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SF Opera Production Switches From Verdi to Personal Protective Equipment

June 1, 2020

If you watched last week’s SF Opera streaming of its spectacular production of Boito’s Mefistofele, it was inevitable to notice the dizzying background of sets, costumes, and headware — yes, including masks — for the angels.

San Francisco Opera’s artists are supported by a vast army of people who help produce stage magic. Various production areas include the scene shop, costume shop, props, carpentry, wig and makeup, and more, many of whom just happen to use PPE on a regular basis in their work when painting, wood- and metal-working, dyeing, using chemicals, and so on.

Enter COVID-19, and the overwhelming need for what SFO Production has a wealth of: respirator masks, gloves, goggles, face-shields, full-body jumpsuits/coveralls, shoe covers, and cleaning products, even extra N95 respirator masks purchased during and after recent wildfire seasons.

As news reports of medical supply shortages began to appear, the production department discussed ways they might be able to help even while the shops are closed. What they produced was collected during the first couple weeks of shelter in place, and SFO Production Stage Manager Darin Burnett delivered the items to UCSF Mt. Zion, expressing the company’s gratitude to health care workers and first responders who work tirelessly to save lives and keep people safe.

The medical professionals who accepted the equipment expressed their appreciation, not only for the quantity, but also for other highly needed items such as full-body jumpsuits/coveralls and goggles.

SFO Costume Director Daniele McCartan says to date the costume shop has made and distributed over 6,000 three-ply masks. Much of the fabric came from the costume shop’s stocks, including extra materials from productions of The Marriage of Figaro, Girls of the Golden West, and The Mother of Us All.

As SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock and Costume Shop Manager Jai Alltizer talked about the project, they discussed the logistics:

The masks being made are 3-layer masks, which means that they have an internal filter layer made of pellon, sandwiched between two cotton layers — the outside layer is a tightly woven cotton that keeps most particles out, and the inside layer is made out of soft but sturdy kona cotton.

Given the huge mask demand, the pellon is very hard to obtain, but as soon as McCartan came up with the idea of the masks, Alltizer called one of the wholesale suppliers and secured as large a supply as possible.

These masks — made utilizing guidelines from a local firm Make Me PPE (a great local organization made up of stitchers and sewers making PPE) — can be used by healthcare workers and are being delivered to places where the need is greatest, including hospitals, fire departments, and elder-care homes. The plan is to start our distribution in San Francisco and then extend further afield if possible."

So far recipients of the masks include SF General, UCSF, SF Department of Health, SJFD Fire Stations 26 and 34, HealthRIGHT 360, Navajo Nation, and several senior facilities in the Bay Area.

Constrained by the quarantine, Costume Shop employees, spread out across the SF Bay Area, had to be coordinated in their separate locations, receiving packages of materials at home, and the completed masks then picked up and delivered to the destinations.

The project required weekly distribution of 368 yards of fabric, 138 yards of the filter fabric, and 160 yards of wire in order to produce 1,000 masks each week. Individual production was limited to those having an industrial or domestic sewing machine at home and a workspace big enough to really spread out.

Some people have now returned to their regular work duties at the opera’s scene shop in Burlingame and others have continued to make masks. SFO Master of Properties Lori Harrison continues to work with Ashley Chiu at Make Me PPE to fulfill requests throughout the Bay Area.

Harrison says, “This organization is extraordinary: they not only hook up makers with needy organizations, but also put together kits that any home sewing enthusiast can receive to build masks, gowns, or scrub caps to be picked up and distributed.”

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].