Behind the Scenes at the Palm Beach Opera

Andrew Henschel ’92 knows a thing or two about camels. Not for the reason you might think, though. He doesn’t work in a zoo and he’s never been to Egypt. But as a property master for the Palm Beach Opera, camels, which were used in a recent production of Aida, are among the many items that have fallen under his job description.

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View a slideshow of some of Andrew’s work for PBO’s most recent production, Rigoletto.

A property master is responsible for purchasing, acquiring, or manufacturing any props needed for a stage production. So if a moment on stage calls for a nine-inch switchblade, Henschel will find it.

Camels, while perhaps not technically props, are something of a concern to a props master. “I became responsible for making sure the animals were heading in the right direction. And, if something starting coming out of one of them, I had to grab a bucket and run,” laughed Henschel.

Founded in 1961, the fully professional Palm Beach Opera presents main stage performances from December through April at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Henschel, who has been with the opera since 2004, is one of two props masters.

“It’s great because I’ve worked with some tremendous directors and artists from all over the world,” said Henschel. And, after four years and more than 16 shows, he’s gotten to know a lot about opera. “I always try to go over a synopsis of the libretto before meeting with a director,” he explained. “It’s funny because everything I knew about opera before I learned from Bugs Bunny.”

Being a props master means adhering to a grueling schedule. Guest directors only come in for one month, so everyone has to hit the ground running. And you better be handy, too, because if a prop cannot be bought, then it must be made. Just three weeks before the show, Henschel gets to actually meet the director to learn what items he will need to round up.

“Usually I work with a props list, although I really shouldn’t say usually because almost every time is completely different,” he mused. To jump start the production, Henschel scrambles to find smaller props so that the performers have something to help them get the action down: “It doesn’t matter if they’re just hanging onto an electrical pipe covered with tape instead of a sword; it will help them learn the role.”

Next he searches for props either locally or through the Web. Over the years he has assembled a list of contacts and places to search. “It’s a lot like being on a big scavenger hunt,” he explained. As with any arts organization, budget constraints must always be kept in mind. Sometimes it’s cheaper to make the prop: “You name it, we make it,” chuckled Henschel. “Chairs, beds, tables, anything!”

For the first two weeks of the process, it’s just Henschel and the other props master. As opening night gets closer, they bring in a union crew from Local 500 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to help them out: “Usually about a week before the opening we’ll hire anywhere from two to eight people to work with us. At that point, we’re overseeing everything that is being built, painted, sculpted, and fixed.”

And then, of course, there are the dreaded last minute changes. For all the aggravations, Henschel has an obvious love of the job: “Working for the opera is great because it’s all the fine arts in one. And props involve so many of the visual arts—scenic painting, sculpture, furniture repair, paint touch ups, color matches, the list just goes on. It all relates.”

It’s not surprising that Henschel is a successful props master. He has the perfect combination of artistic skills and résumé for such an eclectic job. After graduating from URI with a degree in fine arts, he made his way to Florida where he worked for Design Line in Tampa as part of a team that was building the “Edge of Africa” exhibit in Busch Gardens.

The goal was to create a Land Rover in which people could be safely photographed with a live lion in the back. “Because you couldn’t import the authentic African Land Rovers, we ended up building them. We bought Land Rover station wagons, took them apart, and re-welded them back together again to look like the original.” He looks back fondly on the experience. “It really prepared me for leading a team. Artists are very eclectic people and being in charge requires really good people skills.”

Henschel also added to his broad range of experience when he worked for Trident Shipworks fabricating metal parts for yachts and spray painting boat bottoms.

Apart from being a master with props, Henschel is also a gifted visual artist with a background in sculpture and photography. “I’ve really enjoyed photo and printmaking, but I’ve worked more in sculpture, although I tend to go back and forth.” Currently, he has two pieces of sculpture that are on display (and for sale) at the Gallery Biba in Palm Beach.

Ironically, during his time at URI Henschel actually left a job working in the theatre scene shop: “I had already done a lot of construction work, so I left and took a job in a print and photo shop because I felt like it was more in line with my artistic aspirations.” Just like an opera, life has a way of coming full circle. “I unexpectedly ran into the guy that I worked for in the URI scene shop,” said Henschel. “He got a real kick out of hearing that I’m now a props master.”

If you are one of our Florida alumni, or are visiting the state, you can check out the Palm Beach Opera Company’s productions at pbopera.org. And if you attend a performance, savor the music and drama, but don’t overlook the props and scenery that create the appropriate setting for the singers and musicians to work their magic.

By Jennifer Sherwood ’89