Unmatched Legacy: Technical Director Joe Hopper Retires
For Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops Technical Director Joe Hopper, the art of stagecraft has always been a family affair. His grandfather was a projectionist at the Albee Theatre; his mother was the chief wardrobe director for Cincinnati Opera; today, his sister is the wardrobe designer for Clint Eastwood. But Joe’s path followed most directly that of his father, who spent years as the technical designer for the Opera.
September 2 marked Joe’s first official day of retirement, and his decades’ worth of experience and memories continue to serve his colleagues.
As a child, Joe considered Music Hall his second home. Coming to work with his parents and helping behind the scenes fostered a love for the craft, as well as the historic building. “It was the only time you saw your parents, if you came to work with them,” he said. Joe started working for the stage crew when he was 13 years old, helping paint seats for the Opera at the Zoo. By the time he was 15, he was working on stage, learning his father’s craft. As a teenager, he would ride the city bus to Music Hall after school and on weekends to help build scenery. The crew would always pair him with the best carpenters and designers—including his dad.
Eventually he joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 5 and started working as technical director for the Corbett Foundation, where he helped present top-name entertainment throughout the region.
After Joe joined then-technical director Bill Rocca on the CSO’s 1980 tour, Bill retired and Joe was asked to take his place. The next 36 years were full, with more tours, live television broadcasts and performances than Joe could count.
Although CSO and Pops tours presented unique challenges to Joe and his crew—like language barriers—he never lost sight of their most important duty. “Our job is to make sure the Orchestra is comfortable and their instruments get on stage safely,” said Joe. “The more comfortable the Orchestra is, the better the performance.”
While Joe preferred to stay backstage (it’s often said that a stage crew’s work is considered a success if it goes unnoticed), he experienced “15 seconds of fame” when he made a spontaneous national television debut—wearing a tutu. Former Pops Conductor Erich Kunzel had tried to persuade him to dance on stage during a portion of a concert being filmed for a PBS broadcast, but Joe emphatically declined. At the last minute, as he prepared to cue a dancer on the stage lift, Joe switched places with the dancer. “It was one of the few times Erich was ever speechless. He just sat down on the podium and laughed,” said Joe.
One of his greatest challenges (and successes) was building the acoustical shell and ceiling for the Orchestra’s “home away from home” at the Taft Theatre. Together, he and Chris Blair from Akustiks (the principal acoustic design firm working on the Music Hall renovation) sketched out a concept for custom-designed acoustical ceilings, which carpenters from Local 5—supervised by Joe—built from scratch. CSO Music Director Louis Langrée was thrilled with the result.
In addition to his father, Joe had many mentors over the years. Roger Adams, Dave Eviston and Bill Rocca were among the Music Hall experts who taught him along the way. He’s also been a mentor to many.
Heather Stengle, now the Orchestra’s Director of Operations, jokes that she did not know stage right from stage left when she started working as an intern 19 years ago. “Erich [Kunzel] and Joe are the two people from whom I’ve learned the most working here,” she said. “Working so closely with someone, you truly get to know who they are. Joe is a man of great principle and integrity, with a stellar work ethic. His legacy lives on through the multitude of people he has trained up to master the stagecraft trade.”
Stage Manager and Sound Engineer Ralph LaRocco has worked with Joe for 18 years and says the crew will miss him not only for his steady presence, but also for his experience and expertise. “Joe is our home base. Ninety-eight percent of things we come across, he’s seen before. Because of that, he can find efficient solutions.” Joe maintains the key to success is the crew: “The trick to getting things done is having a good crew around you. And over the years, I’ve had a lot of great crew members.”