Kennedy Center stages a family reunion

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - The Krynicki sisters — Beth, center, and twins Jill, left, and Lynn, right — are working together for the first time on a professional stage in the Washington National Opera production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - The Krynicki sisters — Beth, center, and twins Jill, left, and Lynn, right — are working together for the first time on a professional stage in the Washington National Opera production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”

It’s 7:58 p.m. Act Four is running its course. Beth Krynicki, stage manager, turns the page of her mocked-up score; she mutters a command into her headset, which Jill Krynicki executes at stage left. Lynn Krynicki holds two Dixie cups of water, which she’ll rush out to the leads once Puccini’s diva dies of despair and dehydration.

Crimson lights beam down at the precise moment of death. Staircases roll off stage without a peep. Entrances are made within milliseconds of the whispered cues, which Beth calls half a beat early to ensure alignment with the music.

The Krynicki twins, Lynn, C, and Jill, R, work together as assistant stage managers as their older sister, Beth Krynicki , works in another position during dress rehearsal on the Washington National Opera's production of Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut.’

The Krynicki twins, Lynn, C, and Jill, R, work together as assistant stage managers as their older sister, Beth Krynicki , works in another position during dress rehearsal on the Washington National Opera's production of Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut.’

A week before the Washington National Opera premieres Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” the sisters Krynicki are in the zone, adrenaline pumping yet completely calm, running the dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

It’s a tag team of stage managers who have known each other their whole lives — Lynn and Jill are twins born 15 minutes apart, and Beth is their older sister, five years senior, who paved the way for their love of the drama behind the curtain. They came to the opera as children and arrived at their careers independent from one another. Between the three of them, they have more than 60 years of experience in stage management, yet the last time the sisters appeared behind the same curtain, they were kids playing supernumeraries in the Seattle Opera. That they would finally get the chance to work together as stage managers in the same time zone, that was serendipitous luck.

The eight-week rehearsal and run of “Manon Lescaut” is the first time the sisters are working together on a professional opera. While Beth and Lynn have worked at the Kennedy Center for 20 and 13 seasons respectively, Jill, 38, is the stage manager of the Madison Opera in Wisconsin. They all freelance for other opera houses during the off season, but their schedules have never aligned long enough to work together on a production.

They’re savoring the rare occurrence.

“I joked that we wouldn’t need the headsets to communicate on this show because we’d all be on the same wavelength,” said Beth Krynicki, 43, who has been the Washington National Opera’s principal stage manager for 20 years.

“Some people are surprised by all the nonverbal communication that’s happening,” Jill added.

The Krynicki dynasty, as some opera notables refer to them, is a rare find in the performance world. There are families of actors and directors who seem to pass down the theatrical gene. But three stage managers for the opera in one family of sisters? There is usually one aspiring diva in the mix. Indeed, they defy most speculative psychological theories on birth order. There’s no rebel. No sister who fell off the wagon and into volleyball or chess club. All three sisters gravitated toward the delicate dance of stage management in their youths and transformed the thankless high school hobby into professional callings.

“We grew up going to opera when other kids were watching cartoons,” said Lynn Krynicki, 38, who has been working as a stage manager at the Washington National Opera since 2000. “We loved the music and stories of the opera.”

“I was looking for steadier work than performing,” Beth said.

And the skills required for stage management in opera are rare and in demand. Operas always have one stage manager with assistants who can execute the calls. Stage managers take responsibility for details large and small; They must call the movement of massive stage sets and remember to remove the tenor’s cape off the stage. They record the director’s blocking in rehearsals and follow the musical score during the show. It’s a learned skill, one that comes with years of internships and practice.

Perhaps that’s why it’s surprising then that theater doesn’t run in the Krynicki family. When their father was in the military and stationed in Germany, their parents developed a love for the opera that they passed down to their children. No one in their immediate family had ever had a career in the performing arts before. Jill and Lynn attended their first opera dress rehearsal at age 3 because Beth was a supernumerary in the show. (When the babysitter forgot to show up one day, their mother brought them along to watch.)

The sisters dabbled in stage management while in high school in Seattle and pursued the craft in college, Beth at the University of Michigan; Lynn and Jill at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They’ve worked at opera houses large and small, traversing the country for work before settling in their current jobs. They credit their early exposure and lifelong love of opera with leading them to their profession.

“People say kids can’t appreciate opera, but I went to see Wagner’s “Rheingold” when I was 5 because I wanted to,” Beth said. “Sure, there are many layers to operas, but we knew the stories and they’re great stories for kids: there are dragons and mermaids and sleeping princesses.”

One might think three sisters in a room, let alone on a premier stage where nerves and stress are running high, could cause the sort of familial drama reserved for holiday gatherings or oppressive road trips. The Krynicki sisters admit that they are what amounts to a mother’s dream: three friends who have always gotten along and never competed with each other. Their mother revels in this teamwork. She’ll perch herself on a chair backstage during a performance of “Manon Lescaut” to watch them work.

By respecting opera’s rigid chain of command, they are able to work as a unit and family. Even if one sister dominates the family dynamics, they know who’s in charge on stage: Beth will call “Manon Lescaut” from a terminal at stage left, while Lynn and Jill will assist on opposite sides of the stage using Beth as their eyes. Beth’s terminal has five television monitors, giving her view of everything happening in the darkened opera house.

“The chain of command in theater is very structured,” Jill said. “Sometimes Lynn has called a show and Beth has assisted, but the stage manager is always in charge.”

As for whether there’s any fear of working together come time for the performance, the sisters have no qualms. They know it will be smooth sailing.

“My bags were packed a month early,” Jill said. “We’re excited.”

“And who knows if this will ever happen again,” Beth added. “This will probably be the story we retell — the one about the time we all worked together.”

Manon Lescaut

Washington National Opera’s production of the Puccini opera. The Kennedy Center. Through March 23. Tickets: $25-$310.

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