Tag Archives: Edward Siedle

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 2, 1912

The following is the second portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. The first part can be read here.

If the property master should take a notion to lose himself among the bewildering objects under his care he could stay lost as effectually as Charlie Ross. He wouldn’t even lack for victuals and drink if certain operas were put on often enough and he could get at the eatables before the artists saw him. In “Donne Curiose,” for instance, there’s enough food provided to make a fairly good meal if a person’s appetite isn’t too grasping. Not a very filling diet perhaps, but what there is of it is first class.

In the first act Scotti gets a dish of perfectly good ice cream; while in the last act the four inquisitive ladies swipe real cakes off Harlequin’s tray. The opera company buys these latter dainties from one of the best caterers in New York and pays 84 cents a dozen for them.

After Harlequin has been robbed of his pâtisserie he again raids the supper table and reappears with a saucer of white stuff which he spoons down with much gusto. This is whipped cream from charlotte russe, bought for this particular incident.

There is also a beauteous cake from which a large slice is apparently cut. The cake if of papier mâché, a permanent institution with a wedge opening into which a slice of real cake is inserted when the opera is to be given.

In the first act of “Madama Butterfly” Martin and Scotti are the gay boys with their real whiskey and soda and cigarettes, all furnished by the benevolent property department. That sounds good to some folks, but there are even more joyous occasions in certain operas, when the company tickles the palates of the pampered singers with genuine champagne.

A fine imported brand.

In “La Tosca” Scarpia looks as if he were having a square meal when he dines apparently on a thick beefsteak. But for once these culinary appearances are deceitful. Beefsteak cannot be stowed away as fast as the exigencies of a star part in grand opera demand. Consequently Scarpia’s beefsteak is only gingerbread, trimmed to a tenderloin design and garnished with parsley. Although the stake is only gingerbread, the wine that sends it on its way is excellent claret.

This combining of victuals and vocalization is not a task which any singer relishes. When the property man was asked whether the artists ever express a preference for a particular brand of wine or whiskey and whether the ladies insist on some favorite kind of cakes or candy—there is confectionery in “Butterfly”—he said they hadn’t got quite so finicky yet.

“We give them the best of everything,” he said. “They ought to be satisfied.”

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, 1912

The following article first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. Note: This article consistently misspells the name of Edward Siedle, who was the technical director at the Met.

Twenty Thousand Distinct Objects in the Opera’s Property Room

They Range From a Feather to a Set of Furniture, Include Armor, Food Supplies and Fans, and Show in Every Detail Careful Attention to Artistic and Historic Veracity.

One of the busiest men in this strenuous town is Edward Siedel of the Metropolitan Opera House. If you should run across a man wearing a black fedora hat on his head, an anxious frown upon his corrugated brow and a cigar between his teeth, seek no further. You will have found the hero of this tale.

Twenty-four hours out of the day Mr. Siedel is technical director of the opera house. The rest of the time he eats, sleeps and diverts himself. He got two winks of sleep one night last week. That was oversleeping himself by one wink, but he doesn’t expect it to happen again this year.

Mr. Siedel is the high muckamuck to whom all the stage hands, carpenters, electricians, property men and so forth are responsible. As an example of the extent of his duties take a single one of these departments, that of properties. Maybe everybody knows that a stage property, or “prop,” is everything used in a stage setting except the main scenery. Also everything carried by members of the company, artists, chorus or supers, except the clothes actually worn, which come under the head of costumes, and the wigs, which have a classification all their own.

In charge of the property department is a master of properties, who has to look after an insignificant total of about 20,000 objects! These range all the way from so trivial a thing as a single feather to whole sets of expensive furniture. The feather does duty in various operas in which a quill pen is needed, as in “Tosca,” where it is used to write the unhappy singer’s passport before she assassinates Scarpia.

The opera house property department has enough furniture to fill a hotel. There are over 100 side chairs, as those without arms are called; about forty arm chairs and fifteen sofas, not counting various settees, benches and wooden stools. In the same category are about fifty tables, several screens, hatracks, a cheval glass, chests and so on. All this is real furniture.

In “Donne Curiose” the settings for the two scenes of the first act are perhaps more costly, so far as the properties are concerned, than any others to be seen at the Metropolitan. In the first scene, showing the gaming room, the chairs are of wood and real leather, the tables and the buffet are handsome pieces of furniture and the wine coolers and similar articles on the buffet are of good plated silver. In the second scene the chairs are of gilt and brocade, there are several handsome tables and a beautiful cheval glass which was made to order.

The opera house is pretty well fixed to repel an attack, for in the property master’s department there are about 500 swords of all shapes and sizes, 350 helmets, 100 breastplates, 8 full suits of armor, scores of spears, a lot of guns and even some big sticks which would make T.R. himself sit up and take notice. The last named belong to the giants in the Ring and cause an ordinary shillelah to look like a baby’s rattle.

All those little flowering shrubs for “Madama Butterfly” are properties. So are the bunches of flowers used in the second act of that opera, the garlands used in “Lobetanz” and other pieces, the apple blossom leaves showered on the Goose Girl in “Königskinder”, and the dead leaves which drop in “Parsifal.” There is a pretty good sized vegetable kingdom, in fact, under the property man’s care.

He is the Jove too who launches the thunderbolts by means of the thunder drum, although the lightning owes allegiance only to the chief electrician. The thunder drum, which looks more like an overgrown squirrel cage than like a drum, is classed as one of the fifty-five real musical instruments which belong in  the property department.

These are not the fake harps, as in “Lobetanz,” or other imitation instruments but the real thing. They are all numbered, 1 to 55, and include such a curious variety as the thunder drum above mentioned, whistles, wind makers, bells, trumpets, a piano and the great pipe organ itself.

Mighty few persons in the audiences that listen to “Aida,” for instance, know that there is a stage band at the opera house entirely separate from the orchestra. Its members play those silver trumpets in “Aida” and they are the heralds in “Lohengrin.” In fact whenever any instrument is to be played on the stage itself a member of this band does it.

This article will continue in a later post. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

Fafner circa 1898

Here There be (More) Dragons

As some of you may have noticed, this site was difficult to get to for the last week, and hasn’t been updated for awhile either. My hosting service had a server crash, and it has taken them some time to get everything back up and running. The site has been extremely slow to load since last Wednesday, and virtually impossible to update. It looks like everything is back to normal now, as evidenced by the fact that you are reading this.

When last we left, I was talking about how to build a dragon—the creature named “Fafner” from the opera Siegfried, to be exact. The Metropolitan Opera House has had several over the years. The first was built by William De Verna in 1887. A new one was constructed in 1913, refurnished in 1937 and finally replaced with another dragon in 1947 (the dates in my previous article were a little off). This last one was built by the mechanical magicians at Messmore and Damon. Since writing that last blog, I have found some additional dragons which existed in between those three.

Fafner circa 1898
Fafner circa 1898

The dragon in the illustration was created for the 1896 production by a Mr. Siedle, described as the property master of the Metropolitan Opera House. To construct this monster,

the head of the dragon was modeled in clay, and each line and horny scale and boss was the result of careful calculation. After the head was modeled, a plaster of paris mold was taken from it, and from this another plaster cast was made, upon which the actual head was built up out of papier maché. After the papier maché work was finished, it was painted dark green; different shades were, of course used.

The body of the dragon is of cloth; the legs and feet are not attached to it, but are put on by the two men who operate the dragon. The feet and claws of the dragon are pulled on by combination overalls and boots…

The tail consists of a number of sections of wood articularted by means of hinges. It is covered with painted cloth.

The dragon holds two men inside who operate it. The man in front wears a heavy belt that supports the wires for the eyes and the rubber hose for the steam to his nose. The eyes are lamps covered in painted silk. The man in the back is the one who actually controls the head, using a lever which swings on the front man’s shoulders. The man in the front also controls the jaw, antennae and tongue.

The wires and hoses run off stage through the wings. Two stage hands are back there, one to operate the steam, the other the lights.They also help the men get into and out of the dragon suit. A number of stage hands are also needed to guide the men backstage while wearing the suit.

In a New York Times article from 1910, Edward Siedle, here described as the technical director of the Met (though his job duties include the props), talks about the dragon.

Mr. Conried imported a German dragon when he first put on ‘Siegfried.’ Later, I had another dragon made in my own shop, as the dragon was not altogether a success. This one in turn perished in the San Francisco disaster [ed: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, during which the Met Opera company was on tour. The scenery and props for all the operas on that tour, as well as many musical instruments, were destroyed], so that the present dragon has been made since then, and is the most successful of the three. It was made after the manner of the first one which I made, but it has modifications. This little stage toy cost in the neighborhood of $350.

This dragon was made for the 1903 production at the Met. I’m guessing that this is the same Siedle who made the 1896 one; they sound remarkably similar. He continues:

Fundamentally it is a thing of canvas, but it is painted and molded with various materials. When it is not in use it will fold up and can be put into a small box.
This dragon shakes its bristles, its eyelashes and its eyelids move, vapor comes through its nostrils, and its head has three separate movements. Two men are concealed inside of it. Their legs form the legs of the dragon and their shoulders support the upper framework. From the inside they regulate the movements of the bristles, the winking of the eyes.

This dragon also has electric lights for eyes. The head can also be controlled from offstage with a series of thin wires. A total of seven stage hands are in control of the dragon while it is on stage. The singer providing the voice, meanwhile,was hidden in bushes midstage singing through a megaphone.

The 1910 Fafner dragon at the Met
The 1910 Fafner dragon at the Met

From here, we only have to look at the 1972, 1987 and the currently running 2011 productions of Siegfried to complete our look at all the Fafner dragons used by the Met since its inception. But that is a tale for another time.

Sources:

Hopkins, Albert A., and Henry Ridgely Evans. Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, including Trick Photography. New York: Munn &, 1898. pp 332-4.

“The Mysteries of Staging a Grand Opera.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1910.