Tag Archives: 1888

Grooming the Dragon

How to Build a Dragon

I previously shared an article from 1888 about a giant dragon named Fafner used in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Siegfried. It had a papier-mâché head, a canvas hide and curled leather scales. It could move its mouth, close its eyelids and issue forth steam from its lungs. So who created such an impressive piece of stage property?

Grooming the Dragon
The Metropolitan Opera's Dragon circa 1888

It would appear a man named William “Old Bill” E. De Verna constructed it. He was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY, in 1834, and died in the same neighborhood in 1897. He had achieved enough prominence in the theatrical world to have an obituary published in The New York Times, with his occupation listed as “maker of theatrical properties.” According to the obituary

He built a large factory called in Bay Ridge the “dragon” factory, where he manufactured scenic accessories. When the Metropolitan Opera House was built he was engaged to supply all the properties used in the German opera. The big dragon of “Siegfried” was considered one of the most perfect examples of the property maker’s art.

A second dragon was built for the Met around 1911. In 1937, the Metropolitan Opera made a few improvements to this second iteration of Fafner. A “New Yorker” article describes how they replaced his metal scales with a painted canvas hide to cut down on his weight.

Like the original, the 1937 dragon also had a papier-mâché brow. It could “prance around”, open and close its jaws and spread its fins. It was operated by two stagehands, Charley Walters and Paddy Downey, who had been playing Fafner since around 1922. They were not chosen for any specific reason; Phil Crispano, the head property man, “just told them to get in there one day.” The smoke from the dragon’s nostrils was at one time supplied by live steampipes, but has since been replaced with a vapor made from ammonia, muriatic acid and rose water (to improve the smell).

Interestingly, the 1888 article describes the scene with the dragon as lasting forty minutes, while the 1937 articles says it was over in just fifteen.

A new dragon was commissioned in 1948 to replace the “the ancient bundle of canvas and rubber hose the Met has seen fit to fob off for thirty-seven years as Fafner”. This one was built by Messmore and Damon, a company headquartered on West Twenty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. Messmore and Damon were known for the full-scale mechanical dinosaurs they debuted at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

According to another article in the “New Yorker”, this new dragon took advantage of the company’s prowess in mechanical engineering, as well as the new breakthroughs in materials available to prop makers. The jaw could move, the tongue could flick in all directions and the eyes could roll in their sockets. The whole cave was moved downstage so he could be seen better; traditionally, the dragon appeared far upstage, probably to conceal the limitations of dragon construction at the time. The paw of this Fafner actually dangled into the orchestra pit. He was also split into two pieces; his head came out of the wings downstage, while his tail appeared from the wings upstage to make it appear that a much larger dragon was present just offstage.

The 1948 Fafner’s teeth were constructed of solid maple, his tail was foam rubber and his claws had rubber tips. Real steam was used for his nostrils once again—the chemical smoke caused the singers to cough—though now it was provided by a portable steam generator.

And the cost for this modern marvel? A whopping two thousand dollars. Okay, so that’s actually just over $19,000 today, but still, being able to buy a custom working dragon for less than the price of a new car is pretty spectacular.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera House, 1888: Dangerous Effects

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on building a singing dragontechnical rehearsalsconstructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

Two light-properties in “Faust”—the fire-cup and the spark-emitting sword of Mephistopheles—are worth describing. The fire-cup is a goblet in the bottom of which are chlorate of potash, red fire, and sugar. Above these is suspended a thimble three-quarters filled with sulphuric acid and so delicately balanced that a slight movement causes the acid to drip on the powders and to ignite them, the fumes of the sugar leaving an agreeable taste upon the lips of the singer.

The method of causing the sparks to fly from the sword is as follows: Two wire-gauze plates connected with electric wires are placed upon the stage at the points where Mephistopheles and Valentine are to stand. A metal socket is sunk into the heel of the right buskin of each of the singers, and a wire of the same color as their costumes is attached to each socket, wound around the leg and passed through the belt. Standing upon the gauze plates they, as they draw their swords, slip the ends of the wires into the hilts and, when the swords touch electrical connection is made.

The flash of Wotan’s spear when Siegfried cuts it through with one stroke of his sword is produced by an explosion of gun-cotton in the spear and ignited by electricity, the electric wire passing through the weapon.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

The singing dragon from "Siegfried"

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: A Singing Dragon

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on technical rehearsalsconstructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

It is noteworthy in connection with this circumstance that the apparatus was devised by an Englishman and that Wagner employed an English property-master to design and make the dragon for the “Siegfried” performances at Baireuth. The English pantomime productions, which involve the manufacture of numerous mechanical and trick properties, have sharpened the ingenuity of English property-masters until they have come to be acknowledged at the head of their profession. “Siegfried” never having been given in England by any but a German company whose scenery and properties were brought from Germany, the combat with the dragon remained as ludicrous a feature of the performances of this work as it was conceded to have been at Baireuth, until the production of “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera-House. For this a dragon was designed and manufactured which the German artists declare to be the most practical and impressive monster they have seen.

The singing dragon from "Siegfried"
The singing dragon from "Siegfried"

The head of this dragon is of papier-mache. The body, thirty feet long, is of thin wire covered with curled leather scales, which are bronzed and painted. This monster, in spite of its size, is worked by a boy who is the dragon’s front legs. He is dressed in a suit of canvas painted the color of the dragon’s hide and having curled leather scales on the trousers below the knees, his shoes being the huge clawed feet. He gets into the dragon behind its head, which conceals him from the waist up, his legs being the dragon’s front legs. With his hands he opens and closes its huge mouth and shoves its eyelids over its eyes when it expires. The steam which it breathes out is supplied through an elastic pipe which, entering at the tail, runs through to the throat. The scene lasts about forty minutes and is very exhausting to the front legs. In Germany the artist who sings the dragon’s part is inside the hide and sings through a speaking trumpet. At the Metropolitan Opera-House the artist sits under the raised bridge upon which the dragon is placed and sings through a speaking trumpet. His music is on a stand, a stage-hand throws the light of a lamp upon it, and the solo répétiteur gives him his cues from the wings. The voice sounds as though it issued from the dragon’s throat. The advantage of this arrangement is that it places in the monster a person whose attention is concentrated upon working this mechanical property in the best possible manner. The dragon when not in commission is stabled in mid-air under the paint-bridge. The day of the performance it is lowered by ropes, thoroughly groomed, and then allowed to stretch itself out upon the floor against the rear wall and lie there until the end of the first act.

Grooming the Dragon
Grooming the Dragon

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Technical Rehearsals

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on constructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

The first feature of an operatic production to have the benefit of a rehearsal is the scenery. As soon as the scenic artist and the scene-painters have finished their work the stage-manager orders a scenic rehearsal. This might be called a performance of an opera without music. The scenes are set up and changed, light effects tried, and mechanical properties like Talepulka, the “Lohengrin” swan, and the “Siegfried” dragon “worked” and tested until all goes as smoothly as it should at a performance. This is a rehearsal for the men who set and change the scenes—the master-machinist and his subordinates—and for those who manage the light effects—the gas-engineer and the “gas-boys”—and for the property-master and his men. Before the scene can be set it is necessary to “run the stage,” that is, to get everything in the line of properties, such as stands of arms, chairs, and tables, and scenery, ready to be put in place. If there is a “runway,” which is an elevation like the rocky ascent in the second act of “Die Walküre,” or the rise of ground toward the Wartburg in “Tannhäuser,” it is “built” by the stage-carpenters; and for this purpose the stage is divided into “bridges”—sections of the stage-floor that can be raised on slots. Meanwhile the “grips,” as the scene-shifters are called, have hold of the side scenes ready to shove them on, and the “fly-men” who work the drops and borders are at the ropes in the first fly-gallery.

The scene set, it is carefully inspected by the scenic artist and stage-manager, who determine whether any features require alteration. A tower may hide a good perspective bit in the drop: it may be found that a set-tree at the prompt-centre second entrance will fill up a perplexing gap—but changes are rarely needed after the scene has been painted, because a very good idea of it was formed from the model. The length of a scenic rehearsal depends upon the number of the light-effects and mechanical properties. For instance, in the first act of “Siegfried” the light-effects are so numerous and complicated that it is a current saving in opera-houses that the success of this act is “all a matter of gas.” When all effects and contrivances of this kind have heen thoroughly tested, the stage-manager gives the order: “Strike!” The “grips” shove off the side-scenes, the flymen raise the drops, the “clearers” run off the properties and set-pieces, and the stage-carpenters lower the bridges. The scene of the second act is immediately set, and the time required for the change of scene noted. If the change is not so quickly accomplished as it should be, it is repeated until the weak spot in the work is discovered.

When all know their parts, the stage is at last given up to features of the productions other than the scenery. The work is performed with scenery, light-effects, properties, chorus, ballet, and supers, but without the principals and orchestra, the solo répétiteur being at the piano. There are two or three such “arrangement” rehearsals for drilling the chorus and supers in the stage “business.” These rehearsals are followed by two in which the artists take part; the final test being the general rehearsal with orchestra. Then at last the work is ready for production.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Constructing the "Talepulka" prop

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Constructing a God

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpt when you are finished here! The following details the construction of a large idol for the Met’s 1888 production of “Ferdinand Cortez”. As an added bonus, you can read the original New York Times’ review of that production.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

[T]he property-master had made out a list of the articles to be manufactured in his department. He had not been hampered by the problem of historical accuracy. He found drawings of Mexican antiquities from which he made sketches of the Mexican implements of war and peace to be used in the opera, and from a genuine Mexican relic of that period, seen by chance in the show window of a store, he obtained his scheme for the principal property in the work, the image of the god Talepulka. He found he could have all these historically correct, except that he did not think it necessary to go to the length of decorating the idol with a paste made from a mixture of grain with human blood. A problem arose, however, when he considered the construction of the idol. He ascertained from the libretto that the idol and the back wall of the temple are shattered by an explosion, and that, just before the catastrophe, flames flash from the idol’s eyes and mouth. He consulted with the gas-engineer, who had already considered the matter, and concluded that it would be most practical to produce the flames by means of gas supplied through a hose running from the wings.

The property-master then made the following note in his plot book: “Flames leap up high from the heathen image—the gas-hose must be detached and drawn into the wings immediately afterward so as not to be visible when the image has fallen apart.” The necessity of having the gas-hose detached determined the method of shattering the idol. It is a theatrical principle that a mechanical property should be so constructed that it can be worked by the smallest possible number of men. This principle was kept in view when the method of shattering Talepulka was determined upon. The god was divided from top to bottom into two irregular pieces. These were held together by a line, invisible from the audience, which was tied around the image near the pedestal. Another line, leading into the wings, was attached to the side of the top of one of the pieces. At the first report of the explosion a man concealed behind the pedestal, whose duty it also is to detach the gas-hose, cuts the line fastened around the idol, and the pieces slightly separate, so that the image seems to have cracked in two jagged pieces. At the next report a man in the wings pulls at the other line and the two pieces fall apart.

The manner in which the effect of flames flashing from the eyes and the mouth of Talepulka was produced was only outlined in the statement that it was accomplished by gas supplied through a hose. The complete device of the gas-engineer, a functionary who in a modern theatrical establishment of the first rank must also be an electrician, was as follows: Behind the image the flow of gas was divided into two channels by a T. One stream fed concealed gas-jets near the eyes and mouth, which were lighted before the curtain rose and played over large sprinkler burners in the eyes and mouth. These burners were attached to a pipe fed by the second stream. When the time arrived for the fire to flash, the man behind the pedestal turned on the second stream of gas, which, as soon as it issued from the sprinkler-burners, was ignited by the jets. By freeing and checking this stream of gas the man caused the image to flash fire at brief intervals. Thus only two men were required to work this important property.

Constructing the "Talepulka" prop
Constructing the "Talepulka" prop

The idol was but one of four hundred and fifty-six properties which were manufactured on the premises for the production of “Ferdinand Cortez,” and when it is considered that the average number of properties required for an opera or music-drama is three hundred and fifty, it will be understood that the yearly manufacture of these for an opera-house which every season adds some three works to its repertoire is an industry of great magnitude. For instance, one ton and a half of clay was needed for modelling the Mexican idol, and that property represents three months’ work. It was first sketched in miniature, then ”scaled”—that is, projected full size on a huge drawing-board—next modelled in clay, and then cast in plaster. The modelling and casting of properties are done in a room in the basement of the building, on the o-p-side [Eric: opposite-prompt side, in this case, stage-left] of the stage. The idol was cast in twenty pieces. These were transferred from the modelling-room to the property workshop on the third floor of the building, prompt side, where are also several other rooms in which properties are made, the two armories, the scenic artist’s studio, and the property-master’s office. In the workshop the properties are finished in papier-maché, the casts being used as moulds. They are not filled with pulp, which is one method of making papier-maché, but with layers of paper. The first layer is of white paper, moistened so that it will adapt itself to the shape of the cast. Layer after layer of brown paper is then pasted over it. The cast having been thus filled is placed in an oven heated by alcohol, and baked until the layers of paper form one coherent mass the shape of the cast. Properties thus manufactured have the desirable qualities of strength and lightness.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.