This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
One of the country’s longest-serving Technical Directors on the fun in opera and the nonsense in rock n’ roll.
The stage is dark, save two broad pools of dim purple-blue light in the center. Even in this light, you can see their beards; the men standing in the dark onstage cut iconic silhouettes. Across a sea of people, Keith Oberfeld stands with a starship’s worth of sliders and dials at his fingertips. There will be music, but the magic here is his job. On cue, Keith’s hands flit over the massive light board just as the room explodes with sound. A lazy, sleazy, searing guitar cuts through the din of the crowd as the stage becomes a wash of swirling psychedelic purple. Keith makes a tiny gesture in the lighting booth, and two spotlights bring the bearded men forth from the haze. Soon, the arena throbs with the sound of Billy Gibbons’ declaration that he’s bad, and also nationwide. The year is 1979 and Keith Oberfeld is doing lights for south Texas rock juggernaut ZZ Top. This pedigree is not what one may imagine for the origin story of a man with three decades of experience inside an opera house.
“Touring rock n’ roll is crazy. All aspects. Everything you’ve heard about it is true,” says Oberfeld.
After running lights for bands like ZZ Top and Blondie for a few years, Oberfeld was ready for something a little calmer. “Opera seemed like a natural place to go after that nonsense,” he says. He had done volunteer work for community theater before and learned a lot about lighting design; his interest in theater and expertise in production landed him a job as master electrician in our very own DeVos Hall. After a few years of keeping the lights on, Oberfeld was ready for a career that combined his technical knowhow with his artistic inclinations. That opportunity came in the form of Opera Grand Rapids’ Technical Director position. He took the job in 1984, and has been the man behind the magic of stagecraft ever since.
As one of the longest-serving Technical Directors in the country, Oberfeld is one of the elder statesmen of the Grand Rapids Opera. He has seen administrations come and go, weathered renovations, and worked with countless performers and conductors over the course of some one hundred operas.
For each of these shows, Keith is at the helm of all things technical. “I work on figuring out where the scenery is going to hang, how it’s going to get loaded in and assembled, where the lighting is going to go in reference to the scenery, work with the lighting designer to make all that work together, work with the director to discuss scene changes, work with the costume people to see how costumes will integrate, and coordinate sound and special effects. I put everything together. All the design and practical aspects of the production.”
Considering how many moving parts are involved in just one show, dealing with problems that arise is a large part of Keith’s role. Sometimes these hurdles are as simple as replacing a burnt-out lightbulb. Other times they involve fire. Sometimes intentionally, other times, less so.
In the eighties, Opera Grand Rapids staged a massive production of The Flying Dutchman. OGR had rented a set from San Diego Opera—a grandiose background to represent the titular Dutchman’s ship. During rehearsal one day, a piece of this scrim caught fire. (This was not in the script, if you’ve never seen the show.)
Moments later, four Grand Rapids fire companies and presumably some concerned stagehands with fire extinguishers were fighting a blaze inside DeVos Hall. Luckily, the fire was under control within minutes. True to the show business cliché, rehearsal continued as the fire trucks drove away.
Most of the time fire finds its way into a production, it is by design. When, for instance, Don Giovanni goes to hell (we apologize for the spoiler), it’s Keith’s job to get things looking and sounding properly infernal. “We have a lot of fog, special lighting, explosives. Any time you can do a lot of special effects on stage, it’s always a lot of fun,” he says. To bring hell to the theater, Opera Grand Rapids must submit a plan to the fire marshal months in advance, containing exact specifications of the pyrotechnic devices to be used. When it’s time to bring the heat, a local licensed professional actually runs the pyrotechnics. “It adds quite a bang to the production,” deadpans Oberfeld.
Even after a professional lifetime doing an often arduous job, it’s clear that Keith still loves what he does. “One of the great things about working in opera is you get to stretch across all of the disciplines. You get to work with large orchestras with great conductors and beautiful music, you get to use projections and lighting to more effect than a standard production. You get to use sound effects and large scenery. Opera is a challenge in that it stretches every department in the theater, and that makes it particularly fun.”
Keith is an essential part of Opera Grand Rapids. One can’t overstate the value of an unflappable veteran of the stage who knows his lights and explosives. And for those who mistakenly think opera is entirely the purview of high society types—flag down Keith sometime and extract a tale of that infamous rock n’ roll excess we occasionally hear about. Provided he’s not busy putting out a fire, he won’t disappoint.
OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.
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