Tag Archives: Fafner

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.

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.