Lyrical: Caroline Moores, stage director at Chicago's Lyric Opera, works backstage before a dress rehearsal.

At 5-foot-1, Oak Park’s Caroline Moores is a towering force of verve, creativity and efficiency as the longtime production stage manager at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

She’s the one backstage with the British accent, calling all the cues that help create the pageantry that is opera, and when she speaks, people listen.

At the piano run-through of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which closed Dec. 11, Moores was poised stage right, ready to hold court.

With her headset on, she makes sure everything and everybody is in the right place at the right time. At her beck and call are several assistant stage managers who await her signal to verbally call the actors to stage. Everywhere else, scores of people responsible for running the electronics, makeup, wardrobe and props, including techs on the rail who fly scenery in and out, are paying close attention to Moores, waiting for the cue to carry on.

In Ariadne auf Naxos, for example, she cues a cloud machine to travel across the stage, and tells stage hands when to fetch, deliver and pull away the boat platform and wagons.

In this house, she rules, but not with an iron fist. Rather, Moores says, she facilitates the work at hand, always standing at her oversized console, never sitting.

“It’s about being focused, and I need to stand to think,” Moores says.

In productions, Moores handles the operatic minutiae, including calling the guy who can find a cloak that will enable an actor to make a certain move, or asking someone to locate a particular hat that won’t fly off during a cartwheel. Being a unionized house, she oversees things like contract compliance, too.

“Stage managing the opera is not a career that many people know about. It’s like being a hockey referee. Who grows up and says, ‘Hmm, I want to be a hockey referee when I grow up?’ You don’t. Opera is usually something that people drift into from other areas like being a failed instrumentalist or a failed dancer,” she smiles deferentially. “Not always but often people don’t know that the job exists until they’ve gotten pretty close to the opera house, as it were.”

Her technical script incorporates the piano vocal scores of each opera, which requires a certain amount of musical expertise. “If you are not really a musician at heart,” she observes, “you can’t really do this job.”

These days, in addition to her seasonal post with Lyric, she works for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, stage managing special projects, such as the CSO’s series “Beyond the Score.”

“It’s extraordinary to work with another world-class institution,” she says. “I leave my world-class organization and walk across the Loop and there I am. I’ve got a swipe key and I just let myself into this other place. It’s really quite astounding.”

The long road to Lyric

Now 51, Moores grew up just north of London in an arts-oriented home where classical music was in play. Her dad was a conductor of operas and symphonies, and her “mum” was an administrator at the Royal Ballet Academy. An aspiring harpist, she jumped the pond at age 18 to pursue playing the instrument.

Ironically, growing up in England, Moores didn’t like the sound of trained voices. Her mom worked at the ballet, and she wanted to be a ballerina in it.

“My mum was told that I should give up dancing because I was too fat. I did have beautiful hands, but that’s about where it stopped,” she recalls.

At age 11, the precocious teen took up harp with equal zeal and earned a music scholarship to the University of Houston where her father was conducting. Mid-way through her degree, she reluctantly switched focus. Then at age 22, she experienced synchronicity.

“I had no idea what stage managing was,” she says, “and since I was casting around for something to do, having just decided I wasn’t going to be the harpist, or musician, that I thought I was going to be, I took a three-month internship with the Houston Grand Opera, with the stipulation that I had to promise that I would go back and finish my degree in acting and directing, which I did.”

The next year, Moores took a seasonal position as an assistant stage manager with that company. Pushing forward she played some professional hopscotch, traversing the country as a stage manager for five different opera houses, and an assistant stage manager for four others throughout the country. She was production manager at the Virginia Symphony in Norfolk, Va., her last stop before Lyric.

A theater animal

After a failed marriage, she was yearning for a return to her homeland when she received a call from Lyric Opera asking if she wanted to interview for the production stage manager job. She said she’d talk to them, but was leaning toward moving back to England.

“When I walked into the opera house, it’s such a splendid façade, the colonnade, and then you walk backstage and it’s this vast theatre, and there was the backstage smell of potential and past, present and future performances,” she says. “You have to be a theater animal to be moved by that. I just thought, ‘This is it. I have to do this!'”

After taking the post at Lyric in July, 1994, Moores met her soul mate and future husband, Tim Yeager, an Oak Parker, on the CTA. Since then, the local couple has resided in a quaint home with a baby grand piano that Yeager plays, and a huge naturalized garden where Moores relishes the restorative smell and feel of the soil as she gets her hands dirty after a long day at work.

In her first season at Lyric, Moores stage-managed Boris Godunov, Barber of Seville and Candide. Five years later, Lyric staged Ariadne auf Naxos. This is her second go-round with the opera about Vienna’s richest man, who is throwing an incredible party, and people are arriving to perform a play. The opening act is set underneath the stage, which is the play’s visible backstage, making the house audience their audience. The second act is the performance itself. The set is a stage upon the main stage. So it’s a play within a play on a stage upon a stage. Moores says it’s one of her favorite operas.

“It has these lovely layers of reality. It’s a game, really, that, as an audience member, you are invited to play. The piece itself, the music, I think is exquisite,” she says.

And along the way, of course, she has encountered her fair share of famous divas.

“As a stage manager it’s a lot about being able to read people. There is no science, per se,” she says. “Giving them attention, making them know you are there to support them, that is how you work with a diva, and it is that sort of special attention that reassures them. In general, the Lyric is known for that kind of care, not just in stage management, but on all levels.”

On her watch, only a few tech glitches have occurred, like last season in the beginning of the third act of Lohengrin when the house curtain wouldn’t fly out, and the stage hands used ropes and muscle to swag it open so the audience could see Lohengrin and his bride.

“One side was a little lower than the other side, but at least we got the curtain open and the performance didn’t have to stop.”

Another time, though, it did.

“It is the only time I ever went out on stage and made an announcement to an audience on an opening night that we were having technical difficulties and would have to take an unplanned intermission. That was some years ago for Jenufa. One of the three pieces of scenery failed,” Moores recalls.

Being taken in by a house as big as the Houston Grand Opera at such a tender age was transformative. Now she wants opera to have the same effect on people who wouldn’t normally hear it or see it.

“Like any great art form,” she explains, “opera moves from the specific to the universal, and if you are attuned to it, if music is something that affects you, I think it just reaches in. Opera lifts you out of your everyday life to a higher place and, in doing so, confirms or reconfirms that your human condition and experience is shared. … It’s the unspoken human experience. I can’t conceive working in anything except opera, something that moves the soul so profoundly.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....