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 reason that live theatre is still flourishing in the digital age—it feels dangerous, and where there is danger, there is also vitality.
There is a conflict that lives in the bones of all theatre. The conflict is fundamental to the stage, as each performance is one battle in a war that will never be resolved. It is the war against mishap—against disorder itself. Its skirmishes come in wardrobe malfunctions and missing programs, its bloodiest clashes in botched scenes and canceled shows. Whether you’re at a performance of The Magic Flute or Magic Mike, there is a series of near misses waiting in the wings. This is one reason that live theatre is still flourishing in the digital age—it feels dangerous, and where there is danger, there is also vitality.
The audience is never hoping for chaos. But its looming presence, held at bay through endless rehearsals and dogged people, is what fills the theater with energy, night after night.
Paula Tibbe is one of those people keeping chaos at bay. She’s cheerful, with an easy laugh—not what you might picture when you hear the phrase “enemy of entropy.” She prefers the phrase “singer mama.” But make no mistake: Paula is one of the people ensuring that the rickety juggernaut of each performance makes it over the finish line.
In theatre, there are always hitches. Grace is a matter of keeping them out of sight, or making them look intentional. This is something Paula has had a lot of practice with in her twenty-one seasons as chorus coordinator. Sometimes, the problems are minor, like the time Paula noticed a chorus member’s slip slide out of her costume and lay on the stage. She had to retrieve the garment, trying to stay invisible in front of hundreds of people. Other times, the surprises are severe, such as when the ground begins creaking and cracking beneath the actors’ feet.
During her very first year as chorus coordinator, Paula had a titanic job. The role is already heavy with personnel management: “It saves the artistic capabilities of the chorus masters to work with the chorus. I will answer the questions: ‘What page are we on? Where’s the cut? What shoes do we wear? What time is rehearsal? Do I really have to come to rehearsal?’” But Paula’s first show as chorus coordinator was a trial by fire—the massive Aida. For Aida, everything was realized on a grand scale, and the chorus was no different. The production’s huge proportions meant using choruses from six area colleges and Opera Grand Rapids. It was while this enormous assembly of visiting singers was congregated on a story-high stage for rehearsal that things went awry.
“It wasn’t reinforced enough, or we had too many people in one section,” says Paula. “I personally did not go down, but the people next to me went down.” The structure began to collapse with dozens of people still aloft, and the orchestra underneath. “You’re singing, and you look to your left, and you look to your right, and people are no longer there.” Despite the collapse, everyone escaped unscathed. This is when Paula’s job begins—in the midst of chaos.
Her job as chorus coordinator was to get the mass of people into seats and account for everyone’s safety, calming and funneling, taking head counts. When someone inevitably says, “the show must go on,” Paula is one of the people who steps forward.
Paula’s road to being a stage collapse first responder was a long one. It began while she was singing in church. After the service, someone approached her and told her she should audition for the chorus of Opera Grand Rapids. This person happened to be a principal singer in an upcoming performance of La Bohème, and staying with a member of Paula’s congregation.
The audition went swimmingly, and Paula was in. Her first experience with opera was watching the dress rehearsal of that same show.
“I can remember watching La Bohème and not having any idea what was happening. At the end, I was sitting there and just bawling, because Mimi dies. I was so moved by that.” After this emotional induction into the world of opera, Paula was introduced to other members of the chorus. They took her in and made her feel at home. She’s been with Opera Grand Rapids ever since. Thirty-four years later, the chorus has become a second family for Paula.
“I love working with the chorus. It is a large collection of people from all walks of life who find joy in making music together. We have heart surgeons, school principals, we have bus drivers, retirees. We have people meet their spouses in the chorus. They have babies, they have losses, they have their houses burn down. We are like a huge family, and we support one another. I always say, ‘We need to be kinder than necessary.’ We have people coming for their first production, and we have people who have been there twenty years. We need to be kind to everybody, and welcome them, and help them learn the ropes.”
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