Tag Archives: construction

Siegfried at the Met Opera. Photo by Sara Krulwich, New York Times

Dragons of Yesterday and Today

The Ring Cycle is perhaps the pinnacle of western opera, and The Metropolitan Opera is one of the preeminent opera companies in the US. I have become interested in one of the major props/machines/creatures in Siegfried, the third opera in the cycle. Our hero, Siegfried, heads to the forest where he meets Fafner, a terrifying dragon with whom he must battle.

As it turns out, I have been able to find information, including pictures, drawings and construction details, about nearly every Fafner ever built at The Met. In previous posts, I have shared information on the Fafners from 1887, 1913 and 1947, as well as the fearsome beast constructed for the operas in 1896 and 1903 (which was rebuilt in 1906).

It appears only three more Fafner dragons have been made for The Met, which is what we will look at next.

1967-1972

A new 1967 production for the Met was designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Wolfgang Weber. Portions of this Ring Cycle were originally presented at the Easter Festival in Salzburg. It was then invited to transfer to the Met, where the set was adapted (and partially recreated) to fit the stage. According to this site, no known audio or video recordings exist of this production. I have included the few renderings and photos that do exist of this scene below, though neither show Fafner himself.

The following image and text comes from this page.

And then he appears as a giant animal, very old and gruesome, his eyes everywhere – a spongy mass, belching fire and steam as he falls on Siegfried’s deadly sword.

(From G. Schneider-Siemssen in conversation with K. Pahlen: Die Bühne, mein Leben, Selke Verlag 1996; (The Stage, My Life – English translation by James Mulder), in press.)

Original sketch for the forest where Fafner appears.
Original sketch by Günther Schneider-Siemssen for the forest where Fafner appears.

The following photograph is taken from a 1975 Opera News showing where Fafner is about to appear.

Siegfried awaits Fafner at his cave.
“Eager to learn fear, the hero awaits Fafner at his cave.” From “Opera News”, found at the Metropolitan Opera Archive.

We get one more brief description from a review by Byron Belt in the Newhouse Newspapers, found in the Metropolitan Opera Archive. “The stage business for the battle between Siegfried and Fafner made the dragon into more of a primordial ooze, but we found it most exciting.”

1987

The Met invited Günther Schneider-Siemssen to design the Ring Cycle again in 1986, this time directed by Otto Schenk. This became one of the most successful Ring Cycles produced by the Met in modern times.

A 1988 New York Times article describes the appearance and construction of Schneider-Siemssen’s Fafner:

This thing is growing into a pulsating, gelatinous blob, its four slimy tentacles flailing the air and its one green eye fixed on Siegfried. It’s the Creature From the Black Forest.

Now it’s opening its huge mouth, a great hairy orifice with long, sharp, crooked teeth tinged with red (blood?) and breathing smoke.

Joseph Clark, the Met’s technical director, tells The Times they went with a low-tech solution involving six prop men inside to operate the arms, mouth and eye. This allows the dragon to hear and respond to the music and to Siegfried’s movements.

The Time article continues:

The dragon they built is stretched across a 8-by-12-foot frame and billows out from the floor on a hydraulic piston. Once the dragon is inflated, the six prop men step inside the frame on the stage floor and operate the arms, mouth and eye, all of which are maneuvered by steel rods through universal joints. The rods are attached to a kiddy-car steering wheel and the prop men can guide the arms, extend them, open and close the mouth and eye as they would drive a car in a video game.

Up close, Fafner looks like something put together by a schoolchild for a crafts class. The dragon is covered with a pleated Chinese silk of forest browns and greens, bits of old plastic cups and some goop that resembles candle drippings. The eye is constructed of wire and fiberglass, the teeth are made of foam and the mouth has a fringe around it that, as Mr. Clark put it, ”looks like one of those lampshades one sees in old German hotels.” Old-fashioned dry ice in the mouth makes the smoke.

The article concludes by asking Joseph Clark if Schneider-Siemssen was inspired by anything when designing this version of Fafner. “I do know that between the time we did ‘Die Walkure’ for last season and started to work on ‘Siegfried,'” he said, “he had seen the movie ‘Aliens.'”

In a 1993 New York Times review, Edward Rothstein also notes the similarity to Giger’s Alien creature. He writes:

The arachnidan role, at any rate, seemed reserved for Fafner in the second act, in which the most problems with this traditional production by Otto Schenk also emerged. A ramp circles around a shallow crevice hiding the dragon (whose miked words were intoned by Matti Salminen); with a single eye like a woozy Cyclops, teeth like those of Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” nemesis and giant limbs like rotting trees, he was difficult to take seriously. Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s set created an ancient, slightly ruined forest without allowing it to give way to the youthful greenery heard in Wagner’s Forest Murmurs.

The Metropolitan Opera Archives has one of the original renderings for the scene where Fafner is about to appear:

Günther Schneider-Siemssen's sketches for Fafner's entrance
Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sketches for Fafner’s entrance. From the Metropolitan Opera Archives

This production was also part of an historic telecast of the entire Ring Cycle by the Met. The scene with Fafner is below.

2011

The Ring Cycle which is currently in repertory at the Opera is the much-talked about production by Robert Lepage. While there is plenty to read about the massive “machine” which was built, and the use of projections, very little is said about the dragon. I am not sure who built it; this production was built by both the Metropolitan Opera’s shop and Lepage’s Ex Machina company, and a whole slew of outside contractors worked on bits and pieces.

We have a photograph provided by the production:

Siegfried at the Met Opera. Photo by Sara Krulwich, New York Times
Siegfried at the Met Opera. Photo by Sara Krulwich, New York Times

We also have some (fairly scathing) descriptions from reviews of this production. In a New York Times review, Anthony Tommasini says “In his guise as a dragon, the giant Fafner (the formidable bass Hans-Peter König) was a huge, puppetlike thing with scaly skin, spiky teeth and glassy eyes: a little too cute.” In a review for Financial Times, Martin Bernheimer calls it “a silly oversize puppethead”.

So there you have it: every Fafner dragon from every production of Siegfried done by the Metropolitan Opera! I hope you enjoyed it.

Links for the Weekend

Here’s a story about a prop master who has found a new career killing zombies. I think most props people imagine they would be pretty well equipped to fight zombies.

Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) has quite an intense and detailed tutorial on making a silicone rubber mold with a plaster mother mold (or as he calls it, a “hard shell mold”). It is perhaps a bit more involved than most theatrical prop shops would ever need, but a lot of the extra steps he does are to keep the mold from collapsing on itself and to ensure the two halves are lined up perfectly.

What do you want to know about drill bits? How about everything! Ok, so this free PDF guide to drill bits deals only with woodworking (no metal or plastics), but it is still a useful amount of information available at a glance.

This is kind of cool. A classmate of mine from undergrad wrote a play a few years ago called The Love of Three Oranges. One of the productions of this play is documenting the construction of their set and props on a blog.

So, I’ve talked about the invention of the jig saw before; its history is at least somewhat intertwined with the history of fret and scroll saws. Well, Chris Schwartz has a piece on the history of the coping saw, another tool sharing this history. I personally love my coping saw, and consider it one of the indispensable tools in my prop-making bag.

Last Friday Sites

Just a reminder that tomorrow from 9am to 10pm at the Holly Hill Mall in Burlington, NC, is the first Burlington Mini Maker Faire. Check it out if you are in the area and you like making things. The mall parking lot will be hosting a D.A.R.E. carnival that day too, so after you look at the robots and wood lathes, you can ride a cocaine-free ferris wheel.

A career in theatre props” is a well written article about Antony Barnett, Head of Props at the Royal Opera House. It discusses what he does as the lead prop maker at a very busy shop. It is also interesting in telling how British prop makers learn their craft and get started in the business.

Sad news out of Brazil; Tiago Klimeck, an actor playing Judas in an Easter Passion play, died from an accidental hanging during a performance. The article, while light on details, does mention that authorities think “the knot may have been wrongly tied.” The only safe way to do a live hanging is with the rope attached in the back to a harness under the actor’s costume. The loop of rope in the front should be incapable of holding any weight, and should be able to break away when the slightest bit of weight is applied. In other words, there should not be a knot that can accidentally be “wrongly tied”; there should not be any knot. Though this story may remind you of the accidental hanging of an actress in a Halloween haunted house last year (the girl lived), in that case, the noose was never intended for live hangings. It was simply a prop “used for visual affect” (I am not sure why articles on accidental hangings all need grammatical errors).

I just came across this, though it is from 1996. Patrick Tatopoulos is the maker of monsters from Stargate (the film), Independence Day, the John Cusack Godzilla film, and many others. Visual Effects Headquarters has an interview with him and a look at how he got started and what he has accomplished.

I missed this on the first go-around, but in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Popular Woodworking Magazine has posted free plans and instructions to build the deck chairs used on that infamous ship. It’s a complicated and involved chair, but it looks like a fun project if you want to own a piece of history (or if you are doing the musical Titanic).

Christopher Schwartz has posted the first chapter from Bernard Jones’ “The Practical Woodworker” on building crates and packing boxes. Crates and boxes seem like an easy item to construct, but the endless varieties and methods to construct them make them a good first project for a budding carpenter. Besides that, we build a lot of boxes in props, and even complicated forms have elements of box construction somewhere in them. This chapter does a great job of showing some of the more popular standards for box and crate construction.

Friday Link-tacular

It’s Friday once again! I hope everyone was able to finish their taxes!

Last week there was a great newspaper piece on James Blumenfeld, the prop master at the Metropolitan Opera. The operas they put on are among the largest in the country, so it is fascinating to read what it takes to organize and corral all those props.

Here is another great newspaper piece on Torontonian prop maker Chris Warrilow. He runs a prop rental and fabrication shop, but his specialty is custom stage combat swords. The article has some great information about stage weapons.

It must be the year for writing about props people; here is an article on Peter Smeal, the props designer at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte right down here in North Carolina.

You can view the entire “Fundamentals of Machine Tools” (1996) published by the US Army. This is the manual used to train Army members in the use of powered machines for making and repairing things out of metal.

Here is a homemade carving pantograph; you trace your pattern on one end, and the Dremel on the other end carves it into a piece of wood. The commercial kits I’ve seen for this always look so cheap and flimsy.

Finally, if you have the time (about 16 minutes), this video shows the construction of one of Denmark’s most famous chair designs, called “The Chair”. It’s an expert blend of top-of-the-line CNC machines with old-world craftsmanship as the video goes from hundred-year old oaks in the forest to a completed piece of furniture.