Singers often travel to Kansas City from places like San Francisco, New York and Moscow to perform at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. And they arrive with a question that might surprise people who have stereotypes about opera.
"The number one question I probably get when they come in is: 'What's the best barbecue?'" said Sarah Zsohar, "which is probably the hardest question in Kansas City to answer."
As the Lyric's artist services manager, Zsohar's job is essentially to organize everything and everyone.
Zsohar schedules auditions, rounds up supernumeraries (the opera equivalent of movie extras), and heads up special events such as costume sales. There are also multiple trips to the airport, sometimes on the same day, to pick up visiting artists, including singers, conductors, directors, and other members of the creative team — as many as 50 a year.
She also tries to anticipate things performers might need during a 30-day visit in Kansas City, such as a trusted babysitter for childcare or a doctor available for a last-minute appointment on a Saturday.
In October, the week before rehearsals started, Zsohar was putting together a welcome packet for artists in Puccini's "La bohème."
Set in the 1830s in Paris's Latin Quarter, "La bohème" centers on a poet, painter, philosopher and musician who share lodgings and struggle to pay the rent (the story was adapted in the 1990s as the rock musical "Rent").
"This one is for Sylvia (D'Eramo, who plays Musetta), who is coming in, and the first thing that it has in it is a lot of brochures," said Zsohar, who also provides lists with nearby grocery stores and gyms.
Zsohar joined the Lyric staff about nine years ago, a connection that first started with an internship while she was working on a master's at UMKC in design and technical production.
"I think what keeps the job interesting is always having something new to do, always a new problem to solve. What I really love about it is it really feeds that stage management sense of organizational skills that you really have to work with," she said.
"And you also get to work with the artists."
Some returning artists decide to rent cars during their visits or take Uber or Lyft. But Lyric staffers often pick up artists from the airport. So, on a recent Friday, Zsohar went to meet baritone Hadleigh Adams, who's making his Lyric Opera debut in "La bohème" as the musician Schaunard.
"The role of Schaunard is so rich because there's so much that you can add that's not upstaging your colleagues," said Adams, who has also played the role at San Francisco Opera and Opera Australia. "He's kind, and he's supportive and (there's) this layer of humanity there."
Adams grew up in New Zealand and now lives in San Francisco. And he travels a lot — the flight to Kansas City was his 13th in three weeks. A few essentials for an extended stay in a new city, he said, are a gym, a grocery store, a fridge and a kitchenette. And he usually brings a familiar room scent.
"Because I'm here for a month," he said. "And it's got to feel like home."
The Lyric team shares a philosophy about guest artists, said Tracy Davis-Singh, the Lyric's director of production.
"You want to try and take care of all the little details for them," she said. "So all they need to do is focus on putting on the show. They can just focus on their jobs."
Davis-Singh said Zsohar understands "the big picture."
"She understands all the pieces that come together to make a production happen, from the beginning days of planning and all the way through closing."
Once rehearsals are underway, Zsohar continues to juggle issues as they arise, but she's also gearing up for another key role.
During performances, she operates the Figaro Sumultext System. These supertitles on the backs of the seats translate the foreign languages of many classic operas.
To hit the perfect timing, she memorizes the score and attends rehearsals, working closely with the director and the cast. The trial run takes place during the piano dress rehearsal.
"I really, really enjoy getting to run the titles," she said. "I think it’s really great to be that engrossed in the music. And I really feel like I’m interacting with the singers as well as the conductor."
So if you don’t know German, or French or Italian, like the lyrics of "La bohème," you can thank Zsohar. And if you happen to run into an opera star at the gym, or at one of Kansas City’s famous barbecue joints, you can probably thank Zsohar for that, too.
Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents "La bohème," November 9, 13, 15 and 17, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.