"We don't have any magic wands," Schmidt said. "We had an incredible team of volunteers working with me on and off for two months piecing it together."

Livermore Valley Opera depends heavily on volunteers, she noted, as well as fundraisers, including Opera in the Vineyard each summer.

"The price of tickets never, never covers the full cost of doing opera," she said. "It depends on patrons, donors and volunteers. Without all of that spirit, we wouldn't be able to do the wonderful productions that we do."

When her husband Jim retired from corporate America, she said, he also began volunteering with Livermore Valley Opera and serves as board president.

Bonnie Schmidt spent a recent Saturday morning "scavenger hunting" for the upcoming opera, "The Flying Dutchman."

"First I go through all the props we need and look at what we have in our storage," she said. "A week ago, I went through that with our director. Then I connect with different people in the community that I know who are treasure hunters, and say, 'Have you seen the following?'"

She also shares with other Bay Area theater groups, and props and costumes go back and forth as plays, musicals and operas are performed.

Schmidt uses the internet to research and make some purchases.

"We just did 'Italian Girl in Algiers,' and it's a comedy but the sultan's wife needs to look absolutely fantastic, and there are not too many stores where I will find Moroccan clothing," she said. "I sent the measurements to a company I found online, and in two weeks they returned a dress. It came from Dubai and was less than $150. It doesn't need to last a lifetime."

The museum exhibit has props from the operas, including a full case of weapons.

"These are weapons that have appeared onstage and look very, very real and very, very dangerous but they have all been professionally theatrically modified to become a professional prop," Schmidt said.

The exhibit also has scores -- the full orchestral music score and the stage manager's score with the lighting cues, an insight into the complexity of the endeavor.

Some props find their way onstage again and again, such as a small table.

"We call it the 'little Mozart table' because it made its first appearance in one of Mozart's operas we did -- and it continues to reappear for many different operas," Schmidt said. "There is also an actual boar's head from 'Die Fledermaus.'"

Other highlights are a wedding kimono used in "Madama Butterfly," Juliet's window from "Romeo et Juliette," and part of a church column from "Tosca."

Schmidt was able to locate posters and flyers from all of the operas except the first two years.

"I don't know if they didn't have flyers," she said.

Museum patrons can peruse 25 years of programs while sitting on chairs that have been onstage and view a DVD of a Livermore Valley Opera, as the music filters through the exhibit rooms.

While opera is available on television and in movie theaters, Schmidt said, "The experience of sitting in the audience and seeing it live is so much more."

As production manager, she witnesses each step as the operas come together -- and she finds it thrilling.

"As I sit through rehearsals, by the time we hit production the music is in my head, I can see it, I can feel it," Schmidt said. "But I just see pieces of it because they do not rehearse from start to finish so I don't see it (from start to finish) until it gets in production."

She said the museum exhibit was planned to create the entire essence of the endeavor, to see from beginning to end what it takes to present an opera.

"You can see how it is put together," she said. "There is a little sampling of the costumes, you see the props, you hear the music. You are looking at all of it -- if you take away any one of those elements, it is not a complete opera."

Next month, the 25th season will open with "The Flying Dutchman," the first Wagner opera ever performed by the company. The season continues in the spring with Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

Since the museum exhibit opened Aug. 2, Schmidt has dropped in frequently.

"It is fun, people come in and look and say, 'Oh wow, I didn't know you can do that,'" she said. "It has generated some new volunteers."

MacLennan said the exhibit has been popular.

"Some people come in specially to see it," the curator said, "and we have people who come in to see what's new, when there is word of mouth about a particular show. A lot of the membership of Livermore Valley Opera has come."

"If you have been attending LVO operas, you will enjoy seeing familiar props and set pieces," Schmidt said. "If you are new to Livermore Valley Opera, it is our hope that you will be inspired to come and see what a gem of an opera company this area supports."

Making of an opera

What: '25 Years of Music and Magic,' celebrating 25 years of Livermore Valley Opera

Who: Museum on Main

Where: 603 Main St.

When: Through Oct. 16. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tues. to Sat.; 1-4 p.m. Sunday.

Other: Admission free but donations gladly accepted.

Information: Call 462-2766 or visit

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