Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 6, 1912

The following is the final portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first partthe second partthird partthe fourth part and the fifth part.

When the [property man] was asked what is the hardest part of his work he sighed and said he thought it was clearing the stage after an act and getting it ready for the next one. In theatrical and ordinary musical companies the chorus and supers are required to go to the property room after the things they are to carry and to return them there when they are through. But this isn’t the custom in grand opera.

No matter how much truck has been in use, guns, spears, swords, garlands of flowers and any number of smaller things, everybody just dumps what he or she is carrying, throws it down wherever it happens to fall and rushes off to the dressing rooms. Immediately carpenters strike the scenery and others begin to set it for the next act.

In the midst of this turmoil the property man must gather up the things left lying around by the members of the company before they can proceed to put out the new set of props. What care and quickness this entails can be understood by studying some complicated scenes, as the first two in “The Girl of the Golden West.”

In each of these over 100 properties must be correctly placed before the curtain goes up. Actual count of those in the second act runs away up beyond a hundred and includes such a wide range of things as a papier mâché pappoose, furniture, draperies, toilet articles, dishes, tinware, white slippers, white cotton gloves, pack of playing cards, whiskey bottle, candles, matches, trunks, a washing hanging on a line (or it looks like it, at least), and so on. These not only have to be put on but got off too. The latter is generally accomplished by rapidly dumping all small articles into clothes baskets. They can be sorted out later if necessary.

This article was originally published in the New York Sun, February 25, 1912, page 16.

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 5, 1912

The following is the fifth portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first partthe second partthird part and the fourth part.

In addition to the mass of less frequently used properties which are distributed among the storehouses there are at the opera house itself five large rooms filled with hundreds and hundreds of the objects oftenest in demand. In one of these rooms, which is called the armory, are rows of helmets, great stands of spears, racks full of guns, innumerable swords, including the famous one of Siegfried, the white one of Lohengrin and that of Telramund. Here is Caruso’s armor, which, as he dislikes to wear or carry anything heavy, is made of aluminum. His helmets are of aluminum too. These stage weapons are never sharp enough to do any damage, even if some one accidentally got in their way.

The guns are the real thing and are loaded with powder. A permit to keep explosives on the premises has to be had every time an opera is given in which guns are fired or conflagrations imitated.

In one of the property rooms at the opera house, which is always spoken of as “Frank Furst’s room,” an employee is generally at work rubbing up gun barrels, swords and armor, or polishing brass armlets. Guns are used not only on he stage, as in “Tosca” and “Carmen,” but off stage in taking up cues.

If a great crash is to be produced half a dozen stage hands are armed beside them with a prompt book following the score. As the cue approaches he counts, “one, two, three, four, five!” At five they fire simultaneously, while at the same time there comes a clap of stage thunder. The resulting noise is big enough for any kind of a crash.

A curious phase of the property department’s work is the way it sometimes has to dovetail a job with some other department. For instance, in the last act of “Tosca” there is a flag which floats on the top of the tower. It really does float, the breeze blowing it with every appearance of naturalness. An electric fan adjusted behind the side scenes provides the breeze. In this case the flag is put in place by the property department, while the electric fan belongs to the electrical department, which must see that it is set up and running.

In the second act of “Madama Butterfly” several large Japanese lanterns with standards are brought in by Suzuki and set about the stage. Lights are burning inside them. The third act opens with the same scene after a lapse of several hours, which passage of time is indicated by having the lights in the lanterns flicker and go out one by one. This is the way it is done. When the lanterns are brought on they contain lighted candles which come under the head of properties and which therefore are put in and lighted by some one in that department.

When the curtain goes down a property man takes out these candles. Then an electrician sees that the standards are placed over metal plates in the matting, Suzuki having set them in approximately the correct position. Then he puts in electric bulbs, wires from under the stage are connected with the metal plates, contact is secured through the base of the standard and the resulting light is then turned on and off from below to simulate a flickering candle flame. After the scene the electrician comes and gets his bulbs before the property man can carry off the lanterns.

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

Make your own TARDIS

Another Friday, another set of links

Creative Choices has published a fantastic article about Antony Barnett, the Head of Props at the Royal Opera House. He has been working at the ROH since the mid-1980s. Incidentally, the ROH remounted a production of Cendrillon in 2011 that I worked on back in 2006; I built some pretty cool props for it, including Prince Charman’s throne, and it’s nice to see how well they have stood up.

The New York Times has an in-depth look at how the Metropolitan Opera stores and maintains all the sets for their repertory productions. I find this stuff fascinating, particularly since I’ve been reading a lot about how the Met’s technical department worked 100 years ago. The locations of their storage units may have changed, but the amount of work and organization they have to do to put up a different opera every night remains the same.

Bill Hunt has a “virtual tour” of Bob Burns’ massive movie prop collection. Scroll to the bottom of the article to see a slideshow of all the historical film props he has in his collection. Burns has been collecting for decades, and has quite a few unique pieces, including the only surviving King Kong armature from the original 1933 production.

Here’s a shorter interview of a working prop-maker; Rosie Tonkin is a UK-based freelancer and artist. It’s an interesting comparison between a young prop maker at the start of her career like Tonkin and a seasoned veteren like Barnett up above.

Finally, at last week’s Burlington Mini Maker Faire, I was making a miniature Dr. Who TARDIS out of paper, and handing away sheets to people to make their own. If you didn’t get one, or you couldn’t make it to the fair, you can download and print your own TARDIS, complete with instructions.

Make your own TARDIS
Make your own TARDIS

20000 Objects in Opera Property Room, part 4, 1912

The following is the fourth portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first partthe second part and the third part.

Fans too! Of course there must be real Japanese fans for “Butterfly,” and these are easily secured. For “Carmen,” however, it isn’t always a simple matter to find just the right thing. It must be a large fan painted with scenes of bull fights.

Last year the property man was down in Mexico, and seeing a lot of fans which were just the right thing and cheap too, he laid in a liberal supply. The Metropolitan company hasn’t given “Carmen” since, but when it does the fans will be ready.

In “La Gioconda” the ballet dancers representing the noon hours have fans of an unusual design. And in “Donne Curiose” Geraldine Farrar carries a small fan, but it is her own. She is said to be the only Metropolitan artist, by the way, who provides her own properties. She does it from choice. The only “prop” she does not furnish is the dagger with which she kills herself in “Butterfly.” The only other artist who provides any of the props (except some that have their own swords) is Emmy Destinn, who in the last act of “La Gioconda” uses her own dagger and her own basket of flowers.

“You would think,” said the property man, “that they would rather furnish certain small articles, such as eyeglasses or watch fobs. They could keep them with the costumes with which they should be worn.

“Sometimes they must have a key or some coins or a purse in their pocket, and you would think they might keep these themselves. But they don’t. Of course you can understand why. It would make them responsible for having the thing when it was needed on the stage.

“As it is, the property man has to see that the key is in the artist’s pocket, that he has his eyeglasses or lorgnette (just the right pair too), his purse or loose coins or dagger, or poison vial, or ring, or whatever he is going to use. If he or she, as in “Tosca,” is to carry a walking stick, we must hand it out and not make any mistake about it either. Not such a simple matter when you realize that we have about fifty of these sticks of different designs.”

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, part 3, 1912

The following is the third portion of an article which first appeared in the New York Sun in 1912. You can catch up on the first part and the second part.

In “Donne Curiose” there are short columns on which candlesticks are placed. But they are always called “Pique Dames” columns because they were made for it in the first place. The same way with some tablecloths which are used in several productions. The plot book always calls them “Traviata tablecloths” because they were first provided for that opera.

More interesting even than the size of this great mass of material is the attention to artistic and historical veracity in its selection and designing. One would think the same swords and spears could be made to do duty in many operas. Of course, the same ones occasionally reappear, as in the Ring, but not often. Even the poles to which banners and pennants are attached are not the same in “Carmen,” for instance, as they are in “Le Cid” or “Le Prophète.” The fashion in the metal points which crown these poles wasn’t any more the same in different periods than the style of headgear was the same for Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

So just because of that one detail there are a dozen different sets of these poles and spears at the opera house. Probably not half a dozen persons in the audience would know whether a spearhead was historically correct even if they happened to notice its shape. But if the point was radically wrong some one would be sure to see it and apparently wouldn’t be able to see anything else in the entire production. Not long ago one of these particular persons wrote to the management complaining about the revolvers in “The Girl of the Golden West.”

Oddly enough this connoisseur of guncraft was a woman. She said she was amazed that the Metropolitan Opera Company, usually so careful about historical accuracy, should have in the Puccini opera pistols so unlike those carried by the gold seekers in ’49. As a matter of fact those guns are genuine old ones secured at considerable cost and trouble.

Then there is the detail of playing cards. Anybody would think a pack of ordinary cards would serve every purpose. Not at the Metropolitan! Those in “The Girl” are American cards; those in “Carmen” are foreign ones with quite different pictures from ours, and those in “Donne Curiose” are a different shape, much longer and wider than cards of the present day.

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