■ The leader: Marina Vecci, diva wranglerMarina Vecci, production administrator for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, has a name for the chair in her office where world-class opera stars sit and vent. "We call it la sedia dei lamenti," she says. Translation: the chair of complaints. It gets used two or three times a week.
■ The challenge: Keeping a diva, and the male equivalent,il divo, feeling sufficiently confident to take the stage and dazzle Lyric Opera audiences.
■ The techniques: Cater to them without going overboard. Listen to their problems.
"They will sit down and tell me all that is wrong with everything," says Vecci, 64, without the slightest hint of irritation. "The rehearsal didn’t go well, the hotel was horrible, the food last night at the restaurant where I sent them was impossible."
She listens with all the sympathy of a doting grandmother. "It’s all in the venting. For the most part, these are people who need a lot of attention," she says.
Indeed, dive, as they are collectively known, have earned the stereotype of being high-maintenance. They don’t deny it. "If there is any minute aspect we can micromanage to ensure a good performance or blame a bad performance on, we will find it," says David Cangelosi, a veteran Lyric tenor.
In his travels around the world, Cangelosi has seen the spectrum of diva behavior, from stars so obsequious they wouldn’t trouble anyone to ask for a pen to those who demand that opera houses send them flowers backstage to make them appear popular.
"We do things from the ridiculous to the sublime," Vecci admits.
A Lyric employee for 32 years, Vecci doesn’t begrudge them their demands. "I have a certain admiration and a liking for a diva who behaves like a diva," she says. "They need to vent their nervousness and anxiety."
The sympathy has to be genuine or it wouldn’t work to calm frayed nerves. "It’s not like someone in the store saying, ‘Can I help you?’ When we say, ‘What can I do?’ we mean it," she says.
Besides, Vecci is prepared for most of their requests. She keeps a notebook with a running list of the city’s best masseuses, tax experts and ear, nose and throat specialists. She has no trouble finding them schools for their children and keeping them apprised of last-minute scheduling changes. During performances, she’ll even walk the small dogs that some bring to their dressing rooms.
The title on her business card may say production administrator, but, in reality, she’s more like the guider, the coaxer and the coddler. "She has to do them all," Cangelosi says.
What’s her secret to leadership?
"It’s something in the woman’s eyes," Cangelosi says. "They radiate sympathy and love, even when she has to be her toughest. It’s a very special quality." Because of it, "I’ve never seen anyone argue with her."
Not even the dog she stopped from running on stage during a performance to find its master.