Spaces: Backstage at Hill Auditorium

A peek inside a University place.
By Laura Bailey

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Read time: 2 minutes
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It’s minutes before showtime at Hill Auditorium. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato waits backstage amid a crowd of people, warming up with soft lip trills before her entrance. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin stands nearby, holding his baton and eating a banana.

Such proximity to the talent seems unfathomable in one of the country’s premier concert halls, host to Bob Dylan (see page 31), Cecilia Bartoli, and dozens of other international stars. But backstage at Hill, space is at a premium, so chance encounters with performers are more likely. Tonight is no exception, and the roughly 80 members of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, plus crew, management, and various bystanders, prepare in a warren of rooms, halls, and vestibules spanning three floors. Everyone knows their individual choreography, and they jostle from place to place with the crackling energy of a fast waltz on a tight dance floor. The busiest area is the hall running behind the stage, which is narrow and prone to logjams.

Space sometimes becomes an issue, but workarounds exist. For instance, for its 2009 performance, the Berlin Philharmonic initially requested a tent behind Hill to accommodate its large group, recalls Ken Fischer, former University Musical Society president. But, ultimately, a tent wasn’t necessary.

While the cozy quarters make for heavier traffic, it also allows for memorable interactions.

Fischer recalls the night Leonard Bernstein met backstage with a few dozen students who had written him personal notes recounting what his music meant to them and their parents. The students and Bernstein then continued onto the home of U-M President James Duderstadt for a reception. Another time, Wynton Marsalis, already late for a sponsor meet and greet, stopped to chat with two little boys waiting for him outside with their trumpets.

“He looks at me, and he says, ‘Ken, I’ve got to give time to these kids.’ He brings them back inside, into his dressing room, and the kids pull out their trumpets and they play for him,” Fischer recalls.

It’s showtime. Nézet-Séguin enters through the stage door, and DiDonato follows shortly after. The crowd erupts in applause, and a smattering of clapping arises from the production crew and management crammed backstage. There’s a collective exhale, nods and grins all around, and swelling pride. Another show is underway; it’s time to relax until the next stage change.

Slowly, the backstage crowd disperses, perhaps to grab a cookie or tea from the craft table a few feet away—and perhaps, outside in the dark, a young singer waits, hoping to meet her heroine.


Laura Bailey is a public relations representative at Michigan News who also writes freelance fiction as well as nonfiction for various magazines. She lives in Hartland, Michigan.

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