"This Is Crazy": Stage Managing an Opera Set on a Lake

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Thirty years ago at the break of dawn, stage manager Robert Pel and his colleagues made history at The Banff Centre. They performed an opera completely on water with an audience of over 3,000 people.

The Princess of the Stars, written by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, had originally been designed to be performed on water. But when Robert Pel was approached to stage manage the opera on Two-Jack Lake at five in the morning, he had his doubts.

“I just thought, ‘What the hell are we doing?’,” he said. “This is crazy.”

Photo by Ed Ellis

Robert’s passion for theatre started at an early age, but it wasn’t always in stage managing. Robert began his career as an actor at the University of Windsor, but he said the competition was tough. 

“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “I didn’t cut the grade, I wasn’t that great of an actor.”

Robert moved to stage managing so he could get closer to the director and the actors, hopeful to learn a couple of things about performing. But Robert stayed in stage management and found that he liked creating the scene more than he did performing it. 

After working for numerous companies across Canada, Robert found himself at The Banff Centre working as a stage manager for various productions. It was there Robert came acrossThe Princess of the Stars, an opera unlike anything he had ever seen. 

Robert faced a number of challenges while stage managing the opera. He was responsible for marking the "stage," which was two kilometres wide and one kilometre long, so that the performers would know where to go. Through a series of trial and error, Robert and director Brian Macdonald used polypropylene rope to mark the stage. 

Another worry was the safety of the performers. Dancers, who wore bird-like costumes with large wing spans, feared falling into the lake with their heavy attire. As a matter of precaution, the cast completed trial runs at the Sally Borden Recreation facility’s pool to see if the dancers could jump back into their canoes if they fell into the water.

Luckily, nobody went overboard during the actual performance. 

Rehearsing The Princess of the Stars in the
Sally Borden Building pool. Director Brian Macdonald, right. July 1985.P 

Robert said his biggest challenge in stage managing this piece was not knowing what to expect from the elements. He could only hope the weather cooperated on the performance days. But, he said, the first day was “magical.”

“There was a mist across the lake in the morning,” he said. “But as soon as the [narrator] came down in his canoe, the mist lifted.”

The viewing area for the audience was expected to seat 500 people. But Robert didn’t think they were going to fill those spots at the break of dawn performance. He was dead wrong. Over 5,000 people attended The Princess of the Stars over it’s three-day showing.

“I heard people were spilling over a quarter mile around the lake,” said Robert. “It was only when it hit dawn that you just saw a wall of people.”

“I would wager that The Banff Centre has not received that many people at a performance at a single production.”

Robert says, to this day, people will ask him about his time at The Banff Centre and remember The Princess of the Stars. It was an unforgettable experience that he believes had quite an impact on the theatre world. 

“[Everyone] came away with a real sense of accomplishment,” said Robert. “We were able to facilitate the composer’s dream and make it a reality.”